Suzanne Valadon, a rebellious Montmartre painter

  • March 10, 2011 21:46

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"Portrait de Maurice Utrillo", Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

She wanted to live a bohemian life when only men were allowed to. She posed as a model for most Montmartre painters in the early 20th century. Erik Satie and Toulouse-Lautrec were her lovers among several others. She was the mother of Maurice Utrillo. His name is familiar to anyone interested in art when hers is still unknown to many. Who was this woman who painted like a man but is often only remembered in association with the successful men she met?

Marie-Clémentine Valadon, a woman Renoir called Maria and Toulouse-Lautrec Suzanne, became the painter Suzanne Valadon.
Born out of wedlock in 1865, she left her natal village in the French Limousin region for Paris when she was five years old. Her mother, Madeleine Valadon, hoped to start anew somewhere nobody knew her. What better place than Paris to be anonymous and meet acceptance for a single mother at that time?
Early on, Marie-Clémentine was a rebellious child, independent and resourceful. Since her mother worked a lot to make ends meet, Marie- Clémentine was sent to a religious school. She hated the strict education and rules. Whenever free time she had, she drew, either on pieces of paper or on the sidewalks, using chunks of chalk she managed to find. People noticed her drawings but the young artist would have to wait for Degas to be recognized as such and encouraged to pursue her talent.
A young girl wandering alone through Montmartre could only be noticed. Her natural beauty attracted men and especially artists seeking models. Marie-Clémentine was intelligent and she understood she would make more money posing for the painters than washing and ironing laundry for picky clients like her mother did.
She first posed for Puvis de Chavannes, then Renoir, Steinlen, Henner, Zandomeneghi, and many more until she met Degas. He is credited for being the only artist who didn’t take advantage of Marie-Clémentine’s youth and beauty. Degas praised her drawing skills and urged her to pursue an art career.
From then on, the young girl never stopped thinking of her art. She progressively traded drawing for painting and soon her love for art, for love and life made her a central figure of the artistic life in Montmartre.
Meanwhile, her mother worried. Her daughter’s lifestyle wasn’t appropriate for a young girl. It could only bring trouble. Of all people, she knew of the lurking dangers. Hadn’t she succumbed to the charms of a man who left her before she even knew she was pregnant? Madeleine Valadon urged her daughter to get an honest job but Suzanne was too full of life to listen to such advice. The circus attracted her and she planned to become an acrobat, but a bad fall cut her dreams short. Soon, she became the lover of a poet, charming but dishonest.
Despite her warnings and the challenges of bringing up a baby without much money, Madeleine Valadon took her daughter’s side when she found out she was pregnant. The poet didn’t recognize the child and Suzanne admitted that she wasn’t even sure he was the father. However, the Spanish artist Miguel Utrillo recognized the baby, giving to the little Maurice his name.
It is impossible to talk of Suzanne Valadon and ignore Maurice Utrillo. The mother and son lived an impossible but ferociously intense relationship. Maurice, since his birth, was a difficult child, desperately jealous of his mother. Left alone when she was absorbed in her artwork, he developed a melancholic nature, and fell into alcoholism at a very young age. All of his life would be spent between brutal episodes of ethylic state and depression.
Meanwhile, Suzanne Valadon, aware that without a certain financial stability, she wouldn’t be able to support her aging mother and her unstable son, agreed to marry Paul Moussis who would, with his money, bring the possibility for Suzanne to paint as much as she wished.
She spent the following years painting in Montmagny in the countryside where Paul Moussis rented a villa and rue Cortot in Paris where the couple lived. Suzanne settled her mother in La Butte-Pinson, and her son would soon share his grandmother’s life. Suzanne produced most of her art work during this period of time while the son she always called Utrillo fell deeper in alcolhism and craziness.
It was Suzanne who suggested painting when nothing worked to treat him. Initially, Utrillo refused and pushed back any attempt to make him paint. But when he finally finished his first piece, he couldn’t stop. His art wasn’t full of the strength and life emotion that permeated his mother’s canvases, but Utrillo was so productive that many took advantage of it and used his paintings to absorb his drinking debts.
Suzanne’s constant support to her son had a toll on her marriage and Paul Moussis eventually left her. Soon after, Suzanne fell under the spell of the much younger André Utter, one of her son’s friends, also a painter.
The relationship benefited Suzanne’s creativity, and she produced, during the first years of their love, some of her most beautiful paintings, mostly landscapes of French coastal and rural areas she visited with him and her son. Although she was now part of regular exhibits, none equaled the success of Utrillo who sold at that time several paintings for significant amounts of money. Needless to say, the product of the sales was immediately drunken.
Suzanne married Utter soon after her mother’s death and just before he was mobilized during World War I. Although her life was torn between her alcoholic son and the absence of her young husband, Suzanne led, during the war, a successful career with several exhibits in galleries and at the Salon d’Automne.
After his return from the war, Utter, Suzanne Valadon and Utrillo shared a sumptuous lifestyle, thanks to the success of Valadon and Utrillo. Yet, despite a comfortable life and the money, happiness deserted Suzanne and Utter. She was jealous of his youth and of his numerous affairs. His was jealous of her success and of her constant support to her son. Aware of Utrillo’s potential, Utter decided to take care of his career. He locked Utrillo inside a room in their house, ordering him to paint. Violent scenes occurred at that time and Utter ultimately left Suzanne.
Late in her life, she met the painter Gazi who would be her last friend. Utrillo, who had managed to stay away from alcohol married Lucie Valore, a woman Suzanne had handpicked to become her son’s wife.
At the same time, three of Valadon’s paintings entered the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris. Suzanne Valadon died of a stroke on April 7, 1938. Unable to deal with her mother’s death, Maurice Utrillo didn’t attend the funeral services and it was André Utter who accompanied the casket and led Suzanne’s artist friends to Saint-Pierre de Montmartre where Suzanne Valadon is buried.
Maurice Utrillo died on November 5, 1955 in Dax.
The woman who wanted to live like a man succeeded through scandal, rare determination and a ferocious love for life. Although protective of her art and of her independence, Suanne Valadon never ceased to love her son and always considered him a genius, pushing him beyond all hope to paint.
The artist who said, “I met renowned masters, I used the best from their teaching and example. I found myself, I made myself, and I have said, I believe, what I had to say,” left behind her a colossal oeuvre, unusual for a woman who had nothing to start with in a world still largely made by and for men.

