A daughter of an unmarried laundress turned into a model, the model turned into a painter.
The daughter of an unmarried laundress, Valadon began working at age 11 after a short attendance to primary school and worked in a variety of areas including a milliner’s workshop, a factory making funeral wreaths, a market selling vegetables, a waitress in a restaurant, and then finally in the circus. Valadon became a circus acrobat at the age of fifteen, but a year later, a fall from a trapeze ended that career. In the Montmartre quarter of Paris, she pursued her interest in art, first working as a model for artists, observing and learning their techniques, before becoming a noted painter herself.
Photo of Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938)
Valadon debuted as a model in 1880 in Montmartre at age 15. She modeled for over 10 years for many different artists including the following: Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes, Théophile Steinlen, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. She modeled under the name “Maria” and was thought to have had many affairs with the artists she modeled for. She was considered seductive, provocative, comely, voluptuous, and flighty as a model. Toulouse-Lautrec nicknamed her “Suzanne” after the biblical story of Susanna and the Elders. She was considered a very focused, ambitious, rebellious, determined, self-confident, and passionate woman. She was also known to be good friends with Edgar Degas. In the early 1890s she befriended Degas who, impressed with her bold line drawings and fine paintings, purchased her work and encouraged her efforts. She remained one of Degas’s closest friends until his death.
Dance at Bougival, 1883, by Renoir
The most recognizable image of Valadon would be in Renoir’s Dance at Bougival from 1883. In the same year, Valadon gave birth to her ‘illegitimate’ son, Maurice Utrillo, at the age of 18. Later, the son became famous artist like his mother.
In 1885, Renoir painted her portrait again as Girl Braiding Her Hair. Another of his portraits of her in 1885, Suzanne Valadon, is of her head and shoulders in profile. Valadon frequented the bars and taverns of Paris along with her fellow painters, and she was Toulouse-Lautrec’s subject in his oil painting The Hangover.
Flowers on a Round Table, 1920, by Suzanne Valadon
Her first exhibitions, held in the early 1890s, consisted mostly of portraits. She regularly showed work at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris. Valadon’s first time in the Société nationale des beaux-arts; National Society of Fine Art was in 1894. Degas was notably the first person to buy drawings from her. Degas also taught her the skill of soft-ground etching. In 1896, Valadon became a full-time painter after her marriage to Paul Moussis. She made a shift from drawing to painting during her initial affair with Andre Utter starting in 1909. Her first large oils for the Salon were related to sexual pleasure, and they were some of the first examples in painting for the man to be an object of desire by a woman. These notable Salon paintings include Adam et Eve (Adam and Eve) (1909), La joie de vivre (Joy of Living) (1911), Lancement du filet (Casting of the Net) (1914). Valadon produced around 300 drawings and over 450 oil paintings by the end of her life. Valadon painted still lifes, portraits, flowers, and landscapes that are noted for their strong composition and vibrant colors.
Nudes, 1919, by Suzanne Valadon
Casting of the Net, 1914, by Suzanne Valadon
Reclining Nude, 1928, by Suzanne Valadon
She was, however, best known for her candid female nudes, particularly because it was unusual in the nineteenth century for a woman artist to make female nudes her primary subject matter.
Suzanne Valadon died of a stroke on 7 April 1938, at age 72. Among those in attendance at her funeral were her friends and colleagues André Derain, Pablo Picasso, and Georges Braque.