Suzanne Valadon: Artist, Mistress, Model and Muse of Montmartre

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Suzanne Valadon: Artist, Mistress, Model and Muse of Montmartre

Last year the Museum of Montmartre in Rue Cortot, the former home and studio of Suzanne Valadon, held an exhibition to celebrate the reconstruction of the studio she had shared with her husband André Utter, and her son Maurice Utrillo.

Valadon’s genius was perhaps eclipsed during her lifetime by the success of her troubled son Maurice Utrillo. This exhibition of some of Valadon’s most powerful paintings could only have helped to rebalance the public perception of this truly talented artist.

Suzanne Valadon was an extraordinary woman. Self taught, without any formal training or the wherewithal to pay for lessons, she became, in quick succession, Toulouse-Lautrec’s model and mistress and the muse of Degas. Renoir, impressed by her looks and reputation as hard working and intelligent, used her as a model (and reputedly another mistress) in many of his paintings including, Dance at Bougival and Girl Brading her Hair.

Valadon had started drawing as a child, obsessed by art, her modeling was not just a way of earning a living but also a means to obsessively study the techniques of the various artists she posed for. Her first love had been the circus; had it not been for an accident on the trapeze when she was only 15 years old, Valadon may never have become the artist she became or lead the flagrant, often shocking, life she lived.

She was born in 1865 and baptized Marie Clémentine Valadon, the illegitimate daughter of Madeleine Valadon, in the town of Bessines-sur Gartempes in the Haute-Vienne. Her mother worked in the Auberge Guimbaud– hard, back breaking work doing the laundry, cleaning and mending for the hotel. Already stigmatized by having an illegitimate child in the closed, small minded community, Madeleine turned to drink and was often taciturn and unhappy. In 1870 she took the brave decision to move to Paris. As with many working class families, some ousted by the demolition of their homes by Haussmann’s regeneration of Paris and unable to afford the rents in the new, smart buildings, Montmartre, untouched by Haussmann, was an obvious attraction. Montmartre, a little village on the top of a hill, still retained its winding streets, old houses with gardens, often with barns– and lured not only the poor, working classes but also artists, pimps and prostitutes. Licentious living was the norm- Montmartre held allures for all tastes. For Marie Clémentine Valadon, Montmartre was made for her.

Suzanne Valadon as Girl Braiding Her Hair by Renoir, 1885

She was already drawing at eight years old on anything she could lay her hands on, any old scrap of paper she found lying around. And she was wild, roaming the streets of Montmartre like a feral cat, climbing fences and walls and hanging off balconies. Her mother in an attempt to tame her and give her a religious grounding, enrolled her in a convent. She left with a basic education and an abhorrence of the church.

Working as a seamstress at the age of 12 held no attraction for Marie and after doing whatever jobs she could find around Montmartre she joined Molier’s circus as an acrobat when she was 14. She adored the circus and her subsequent injury was a bitter blow. She reminisced 40 years later that she would never have willingly left Molier’s.

Still obsessed by painting and drawing– Valadon was laboriously mixing her own colors and desperate to be a ‘real’ artist– she reasoned that the nearest she could get to the artists she admired was through posing for them. She was spotted almost immediately by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, a well known painter (one of his landscapes was displayed in the Pantheon in Paris), who older than her by 40 years, was entranced by her looks. Valadon modeled for Puvis for seven years, gleaning everything she could by studying his methods of drawing and painting. It is almost certain that they were lovers, an acceptable and expected role in the life of an artist’s model in Montmartre.

In 1881, Le Chat Noir cabaret opened. (Valadon was still only 16 years old.) It was an immediate success frequented by artists, poets and writers of the quartier and it was inevitable that it would become Valadon’s regular haunt. This milieu of artists and poets in an avante-garde, often decadent, night club, became Valadon’s second home. In the same year, Miguel Utrillo, an ebullient, handsome Spaniard, three years her senior, entered her life. As boisterous and impulsive as Valadon, the two immediately became close and kept in touch when Utrillo left Paris two years later. Valadon always refuted that they’d ever been lovers– the truth would be impossible to prove– but when she became pregnant two years later, Utrillo offered to give her son, Maurice, his name. There was always the distinct possibility that Valadon did not know herself who had fathered her child; gossip at the time, suggested various potential suspects including Renoir, Puvis, even the local postman…  (A later biography by Adolphe Tabarant named Maurice’s father as a local drunk, Adrian Boissy, who had allegedly raped her.)

