Suzanne Valadon: The Model Who Became a Master Painter

The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia is hosting a major exhibition of Suzanne Valadon, one of the greatest French painters of the last century. The show runs until January 9 and is the first American event for this avant-garde figure, who was long excluded from art history.
Suzanne Valadon, The Blue Room, 1923. © 2021 Artist Rights Society, New York. Image: Jacqueline Hyde/CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, New York

“You’re one of us!” In 1894, Edgar Degas, an Impressionist master known for being an incorrigible misogynist, couldn’t help but express his admiration before the drawings that a young brunette, recommended by Toulouse-Lautrec, had brought him at his home in Paris, on Rue Victor-Massé. In fact, he was the first to buy a piece of work from the artist, whom he nicknamed “the terrible Maria” and praised for possessing the “genius for drawing.”

Born Marie-Clémentine Valadon in 1865 in the Limousin region, the young woman was already renowned in the art world of the day, but for quite a different reason. She had made a name as “Maria,” the star model of Renoir (see below) and Puvis de Chavannes. Her expressive beauty, her supple body, and her actress’s agility saw her pose for their paintings as a pink-cheeked dancer, a lady wearing long white gloves, or a stunning bather. She also embodied the contortionist mermaid painted by Austrian artist Gustav Wertheimer and inspired the tired reveler in Toulouse-Lautrec’s The Hangover.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Woman with Fan, 1886. Courtesy of the Barnes Foundation
Suzanne Valadon, Self-Portrait, 1927. © 2021 Artist Rights Society, New York. Image: Stéphane Pons

But on the other side of the easel sat a gifted observer, not a mere muse. An innate talent, she had used chalk and pencils to sketch out frozen instants and snapshots of life on scraps of paper or the sidewalk since she was a girl. “She spent huge amounts of time in studios, so she was also watching, listening, learning,” says Nancy Ireson, chief curator of the Barnes Foundation. “And I think perhaps modeling also helps you to understand how pictures are made and what makes a good composition. She was self-taught, but she was exposed to many different artists and clearly had a great visual awareness.”

Street Kid

Growing up on the streets of Montmartre and raised by her mother, a linen keeper and cleaner, she fled her religious education and started working various jobs, including as an apprentice seamstress, a vegetable seller, and an acrobat. Her first big break as a model came at 15, after which she adopted an incredibly liberated lifestyle and developed a taste for cabarets and free love. She had a child at the age of 18 and managed to persuade her former lover and friend, the Catalan art critic Miquel Utrillo, to acknowledge the baby, Maurice, as his son and give him his name. Legend has it that she also inspired Vexations, the renowned piece by composer Erik Satie, who was heartbroken after she abruptly ended their passionate, six-month affair.

But it was actually the “dwarf,” Toulouse-Lautrec, who gave her the artistic name we know today, after the biblical narrative “Susanna and the Elders,” in which a young woman surprised while bathing defends herself against the advances of two lecherous old men. Not without humor, she decided to adopt this name to sign her drawings, executed with graphite, charcoal, or red chalk. In her search for new challenges, she also began to experiment in the 1890s with soft ground etching, guided by Degas, and, more importantly, with oil painting.

Suzanne Valadon, Joy of Life, 1911. © 2021 Artist Rights Society, New York. Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource, New York

Valadon’s works caused quite a stir in the almost exclusively masculine art world. In 1894, she became the first woman to be welcomed into the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, which had marked a break from the official Salon. She soon drew the attention of dealers and collectors and first shot to success with her portraits, self-portraits, scenes from childhood life, and nudes. She admired the Impressionist palette, but carved her own niche by highlighting the curves of the body with a black outline, an extraordinary, striking technique that brilliantly captured a specific instant, a movement.

An Artist Ahead of Her Time

Not only does the exhibition Model, Painter, Rebel highlight these technical feats, it also shows exactly what makes Suzanne Valadon a resolutely contemporary artist ahead of her time. In 1909, she painted Adam and Eve, one of her most renowned works. The piece is a rare example of a nude self-portrait in which the model, André Utter, her young lover, also posed naked (which was rarer still). The desire and erotism that exude from this painting celebrate the renewed sensuality of the artist who, at the age of 44, had found herself trapped in a dull, bourgeois marriage.

Suzanne Valadon, Adam and Eve, 1909. © 2021 Artist Rights Society, New York. Image: Jacqueline Hyde/CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, New York
Suzanne Valadon, Black Venus, 1919. © 2021 Artist Rights Society, New York. Image: Musée des beaux-arts, Menton/Bridgeman Images

This work heralded the start of a rich, prolific period in which her art dealt with the major themes of the turn of the century: the emancipation of women, now allowed to wear pants and smoke cigarettes; the clinical observation of the aging body years before the works of Alice Neel; the redefinition of the classic beauty ideals, shifting from an exclusively white archetype with her Black Venus in 1919; and the emergence of an unconventional, scandalous family structure, “the cursed trinity,” which she formed with her lover and later husband, André Utter, and her son, Maurice Utrillo, an unstable alcoholic and a talented painter.

Suzanne Valadon enjoyed honors and success during her lifetime, including solo exhibitions and acquisitions of her work by the French government and later by private and institutional buyers in France and the United States. But far too often was she associated with the men in her life, particularly her son, who had achieved worldwide fame. Albert Barnes even purchased twelve of Utrillo’s paintings for his museum in Philadelphia, works which are still exhibited in the permanent collection. Yet, as of today, there were no Valadons to keep them company. Only a portrait of a young woman by Renoir, probably depicting “Maria.” With this new exhibition, however, Suzanne is finally the one shining in the spotlight.

Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel

Through January 9, 2022
The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

Article published in the November 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.