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My work is finished and the only satisfaction it gives me is that I have never surrendered. I have never betrayed anything that I believed in. You will see the truth one day, perhaps, if anyone ever takes the trouble to do me justice. Valadon to Francis Caro, 19371(p88)
Marie-Clémentine (Suzanne) Valadon (1865-1938) was the illegitimate daughter of a sewing maid and washerwoman who brought her to Paris, France, from the French countryside in 1870. She grew up on the streets of Montmartre (the ancient site of the temple of Mars, the place of martyrdom of French saints, and the center of night life in La Belle Epoch). It was a dangerous and exciting time for a child during the years after the disastrous Prussian defeat of France in 1871 and the failed Paris Commune. Valadon was a tomboy who began sketching from windows and rooftops at age 9 years. A curious child with excellent sensibility, she is said at age 7 or 8 years to have watched Pierre-Auguste Renoir at his easel and solemnly advised him to keep painting and not to be discouraged; she was sure he had a future.2 Because she was a great storyteller, much of her life has become folklore, some of it of her own construction. She was a controversial figure whose art defied convention. Today she is best known as the mother of Maurice Utrillo,3 yet her own work deserves greater attention.4
Marie-Clémentine (Suzanne) Valadon (1865-1938), French. Cover: Portrait of the Family, 1913. Oil on canvas, 97 × 73 cm. Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, France. (Photograph by Philippe Migeat.) © 2005 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.
Valadon had a brief career as a circus trapeze performer at age 15 years that abruptly ended after a fall. A beautiful young woman with an oval face, dark-blue eyes, and cognac-colored hair, she subsequently became a model, posing for many prominent artists, such as Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898), Renoir (1841-1919), and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). When art student Toulouse-Lautrec established his studio on the top floor of the building where she lived, Valadon was intrigued by the parody he and his friends made of Puvis’s classic painting, Sacred Wood Beloved of the Arts and Muses, one of her first modeling assignments. Toulouse-Lautrec and his friends painted themselves breaking into the sacred wood, thus rejecting this traditional style of painting. Toulouse-Lautrec suggested that Valadon was like the biblical Susanna, a popular figure at the time, because she posed nude for old men. In the Apocrypha, Susanna was a faithful wife spied on by 2 elders while bathing in a garden. When she rejected their advances, they falsely accused her of adultery. Valadon was flattered by the comparison and changed her name to Suzanne. But she was not chaste: she became Toulouse-Lautrec’s mistress, apparently not disturbed by his disability.5 He was the first to bring attention to her drawings and facilitated her meeting with Edgar Degas (1834-1917). Anxiously, she approached one the most revered painters of the time with her portfolio. Degas praised her work and asked to keep one of her drawings in his home. Afterwards, she said, “That day I had wings.”2(p83)Degas was the first to purchase her drawings, and she visited his home each afternoon for instruction and encouragement. In Valadon’s own work, her approach was unlike his more analytical one. She drew lines that express the character of the models, giving concrete form to the emotions that she herself felt when painting them2: she captured the feminine gesture. Her nudes are self-aware persons, not types.4
On December 26, 1883, Valadon gave birth to a son, Maurice. As a model, she had had several lovers, so his father is unknown; however, Miguel Utrillo later agreed to be formally listed as his father. She eventually married a businessman, Paul Mousis, on August 5, 1896. Maurice was a delicate boy given to fits and uncontrollable tantrums and she painted him often (Figure). Although initially a promising student, he began to abuse alcohol during his adolescent years, becoming an embarrassment to his mother and stepfather. He was hospitalized after attacking his mother in a drunken rage. Following the advice of a physician friend, Valadon taught Maurice to paint in an attempt to distract him from his alcoholism. He required continuous surveillance and had multiple hospital admissions throughout his lifetime. When Maurice was not drinking, his talent burgeoned and he became a prominent painter, eventually becoming an officer of the French Legion of Honor. Valadon was not suited to the bourgeois life. In her 40s, she fell in love in with André Utter, her model and a man 3 years younger than her son. She painted Utter and herself as Adam and Eve, but there is no snake in the garden, and in this painting, Eve eagerly reaches for the apple. Her 13-year marriage to Mousis ended, and she returned to Montmartre with Utter, Maurice, and her mother. She credits Utter with rejuvenating her career and introducing her, as he did, to Picasso and the next generation of artists in Montmartre.
Maurice Utrillo as a Child, 1886. Red crayon on paper, 34.5 × 29 cm. Musée National d’Art Moderne. © 2005 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.
In Portrait of the Family, painted in 1913, 4 years after leaving her husband and her middle-class lifestyle, Valadon placed herself between her son and her lover. Her frowning mother looks on from behind them. Maurice appears sad or bored, self-absorbed, and distant; her mother is perhaps anxious and wary of Utter, who is placed outside the main grouping.
Much of Valadon’s life was spent confronting and coping with Maurice’s alcoholism, providing constant supervision, and rescuing him from the police. She made several failed efforts to find a wife for him, and when she became ill with diabetes and uremia, she agreed that Lucie Valore, the widow of a patron and 6 years his senior, might marry Maurice. After more than 50 years of dependent living with his mother, Maurice married Lucie Valore on April 18, 1935, and she proved to be an even sterner caregiver for him. Later, Valadon complained that her life lost meaning when she no longer had Maurice to care for, yet she had not given up. She continued to paint until early in the morning on April 7, 1938, when she had a stroke as she stood painting at her easel. She is said to have died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital as it passed the Arc de Triomphe. She had written, “I admire sincerely those people who profess theories of art. But I have noticed that the most opposing theories can serve to justify the same masterpieces. I believe nature imposes the true theory. . . . Everyone paints as he can.”1(p92)And so she did; 276 paintings, 273 drawings, and 31 prints survive. In the midst of Montmartre, this acrobat, model, mistress, mother, wife, and independent artist was the first to break the mold of the “female painter,” and she never surrendered.
Harris JC. Portrait of the Family. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2005;62(9):952. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.62.9.952
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