Théophile Steinlen’s 1896 poster for the Chat Noir

Whoever the father, Maurice was looked after by Valadon’s mother in the one room they all shared in the Rue Poteau whilst Maria went back to work. Soon after, she was introduced to Toulouse-Lautrec becoming not only his model and mistress but perhaps the first ‘real’ artist Valadon showed her work to. (Valadon was the model for Lautrec’s Hangover, a harsh depiction of a sullen drinker.) So impressed was Lautrec by her uncompromising drawings that he introduced her to Degas. (It was also Toulouse-Lautrec who suggested Valadon used the name Suzanne).

The very incongruous and life-long friendship that developed between Degas and Valadon was remarkable. Degas, despite his wonderful, sensuous paintings of ballet dancers and moving depictions of lost and fallen women (L’Absinthe being a stunning example), was in fact a misogynist, almost certainly celibate and without doubt ill tempered, especially in old age. And yet in spite of the huge differences in age, backgrounds and gender, Degas adored Valadon and Valadon considered Degas ‘the master’ until the end of her days. Degas tutored Valadon and bought her paintings. His influence on her confidence, her talent and her future as an artist was inestimable.

Degas’ validation of her talent allowed Valadon to take herself as a serious artist for the first time and she made numerous drawings of her favorite model, Maurice, her son. Maurice, a delicate and difficult child, was prone to tantrums and fits from an early age. Valadon’s mother was often at a loss as to how to handle him and Valadon, although undoubtedly loving him, continued, after his birth, with her life and various lovers as before.

One of these lovers was the musician Erik Satie who became obsessed with Valadon after an affair beginning in 1892. When Valadon ended their liaison for the unlikely, solid, bourgeois figure of Paul Mousis, Satie was devastated.

Erik Satie

Mousis, a stockbroker from a wealthy family, was the antithesis of everything Valadon had ever known. She was persuaded to move to the country, had her own maid, and Maurice was sent to boarding school. Freed from the necessity to make a living, Valadon drew and painted like never before. Her maid posed naked for her, but Valadon’s depictions of the nude, female form with their heavy delineation and simple, bold strokes were intensely unsentimental and often pitiless. Years of nude posing had stripped away any mystique for Valadon; she was too intimately aware of the harsh life female models often lead to represent them as sensuous in any way.

This was not how women of the time drew or painted. Her contempories, Berthe Morisot and Mary Casset, already rare in an era dominated by male artists, painted females as soft, sensuous and attractive– but most of all fully and beautifully clothed. Valadon’s drawings shocked.

Despite Valadon’s unorthodox background and style of painting, she was the only woman to exhibit at the Société Nationale in 1894, an immense achievement for an untrained female artist. Perhaps even more extraordinarily, in 1896, Paul Mousis married his long time mistress. It was then that Mousis rented the studio and apartment with its sheltered, tree filled garden in 12 Rue Cortot, Montmartre for his wife while keeping his main residence in Montmargny. (Renoir was renting a studio in the old stable next to the house in Rue Cortot.)

Maurice in the meantime, bored with the imposed bourgeois life and never comfortable with Mousis, had begun drinking wine and absinthe in the local bars and his behaviour became more volatile and uncontrollable. Suzanne’s position as the head of two households and wife of a prominent business-man seemed to sap her soul and very few drawings exist from the years between her marriage to Mousis and 1903 when the family finally returned to Rue Cortot. Much had changed; Toulouse-Lautrec had tragically died and Picasso was making his mark in Montmartre. But for Suzanne, the return to Montmartre was an epiphany and her output of drawings was prodigious.

She had begun to teach Maurice to paint in an effort to both becalm him and give his life a purpose.

However in 1904 after an eight-day binge, Maurice was finally confined for treatment for alcoholism in the Hospital Sainte Anne, although he was already described as a lunatic. This was just the first of many enforced hospitalizations for Maurice throughout his intensely troubled life.

Self-portrait of Valadon, 1898. photo: wikimedia

It was Maurice who met Andre Utter, both painting in a field. Utter helped  a drunk Maurice home and met Suzanne and Mousis. Utter began painting in the studio in Rue Cortot and soon became besotted by Valadon. He was 23 and she 44. They became lovers, the worst kept secret in Montmartre and when Mousis discovered their liaison, he threw her out of the studio, destroying many of her paintings. Mousis divorced Valadon who did not even bother to turn up for the proceedings. Suzanne was in love, perhaps for the very first time in her life and giving up the affluent lifestyle, imposing homes and servants to return to her old bohemian, uncertain, lifestyle was welcomed without regret.

