Artist Stories

Suzanne Valadon: Artist (and Muse) of Montmartre

Magda Michalska 12 June 2024 min Read

Suzanne Valadon began her artistic journey as a model, unable to afford professional painting classes. Observing and learning from the renowned artists she posed for, such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, she honed her skills by emulating their techniques. Valadon’s dedication and talent eventually led her to become the first woman admitted to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in France, marking a significant milestone in her remarkable career.

Suzanne Valadon, Self-Portrait, 1927, Collection of the City of Sannois, Val d’Oise, France.

She was raised by her mother, who worked as a laundress and earned very little. Consequently, young Suzanne, whose real name was Marie-Clémentine, had to start working at the age of 11. She took on various jobs, including waitress, vegetable seller, maker of funerary wreaths, and even trapeze gymnast. They lived in Montmartre, a somewhat dodgy Parisian neighborhood known for its many brothels.

Suzanne Valadon, Woman with a double bass, 1908, Petit Palais, Geneva, Switzerland
Suzanne Valadon, Woman with a double bass, 1908, Petit Palais, Geneva, Switzerland.

She began modeling at 15 and soon became known as a provocative, self-confident, and rebellious girl. Her new name, Suzanne, was given to her by Lautrec, inspired by the biblical story of Suzanne and the Elders.

In the 1890s, she met Edgar Degas, and they became lifelong friends. Degas supported Valadon in her artistic endeavors and purchased many of her works.

Suzanne Valadon, My son at 7 years old, 1890
Suzanne Valadon, My son at 7 years old, 1890. Wikipedia.

Valadon had her first son at just 18. Her friend Miguel Utrillo signed the paternity documents, though it’s uncertain if he was the actual father. Because of this, her son, who later became a famous painter, is known today as Maurice Utrillo.

Suzanne Valadon, Nu au canapé rouge, 1920, Musée du Petit Palais Genève
Suzanne Valadon, Nu au canapé rouge, 1920, Musée du Petit Palais Genève, Geneve, Switzerland.

Valadon was a remarkably independent artist. Despite personally knowing many prominent artists, she didn’t follow any of their styles. She painted in her own unique way, choosing her own subjects, which included still lifes, landscapes, portraits, and numerous nudes. Her experience as a model gave her an exceptional understanding of the human form, and she skillfully depicted bodies while resisting the typical sexualized portrayal of women seen in the work of her male contemporaries.

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