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. 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.) 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…

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.


  • Marilyn Brouwer
    2020-07-29 12:21:39
    Marilyn Brouwer
    Thanks Ana Maria, So often female artists did not get the credit they were due but luckily history often reavalues their talents and looks more kindly on them. Thank you for taking the time to comment.


  • 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.


  • Hazel Smith
    2019-06-28 11:29:59
    Hazel Smith
    I loved this detailed look into Valadon's life. I think it's the best compilation yet.


  • Bret Hampton
    2018-03-17 19:44:52
    Bret Hampton
    FYI, the female American artist is Mary Cassatt (not Casset). Otherwise interesting and informative article