For a while, Suzanne, Andre and Maurice lived in Montmagny, their old home where Mousis was still a landowner. It was here they were nicknamed ‘the terrible trio’. Maurice, although painting prodigiously, was drinking just as prodigiously, coming home bruised and tattered from fights and breaking windows.

Suzanne was slowly being recognised as an artist to be taken seriously and was offered her first solo exhibition in 1911 in a small gallery in Rue Laffitte, and she exhibited six paintings at the Salon des Independants and the Salon D’Automne. Maurice, on the other hand, with his nostalgic, Paris landscape paintings, was selling well to all and sundry. His earnings went straight into the bars and he was imprisoned in the same year for exposing himself in the Place du Tertre.

The ‘terrible trio’ moved back to 12 Rue Cortot for the final time later that year. Andre and Suzanne, still madly in love, posed naked for each other, Maurice’s increasingly wild behavior the only mar to their happiness.

Utter, who was never to have the success of either Suzanne or her son, began managing them both and in 1920 Suzanne was elected a member of the Salon D’Autumne.

Maurice Utrillo by Suzanne Valadon, 1921. photo: wikimedia

But Paris and Valadon’s beloved Montmartre were changing. Post-war Paris, the jazz age, Americans and youthful fashion were passing Suzanne by and for the first time she began to look her age. She was 60 and Utter 37. Utter, jealous of Suzanne’s relationship with her son and irritated intensely by his erratic, destructive behaviour, began to openly womanize. Their fights were often violent, for Suzanne still madly in love with Utter and whose passion for him had never diminished, was insanely jealous. The three of them in the limited confines of 12 Rue Cortot, were tested beyond endurance. It was at their lowest point that the art dealers, Bernheim-Jaune, offered a joint contract to Valadon and Utrillo for a million francs a year. This was a fabulous amount of money and Valadon wasted no time buying a dilapidated chateau near Villefrance-sur-Saone. As always, it was a home for the three of them. (Valadon had unsuccessfully tried to marry Maurice off over many years.) The three spent the summers in the chateau and the winters in Rue Cortot. Whilst Utrillo’s popularity went from strength to strength, Valadon fell out of fashion. She was increasingly becoming more eccentric, often disheveled and never cared what she looked like. All she cared about was her painting.

But the cracks were beginning to widen in her marriage.

In a surprise and unwelcome move, Utrillo finally married. The bride, Suzanne’s friend Lucie Pauwells, was six years Maurice’s senior and a pious, indomitable woman whom both Suzanne and Andre accused of being after Maurice’s money. Suzanne, distraught by the marriage and still recovering from a serious illness, was now living alone in the Rue Junot. Utter was in the Rue Cortot and Maurice in Angouleme with his bride.

The terrible trio were together no more.

Nu au canapé rouge by Suzanne Valadon, 1920. photo: wikimedia

Valadon continued painting, had an eclectic circle of friends, including young men, but the loss of Maurice, now firmly in the clutches of Pauwells, was a hard cross for her to bear.

On the morning of April 7th 1938, Valadon died of a stroke. She was buried beside her mother in the cemetery at Saint-Ouen.

Place Suzanne Valadon can be found opposite the funicular leading to Sacré-Cœur.

Valadon’s star is shining again.

The Musee Montmartre and Renoir’s garden can be found at 12-14 Rue Cortot, Montmartre. Open 10am to 6pm.

Lead photo credit : Suzanne Valadon, author unknown

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After some dreary years in the Civil Service, Marilyn realized her dream of living in Paris. She arrived in Paris in December 1967 and left in July 1969. From there she lived in Mallorca, London, Oman, and Dubai, where she moved with her husband and young son and worked for Gulf News, Khaleej Times and freelanced for Emirates Woman magazine. During this time she was also a ground stewardess for Middle East Airlines. For the past 18 years they've lived on the Isle of Wight.


  • Ana María  Cadena
    2020-07-28 07:43:56
    Ana María Cadena
    Thanks for writing about an important female artist. This is an excellent way to rewrite the art's history.