French women. What is it about them? Not only do they make great muses, but they seem to live passionate, unbridled lives, defined by independence, strong will, and self-determination. I’ve had to delve into several of their biographies for Museworthy posts, and each time reveals women who love the men they want to love, follow the paths they want to follow, and do things on their own terms. And they do it all unapologetically. No one tells them what they can or cannot do. The word “conformity” is not in their vocabulary, and the social mores and conventions of the day play no part in their decision-making process. Although I like to fancy my own life as one defined by passion, independence, and inspiration, when I juxtapose mine to these women’s, I feel comparatively banal. Yes, banal. Me! Holy crap.
Whether it’s the tortured and devoted Jeanne Hebuterne, the disciplined and talented Victorine Meurent, or the tough as nails survivor that is Francoise Gilot, French women possess an admirable spirit. And to think I haven’t even gotten to Camille Claudel yet! Don’t worry, she’s coming. But until then, Suzanne Valadon will fit seamlessly into the annals of formidable French bohemian ladies.
Born in 1865 near Limoges, France, the illegitimate daughter of a laundress, Suzanne Valadon started working at an early age, taking any job she could get. Her disadvantaged childhood and lack of formal education would not stop her from making something of her life. She became a circus performer in her teens, but had to quit after sustaining an injury from a trapeze fall. So she moved to Montmarte and became an artist’s model.
Suzanne posed regularly for some of the most important artists at the time, such as Auguste Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, with whom she had an affair. It is believed she had an affair with Renoir as well. Suzanne would have many lovers during her art modeling days in Montmartre, where she partied at the clubs and cabarets, and put her liberal and unconventional attitudes toward sex on full display – attitudes which would soon be expressed in her own artwork. The restless muse would discover that she, too, had things to say on canvas, not as model, but with her own brush.
Renoir’s Girl Braiding her Hair, with Suzanne as the model:
Suzanne as the subject for Toulouse-Lautrec’s The Hangover:
Through Suzanne’s prolific art modeling work she was able to to something I have so far been unable to do; she observed, learned and absorbed art techniques from the artists around her. A better art education one couldn’t ask for. Suzanne soon began to create her own paintings, and Toulouse-Lautrec was among the first to recognize her talent and encourage her. Suzanne’s good friend Edgar Degas did the same. Degas, in fact, was so impressed with Suzanne’s artistic ability that he bought three of her paintings.
Suzanne’s self-portrait, done in pastel:
In 1883, at the age of eighteen, Suzanne became pregnant. She never revealed the father of the child, who would grow up to be the artist Maurice Utrillo.
Suzanne met composer Erik Satie when he was playing the piano at the Auberge du Clou, a Paris nightclub and one of Suzanne’s frequent haunts. The 26 year old Satie was naive and inexperienced to the ways of the world, and the capricious, wild-living Suzanne was probably not the right woman to initiate him into adult romances. They began an intense affair, and Satie, who fell head-over-heels in love with her, is said to have proposed marriage to Suzanne during their first night together. But predictably, Suzanne broke Satie’s fragile heart after only six months. Satie wrote that she left him with “an icy lonliness that fills the head with emptiness and the heart with sadness”.
Suzanne Valadon’s portrait of her lover Satie:
Suzanne abandoned portraiture for a time and focused heavily on the female nude, the subject for which she is most known. Her painting style is frank, lively, and modern. Here are just a few of Suzanne Valadon’s figure paintings. They are bold, almost aggressively nude, very evocative, and decidedly Post-Impressionistic:
Suzanne married stockbroker Paul Moussis in 1896. After 15 years, she left him for an artist 21 years her junior, Andre Utter. That marriage didn’t last either but the relationship was artistically productive for both. Throughout her lifetime, Suzanne’s art career was consistently successful. Her four one-woman shows met with critical acclaim, and she earned a highly respected reputation as an accomplished painter with a keen vision.
Suzanne Valadon died in 1938, and her funeral brought out many luminaries of the Paris art world. Among those who came to pay their respects were Georges Braque, Andre Derain, and Pablo Picasso. Suzanne Valadon’s works hang today in the Musee de Beaux Arts and the Metropolitan Museum, among many others. The poor girl from Limoges made her mark, indeed. Vive Suzanne!