Lush Flowers and Full Figures : Notes on Suzanne Valadon
Sept. 23 is the birthday of an artist who painted strong sensual women and vases of vibrant flowers. And, oh, she modeled a bit too in the Paris of the Belle Époque.
How did artist Suzanne Valadon (1865–1938) bring this painting to life?
Look how the leaves of the tulips appear almost to be in motion, as does the textile on the right side of the painting.
This is a painting I might chose when playing a favorite game with friends.
On museum visits, we ask each other what work we’d take home if we could. I’d love to have this in my office. I could also happily find a space on the wall for other still life paintings by Valadon, especially others that also incorporate rich textiles.
But where Valadon excels is in painting people. These works of hers are often playful, almost always sensual and consistently interesting. Below is a portrait of Mauricia Coquiot, a woman who had been a circus star. In her youth, Valadon wanted to be a famous acrobat until an injury ended her circus career.
Seen below is Valadon’s portrait of Lily Walton. This painting has the same emotional intensity and vibrant colors that decades later would make the works of American artist Alice Neel famous.
And then there is Valadon’s perhaps most famous painting, seen below.
How comfortable this woman looks, resting in a cozy bed, dressed in a tank top and what look like pajama bottoms. She has books to read, she has time to stare off in contemplation.
Writing in the Guardian in 2005, art critic Charlotte Higgins observed how Valadon in this painting does her own take on a famous theme. (There’s a link at the end of this essay to a bibliography with details on this Guardian article and other resources used in writing this essay.)
In 1814, French artist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres produced a painting titled “Grande Odalisque,” using a fancy term for prostitute or concubine.
Other artists followed with their own takes of women stretched on display. I wondered if Valadon herself might have been the model for the painting below by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, with whom she had a relationship.
This painting is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which describes it as Renoir’s “homage” to Ingres’s Grande Odalisque. The older painter’s “cool courtesan” is transformed “into a healthy, pink-cheeked girl, and the harem into an Impressionist landscape reminiscent of the Channel coast.”
The subject of Valadon’s portrait is not a concubine, but a woman who seems like she has made her own way in this world. In her article, Higgins writes that the subject of Valadon’s portrait offers “no apology for her evident bohemianism and unconventionality, not to mention her generous fleshiness.”
Valadon’s woman is at ease on her couch. She’s not on display as was the case with the woman in the Ingres painting.
Valadon steered her own destiny in a way few women of her time could, and even fewer born into her circumstances. Other women who became artists in Valadon’s time were daughters of wealthy families such as Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot.
Valadon’s mother was an unmarried woman who is said to have worked as a seamstress and scrubmaid. At 18, Valadon had a son without being married. Valadon’s mother raised the boy. Valadon worked on learning to draw and paint. She studied artists at work as she modeled for them. Edgar Degas was a patron and supporter of her work. In a lecture on Valadon, art historian Felicia Zavarella Stadelman said Degas bought the painting seen below immediately on seeing it.
“He would eventually buy 26 of her works,” Zavarella Stadelman said. “What he saw in Suzanne Valadon’s work was the fact that it had emotion.”
Around 1896, Valadon took up with a wealthy banker Paul Mousis. For a time, she lived in a grand country estate surrounded by luxury. And then at about age 43, Valadon met André Utter, about 20 years her junior. He was a friend of her son.
Valadon decided to paint Utter as Adam. Valadon herself would be Eve. In her lecture on Valadon, Zavarella Stadelman said this painting was a break with tradition in that a female artist painted a nude couple.
“It attracted a lot of attention, and not good attention,” Zavarella Stadelman said in her lecture.
Valadon left Mousis to return to the artists’ quarter of Monmarte in Paris. In her lecture, Zavarella Stadelman quoted from a translation of Valadon’s writing about this change:
“It was hard for me to leave such a large lavish home filled with my china and expensive gowns but I knew I had a sudden rush to live and love and experience passion and success before it was too late.”
Valadon’s journey back to Paris was described in detail by writer Manuel Vicent in a 2010 article in Spain’s El País newspaper.
Valadon decamped from the grand house with two wolfish dogs, a famished cat she found along the way and a goat. In Vincent’s telling, Valadon also brought a small doe that she’d saved from the butcher’s knife at the last moment, along with clothes, jars and bottles. This story is so charming that I include it here on the strength of seeing it only (so far) in one El País article, although the detail about the deer seems far fetched.
But Valadon did often include pets in her paintings.
Valadon and her mother and son reestablished themselves in the Parisian neighborhood of Montmartre, a haven for artists. Valadon would marry Utter in 1914. Valadon lived with Utter, her mother and her son, the painter Maurice Utrillo, who suffered with depression and alcoholism. Valadon signals Utrillo’s struggles in his resigned posture. He’s the seated figure in this painting.
But the teens and 20s would be good for mother and son as artists. The gallery Bernheim-Jeune gave both of them contracts. These arrangements allowed them to live in luxury.
“This retainer made them wealthy enough to buy a car and a tumbledown castle, complete with moat and drawbridge,” writer Hazel Smith says in a 2019 article in France Today. “Their cat supped on caviar once a week.”
Much of Valadon’s enduring appeal as a painter is her style for paintings people in the nude.
In the canvas below, Valadon shows us four women at ease, while a man looks on, standing with a tense self-conscious stance.
This seems a nice role reversal for an artist who started out as a model, as seen below.
Valadon’s unusual perspective as an artist also seems to reflects her family history. She was the daughter of an unmarried woman who had a child out of wedlock. She took what lessons she wanted to learn from the trained artists in her circle, without committing to the popular ideologies about painting.
Women “were the dominant sex to Valadon. Her elders taught her art through the male perspective, but she knew better than that. Her personal style was defined by bold contours and rich colours,” Smith wrote in France Today. “She wasn’t a Realist, a Fauvist or an Expressionist. She simply painted what she knew. Her nudes were candid, but because she did not idealise her subjects they did not titillate.”
There’s an entry for Suzanne Valadon in Artists of Europe — a bibliography. If this link doesn’t work, please check my dooleyyoung.com site or tweet at me.
The images in this essay show paintings that Valadon painted before 1925 and thus they are in the public domain. If you are a fan of the portraits of Alice Neel, I recommend you take a look at copies of these Valadon paintings that have not yet aged into the public domain: “Le docteur Robert Le Masle,” painted about 1930, and her “Nu allongé,” dated to 1928. There’s also a nice portrait of André Utter and his dogs that Valadon painted in 1932.