French artist Suzanne Valadon (1865–1938) is portrayed in the musical My Paris by Mara Davi. An artist’s model before becoming a respected painter herself, Valadon was part of a circle of artists living and working in Paris’s Montmartre neighborhood at the turn of the twentieth century and was one of the most notable female artists of the period. Valadon is also remembered for her many love affairs and as the mother of prominent French painter Maurice Utrillo.
Valadon was born in the small town of Bessines, located in northeastern France. Her mother, Madeleine Valadon, worked as a sewing maid; the identity of her father was not known. At the age of five, Valadon relocated to Paris with her mother. She attended a convent school for a few years before taking a job in a milliner’s workshop at age 11. Valadon also worked as a funeral wreath maker, a vegetable seller, and a waitress while still a child. When Valadon was a teenager, she befriended some artists living in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris, a bustling artist’s community. These artists helped Valadon get a job as an acrobat at the Mollier circus. Here, artist Berthe Morisot painted the young Valadon as a tightrope walker. In March of 1880, Valadon fell from a trapeze while practicing her act and injured her back. After several weeks she essentially recovered, but remained unable to perform in a circus for the remainder of her life due to the injury. However, her brief stint with the circus remained one of her fondest memories.
After Valadon recovered from her back injury in 1880, she caught the eye of painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. This began Valadon’s career as an artist’s model. For the next seven years, Valadon posed for several of Puvis’s paintings and was presumed to have been sexually involved with him. Valadon also sat for other major Impressionist painters, including Auguste Renoir and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Some of the more notable paintings featuring Valadon include Puvis’s 1884–1886 piece Sacred Wood and Toulouse-Lautrec’s 1889 The Hangover.
As an artists’ model, Valadon became an active member of the artistic community of Montmartre. She shortened her name to “Maria” and became a regular at the famed tavern Lapin-Agile as well as the early cabaret Le Chat Noir. During this time in her life, Valadon made a name for herself as a feisty, vivacious girl, known for stunts such as sliding down the banister at a popular club while wearing only a mask. In 1881 Valadon began a relationship with Spaniard Miguel Utrillo. On December 26, 1883, Valadon gave birth to an illegitimate son, Maurice Utrillo, who later became a renowned painter in his own right. Valadon herself seemed uncertain as to who the father of her child was; Utrillo formally acknowledged the boy as his own in 1891, but several other possible fathers have been suggested, including Puvis, Renoir, and another young Paris artist named Boissy. Valadon gave her young son to her mother to raise, returning to work as a model.
Valadon’s first known works, a pastel called Self-Portrait and a drawing of her mother called The Grandmother, date from 1883. During the mid- to late-1880s, Valadon produced many drawings and pastels of people and of street scenes. Her artistic endeavors were assisted by Toulouse-Lautrec, for whom she often modeled and with whom she had a lengthy affair. Valadon worked to hone her skills by observing the techniques of the artists who painted her, becoming a fully self-taught artist over the years. In 1890 she became friends with painter Edgar Degas. After seeing some of Valadon’s work, Degas encouraged her efforts to become an artist, buying some of her pieces and helping her get her career started. Due to encouragement from Degas, in 1894 Valadon became the first woman to show at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, a major French artistic accomplishment.
Valadon became involved with Montmartre stockbroker Paul Mousis, and the pair married in 1896. This marriage provided Valadon with financial stability, enabling her to quit modeling and dedicate herself to drawing and painting full-time. Valadon’s unique style became more apparent once she had the freedom to practice her craft unfettered by financial concerns. Foremost among Valadon’s subjects were portraits of all types and female nudes. In the former genre, she captured an intensity of feeling and depth in her subjects with bold, heavy strokes.
Valadon’s relationship with husband Mousis was marred by problems nearly from the start. In 1906 Valadon met a friend of her son’s, Andre Utter, who was himself a young painter. Utter was intrigued by Valadon, and three years later the two began an affair. Valadon was by then 44 to Utter’s 23. Prodded by Utter, Valadon returned more seriously to her art, producing a significant number of paintings for the first time in years. Among these works were the definitive Summer, After the Bath , and Adam and Eve. This last painting, modeled on Valadon and her young lover, was the first piece executed by a female artist to show a nude man and woman together. As the relationship between Valadon and Utter intensified, she at first tried to hide it from her husband. However, she became careless and Mousis found out, breaking off the marriage. He officially divorced Valadon in March of 1910.
After the dissolution of her marriage, Valadon continued to paint in earnest, as well as producing a lesser number of drawings and engravings. In 1910 she painted her first landscape and her first nude self-portrait. Despite these advances, Valadon was beginning to be overshadowed by her tumultuous artist son and his contemporaries, including Picasso. When World War I erupted in 1914, Utter volunteered for military service. He and Valadon married so that she could receive an allowance from the military as a soldier’s wife.
Valadon produced paintings and drawings at a rapid pace, and in 1920 was elected to the Salon d’Automne. That December, Valadon exhibited alone at a Paris gallery to good critical reception. For the remainder of her career, Valadon would show frequently to critical acclaim but only moderate sales. Her increasingly unstable son’s artworks consistently overshadowed those of his mother commercially.
Through the 1930s Valadon’s health slowly declined. In 1935 she entered the hospital for complications of diabetes and kidney dysfunction. On April 7, 1938, Valadon was painting at her easel when she unexpectedly suffered a stroke. She died at the hospital just hours later, at the age of 72. A complete survey of her work totals over 475 paintings, nearly 275 drawings, and 31 etchings; this does not include many works destroyed or lost over the years. For years after her death, Valadon’s reputation remained closely linked to her son’s; however, in the latter part of the twentieth century, increasing interest in the works of women artists such as Valadon led to an increased appreciation of her life, art, and contributions.
– Excerpted and adapted from the Encyclopedia of World Biography