Born Marie-Clémentine in 1865 near Limoges, France, Suzanne Valadon would change her name at the suggestion of her friend Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who likened her to the Biblical narrative of Susanna and the Elders. She, too, was a young, beautiful woman gazed upon by older males — in her case, artists.
Valadon remains best known as the smiling dancer in Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Dance at Bougival” (1883), as well as paintings and drawings by modernist titans like de Toulouse-Lautrec and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.
But Valadon’s life story is distinct from other models: she was celebrated as an artist in her lifetime. Only after her death did her fame begin to wane, eclipsed by her son Maurice Utrillo’s. But, bolstered by a museum retrospective at the Barnes Foundation in 2021, Valadon’s star is back on the rise. Indeed, in recent years, Suzanne Valadon has been recognized more as artist than as model.
While her trail to success was certainly partially blazed by an earlier generation of female artists such as Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt, Valadon’s upbringing was distinct from the refined circles in which these elder women lived. Raised by a single mother who worked as a laundress, Valadon never knew her father.
When Valadon was young, her mother moved the family to Montmartre, a seedy but artistic neighborhood of northern Paris, where her mother worked cleaning offices and shops. Historical circumstances imposed as well: She lived through the Franco-Prussian War’s 1870 Siege of Paris and was only five during the Paris Commune, a revolutionary government that culminated in a bloody and violent suppression that left much of the city in ruins. The stress of the civil war, as well as the difficulty of raising a child alone, left her mother largely absent.
Partially as a result, Valadon sought employment at a young age, working as a waitress, selling goods at markets, and even performing at the circus — a short episode of her life, but one that had a lasting impact. It was perhaps this outsider status that would embolden Valadon to depict subjects that other women shied away from, for fear of impropriety — among them male sexuality and bold female nudes. In “Casting the Net” (1914), for example, Valadon depicts the male nude in action and from various vantages, flipping the art historical script by presenting the male body as an object of desire and a recipient of the female gaze.
At the age of 15, after an injury at the circus left her unable to perform, she assumed the more exotic name of “Maria,” and became an artist’s model — a profession regarded by the upper classes as tantamount to prostitution, but one that brought her into the center of an avant-garde circle of artists, including Edgar Degas, Renoir, and Toulouse-Lautrec. Though she never had formal art schooling, or took an apprenticeship, she was inspired to pick up her childhood habit of drawing while among these painters. It was in Degas’s studio, for instance, that she learned to make prints, which served as the foundation of her practice through the 1890s.
At the same time these artists were ogling her, she also gazed at herself, a penchant that remained throughout her life. Her earliest known work, from 1883 — the same year as Renoir’s “Dance at Bougival” — is a self-portrait. While the work is not as technically accomplished as her later paintings, it is unflinchingly direct. Valadon might appear as a charming young girl under Renoir’s brush, but under her own hand, she is a serious woman.
Valadon’s romantic life was similarly bohemian. Not long after she became an artist’s model, she gave birth to her son Maurice, whose father’s identity she refused to reveal. He took the last name Utrillo, after a friend who signed paternity documents when the boy was an adolescent. While her relationship with her son was tumultuous, defined by his early and lifelong battle with alcoholism, she taught him to paint as a way to manage the stress of his disease. He, too, found success as an artist, at various points becoming better known than his mother.
Seeking stability, in 1896, Valadon married the businessman Paul Mousis. The respectable life outside of Paris seemed to bore the artist, however. Around 1909, she began an affair with her son’s friend André Utter, an artist 21 years her junior. The two married five years later, the bride almost 50 and the groom in his late 20s.
While her career as a professional model for other artists ended as she aged, Valadon continued to take herself as her subject. She produced many self-portraits, including “Adam and Eve” (1909), a particularly unashamed depiction of herself and Utter as Adam and Eve. In another work, “Family Portrait” (1912), she paints herself as the columnar center of her family unit. She stares out at the viewer, solid and strong, making direct eye contact, while her husband and mother stand behind her and Utrillo sits dejected at the front of the group. Sought out by artists for her youthful beauty, her true character as a model was unleashed by her own frank brush.
Despite a tumultuous beginning, Valadon found significant success as both painter and model. She was the first self-taught female artist to show at the salon of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in 1894 and exhibited at salons for the rest of her career, including in the year before her death, when she exhibited at the Exhibition of Women Painters at Paris’s Petit Palais. She began to sell work in the 1890s, and found significant financial success in the 1920s, with which she and Utter bought the Chateau St. Bernard outside of Paris, where Utrillo often stayed. (The three artists exhibited work together and came to be known as the “wicked trinity.”) Throughout this period she and her work were featured in articles, monographs, and exhibitions, including a one-woman show in 1915 by the famed avant-garde gallerist Berthe Weill. In 1938, Valadon died of a stroke while painting in her studio — an artist until the end.