One doesn't hear much about the women artists who painted during the heyday of Montmartre. Life was rough for those bohemians, and the lifestyle didn't bode well for females. Still the same, there were a few. In fact, one of them, Berthe Morisot, is considered one of the original impressionists and part of the inner circle of those great artists. That will be a later post.
For now, I want to tell you about another, named Suzanne Valadon. Although she was far from perfect,Valadon was a person that I admire. She came from nothing, struggled her whole life, refused to be put in her place sexually, socially, or in regard to her painting career. She didn't just color outside the lines, she refused to acknowledge any lines existed!
Suzanne was born Marie Clementine Valadon in 1865 to an unmarried French laundress. It is unknown who her father was. By age 11 she was working in a milliners workshop. She had many jobs from then on, including making funeral wreaths, selling vegetables, and waitressing. Life was anything but easy for an unwed mother and her illegitimate daughter.
As a teenager she made friends with some of the artists in Montmartre. They in turn helped her get a position as an acrobat in the circus. When she fell from a trapeze and hurt her back, that career ended. She recovered, but couldn't work as an acrobat anymore.
Next she became an artist's model. It was Pierre Puvis de Chavannes who first painted her. Later, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, and other artists did the same. Everyone assumed she also had sex with the artists who painted her, as it was common knowledge that the artists believed they had the right to make love to their models. Their assumption in regard to Suzanne was most often true. It was widely known that she had affairs with de Chavannes, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, and others. I've seen photos of Suzanne and she was a beauty. It isn't hard to understand why men sought her attention.
She also became notorious for her daring stunts. It was not unusual for her to come home in the early hours of the morning, drunk and screaming obscenities. On occasion she washed clothes outside while topless, and one time she slid down a staircase banister completely nude except for a mask at a popular club! She also frequented Au Lapin Agile and Chat Noir.
At eighteen she was pregnant and gave birth to a son: Maurice (who would become a famous painter himself). Unsure who the father was, many speculated it was Miguel Utrillo, Renoir, Puvis, or another artist named Boissy. Utrillo later on gave Maurice his name, but no one knew if he was really the father—including Suzanne. She turned her son over to her mother to raise, and she continued her bohemian lifestyle. When she did take care of Maurice, she would give him whiskey in his bottle to get him to go to sleep. Later on she did become a better mother, but motherhood was not her strong suit. That is not a part of her that I admire.
What made her different from most sleep-arounds during that time? Well, she dared to dream. During this whole time she was studying the techniques of the artists she posed for and she began painting. In 1890 she became friends with Degas, who admired her budding talent and worked with her, teaching her how to hone her painting skills, buying several of her paintings, and getting her career started. Because of him, she became the first woman to ever show in the prestigious Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts.
Her work before Degas was all in pastel or pencil. In the 1890's she began using oils.One of her portraits was of Eric Satie, a famous composer. They had a brief, but very intense affair, and he asked her to marry him. She turned him down. Next she became even more heavily involved with a stockbroker named Paul Mousis. They married, and that gave her the financial freedom to paint and draw full-time.
Her style was frank, raw, and full of energy. Because she had no formal training, Suzanne was unfettered when it came to style or technique. However, they left the city and she struggled to find balance between being a proper wife and being a painter. Her painting suffered even more when her son began to develop an alcohol problem, along with mental illness.
In 1906 she met a friend of her son named Andre Utter. They began a torrid affair. She was 44 and he was 23. Utter encouraged her to paint more, and her career took off. Her painting titled "Adam and Eve" was a portrait of herself and Utter. It was the first painting to show a fully nude male and female together done by a woman. Suzanne wasn't careful about the affair and Mousis found out. He divorced her in 1910.
Suzanne continued to paint, living with Utter and her son, Maurice. She did have some shows. However, she was becoming less noticed than her son, and some other artists in the area, like Picasso. When Utter went off to war in 1914 he married Suzanne so that she could get an allowance from the military. When Utter got injured in the war, she left to be closer to him. When the war ended, they returned to Paris, where Utter marketed him own, Suzanne's, and Maurice's work. Maurice's work sold the most.
Suzanne had several showings at different galleries and always received positive critical acclaim, but only moderate sales. Finally, in 1924 she signed a contract with an art gallery. She had enough now to live comfortably and buy a country estate. She spent a lot of time there. However, things were getting ugly between the three of them. Mostly it was because Maurice was overshadowing them professionally. Utter began drinking and womanizing.She continued to paint and had two major retrospectives of her work shown.
Her health declined throughout the thirties. In 1935 Maurice married and moved out, and her husband also left. He and Suzanne never divorced. During the next few years her life remained filled with friends and with doing art. One day in 1938 she was painting at her easel when she had a stroke. She died only hours later at age 72.
Although there was an increased appreciation for women artists during the later twentieth century, it has always been the men that took center stage. Yes, those men were great—and, yes, they deserve recognition even now. Yes, I admire them greatly.
Still, I can't help but feel as a women myself that part of the reason Suzanne wasn't (and isn't) talked about as much was because she dared to live life as fully as a man during a time when that was deeply frowned upon, even in Montmartre. It was one thing to "let loose" once in awhile, but living full-time like a bohemian was highly suspect! When Valadon is brought up, more about her sexual life with artists is mentioned than her almost 500 paintings (not counting those destroyed or lost). In fact, none of the females that painted during that time are ever discussed as much as their male counterparts and that's unfortunate. Suzanne, and others who dared to "paint with the boys" were important contributors to the bohemian art era.
Today I say "Thank-you, Marie Clementine Valadon aka Suzanne aka simply Marie. You had balls, girl. I'm proud of you. And, by the way, your work ROCKS. One of my dreams is to someday do a historical fiction novel featuring you. It will take a lot of research, but perhaps in the future I'll have luxury of taking that amount of time to create your story. May you rest in peace and live on in "the color".
Caddy Rowland is a novelist and painter. Her social media links follow.
To find out about her novels (including The Gastien Series, a story that begins with a bohemian artist in France) visit http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B005FW8BZE
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