Important dates and Artwork:

1890 first meeting with Degas, who encourages Valadon to pursue her drawings.
1890-1896: Valadon starts her first oil works. Conte à l’Enfant, Jeune Fille faisant du crochet, Portrait de Petite Fille, Portrait d’Erik Satie.
1896-1898: regular exhibits in galleries.
1898-1900: period of extreme creativity.
1910: Printemps, Petite Fille au Miroir, Adam et Eve.
1914-1916: Le Lancement du Filet, part of the Salon des Indépendants, La Couturière.
Private exhibit at the Galerie Berthe Weill.
1918-1920: Portrait de Mme Gebel.
1920-1923: productive years with La Famille Utter, La Poupée Délaissée
1921: The Galerie Berthe Weill organizes a group exhibit: Valadon, Utter, Utrillo
Four major art pieces will be exposed at the Salon d’Automne
Private exhibit at John Levy
1923-1927: Valadon is offered all kind of venues to exhibit her artwork
1928-1932: Valadon’s art is internationally recognized.
Retrospective at the Galerie Bernier
1932: George Petit launches an exhibit with the publication of a catalogue with a preface by Edouard Herriot
The critic welcomes Valadon’s work but the sales don’t follow
Publication by Daragnés of a luxurious catalogue with a preface by Claude Roger-Marx
1933-1937: Valadon’s activity is slowing down. She enters the Hôpital Américain in Neuilly for a violent uremia crisis
1937-1938: Valadon’s artwork is represented in the French national collections
Le Lancement du Filet, Adam et Eve, Grand-Mère et son Petit-Fils among others enter the Musée National d’Art Moderne
April 7, 1938: Death of Suzanne Valadon

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