Art history “brownie points” if you’re well-versed on the unconventional life of French painter and vivacious vixen Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938).
Never heard of her? Chalk that up to double standards and antiquated notions of propriety. For the most part, Valadon (born Marie-Clementine) didn’t play by the rules. She was a free-spirited Montmartre Bohemian who loved and painted her heart out—not unlike many of her male counterparts.
Put Valadon, a bold and talented artist who bucked gender rules and never compromised her style, in her rightful place in history. Here are ten things to know (and share) about Suzanne Valadon.
- She began drawing obsessively at 8 years old. As the daughter of a poor unwed laundress, Valadon was often found feverishly sketching on scraps of paper. Unlike her well-to-do, female Impressionist predecessors, namely Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt, Valadon had no access to formal training in the arts.
- At 15, she started modelling for notable artists. Though this was somewhat of an unsavory profession at the time, there was no better way for her to learn the craft. Her first steady client was Pierre-Cecile Puvis de Chavannes, but later she worked exclusively with Pierre Auguste Renoir for a time and then Henri-Toulouse Lautrec.
- She had a child at 18. Though her son, Maurice Utrillo, was born out of wedlock, Spanish painter Miguel Utrillo claimed him as his own. It’s rumored that Renoir or another of her clients might have been his true father, but his paternity was never settled. Nevertheless, she provided for him and re-doubled her artistic efforts.
- Lautrec and Degas recognized her talent. After her son was born, Valadon reached out to Renoir for advice on her drawings. He neither acknowledged her talent nor supported her aspirations. Soon after, she met Lautrec and Edgar Degas, who were extremely encouraging. In fact, upon seeing her works for the first time, Degas exclaimed, “My girl, it’s done! You are one of us!
- She didn’t conform to any particular artistic movement. Valadon may have picked up techniques from watching some of art history’s male masters, but her style was raw and frank—and all her own. She was drawn to bold lines and robust figures. And she never inflated or glorified her subjects, but painted them exactly as she perceived them. This caused some critics to judge her work as “harsh” and “crude.”
- She was quirky. Valadon was her own woman in every sense of the word. Legend has it that she kept a goat in her studio, wore corsages made of carrots, and fed her cats caviar. Others recall times when she was the life of the party, sliding down a stairway banister wearing only a mask at a popular club. She dared to live like her male counterparts.
- At 29, she became the first woman to exhibit at the Societe Nationale de Beaux-Arts. This was a huge feat given Valadon’s hardscrabble adolescence, position in the raucous and oft outrageous Montmarte artist community, and lack of “conventional” schooling in the arts. From there she exhibited frequently.
- She was best known for her paintings of female nudes. Valadon produced her share of extraordinary landscapes and still lifes, but became most famous for boldly painting nude women at a time when it was deemed improper. Having been a model herself, it was second nature. Later she would become the first woman to paint a nude man and woman together.
- Her muse later in life was a man twenty years her junior. At 44, Valadon met Andre Utter, a friend of her son’s (who had since become an artist in his own right). Despite the age difference, she considered him the love of her life. And, through him she met the next wave of young painters, including Pablo Picasso.
- She persisted and produced some of her best work in her 50s. Valadon went on to secure exhibitions at the Salon des Independents and the Salon d’Automne. And she was so commercially successful during her lifetime that she earned enough to buy a chateau near Lyon, France.
Suzanne Valadon was propelled by sheer determination and a lifelong passion for the arts. Over the course of her life, she produced over 300 drawings and 450 paintings. And, though her art is extremely original and striking, it’s perhaps more impressive that she never compromised her integrity or betrayed her convictions, in the process. She cultivated a successful career as a female artist at a time when it not considered proper or “ladylike.”
She faced it all. She stood tall. And, she did it her way.
At 72, she died at the easel—quite literally doing what she loved.
“10 Things to Know…” is a new series dedicated to righting HIS-tory by shining a floodlight on extremely talented, yet underrepresented, women in art.