Suzanne Valadon was born in 1865, an illegitimate daughter of a French laundress. From the age of nine she supported herself by doing odd jobs, including circus acrobat. When she was 16 years old, she fell off the trapeze and took up modeling as a safer occupation. Valadon posed for several noted painters, including Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.
Girl Braiding Her Hair (Suzanne Valadon), by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Valadon soon took an interest in painting. She observed carefully the techniques of the artists for whom she was posing and began creating her own paintings. Her effort was especially encouraged by Toulouse-Lautrec and Edgar Degas. Degas was so impressed by her drawings that he became the first to purchase a work by this self-taught female artist.
She painted portraits, landscapes, and still lifes.
Most notably, however, were Valadon's female nudes.
Her nudes are assertive and unashamedly naked, while her images are unforgettable in vibrant and powerful colors reminiscent of the Post-Impressionist and Fauve styles.
Her first exhibitions in the early 1890s consisted mainly of portraits, among them one of Erik Satie with whom she had a 6-month affair in 1893. A smitten Satie proposed marriage after their first intimate night.
For Satie, the intimate relationship with Valadon would be the only relationship of the kind in his life, leaving him, he said, with "nothing but an icy loneliness that fills the head with emptiness and the heart with sadness."
In 1915, Valadon had her first one-person exhibition, which became a critical as well as a commercial success.
Valadon's personal life attracted as much attention as did her art. She had well-known affairs with the painter Puvis de Chavannes and the wealthy banker Paul Moussis, whom she married in 1896.
Though Suzanne Valadon was part of the carefree, bohemian artistic scene of the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris in the 1880s and 1890s, she came into her own during the early years of the 20th century, when a passionate love for a man 20 years her junior led her to abandon a bourgeois husband and devote herself anew to art. [With her husband, Andre Utter, also a painter, they had several joint art exhibitions.]
She set to work with a renewed serenity but the same "unfeminine" boldness of line and earthy sexuality that had dismayed tradition-minded viewers from the beginning. Valadon defied artistic convention by painting nude women with natural bodies, who she presented matter-of-factly, instead of as sex objects.
Valadon had given birth when she was only 18 to a son named Maurice Utrillo, who himself became an artist. It was she who taught her illegitimate son to paint in a desperate attempt to wean him from his addiction to alcohol.
Valadon with her son
Despite her achievements, she lived in the shadows of her artist son, who became one of Montmartre's well-known artists.
Montmartre by Maurice Utrillo
In 1894 Valadon was the first woman admitted to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. A perfectionist, Valadon worked for 13 years on her oil paintings before ever showing them.
A free spirit, Valadon was known to wear a corsage of carrots. She kept a goat in her studio to "eat up her bad drawings" and fed caviar to her "good Catholic" cats on Fridays.
Self portrait by Suzanne Valadon
Suzanne Valadon died on April 7, 1938 and was interred in the Cimetière de Saint-Ouen in Paris. Amongst those in attendance at her funeral were her artist friends Andre Derain, Pablo Picasso, and Georges Braque.
Today, some of her works can be seen at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
Portrait of Suzanne Valadon by Renoir
Bildnis Suzanne Valadon, 1885, by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec