It was not easy to be a woman, let alone a woman artist, in the late 19th century and early 20th century. But in France there were four great women painters who rightly rose to fame despite the obstacles in their path. They were Mary Cassatt (actually American), Marie Laurencin, Berthe Morisot, and Suzanne Valadon.
I have never been over enthusiastic about the first three, but Suzanne Valadon could draw as no one else – and I have loved her drawings from an early age.
Suzanne Valadon (born Marie-Clémentine Valadon in 1865) was the illegitimate daughter of an alcoholic sewing maid. And at that time illegitimacy was hardly acceptable (yet there must have been many such infants before the advent of modern contraception).
Suzanne was a self-sufficient tomboy, small, athletic and strong. She had no artistic background.
With a mother concentrating on survival in a hostile Paris, Suzanne had to live by her wits, with only a sympathetic grandmother to whom she could turn to in times of adversity.
Apprenticed as a seamstress, her first real employment was with a private circus, where she turned her hand to any needed task, graduating to become a circus performer. But, falling from a trapeze, she hurt her back and was unable to continue with circus life.
She was, however, by her late teens, very pretty and well fashioned. So, to become a model (mainly in the nude) for Montmartre artists beckoned. Moreover, she was able to hold a pose for long periods of time.
Posing for many artists, it was Puvis de Chavannes, then probably the most famous artist in France, who gave her regular employment. This provided her with temporary financial stability and the illuminating company of artists, their circle of friends, dealers and patrons.
Word soon spread of her ability, and lust for life. When she was not posing she drew, learning by observation.
When working for Degas, he chanced upon some of her drawings and was astounded by her decisive line and bold work, several examples of which he bought over the following years. He pinned some of her work to the wall in his studio and invited comment. This was most favourable, and by those who had no idea that the artist was unknown – and a woman. Degas promoted her interests and gave her instruction and advice.
Suzanne was a favourite model and companion, especially of Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec, appearing in many of their paintings.
In 1883, she had an illegitimate son – father unknown. At that time she adopted her professional name of Suzanne Valadon.
Mainly because her son being frail and in poor health, she contemplated marriage with a rich suitor, who asked her the name of the boy’s father. She told him that it was either Puvis de Chavannes or Renoir. “Two fine artists,” he replied, and they were married. In fact, throughout her life she never divulged the name of her son’s father. It could have been several, but possibly a drunken sailor who raped her.
With marriage she virtually gave up her artistic work, but it was not long before she was hankering for the freedom and abandonment of her previous bohemian life in Montmartre.
Her son was the painter Maurice Utrillo, given the name of Utrillo by a Spanish journalist of that name who “acknowledged” Maurice as his son.
Maurice became an extreme alcoholic, drug addict, rabble-rouser and mental case. He was a drain on Suzanne’s purse and patience throughout most of her life, drunkenly fighting, or incarcerated in either jail, institutions, or even behind bars in his own home.
But under Suzanne’s guidance, in an effort to give him stability in life, he became an innovative painter, establishing a style of depicting the streets and alleyways of Montmartre that were much copied - as they still are today.
Then Suzanne fell in love for the first time with her son’s artist and womaniser friend, André Utter. He was some 21 years her junior. They married, just before he went to war against the Germans in 1915.
After the Great War, Utter, who had recovered from a bullet wound in the chest, exhibited successfully with Suzanne, and with Suzanne and Utrillo.
Utrillo continued with his volatile, alcoholic life, often paying barmen with his paintings when his debts had not been settled by Suzanne.
As Utrillo’s work now became famous and of considerable value, these barmen found themselves with valuable works to sell. They naturally encouraged his alcoholism – which hardly needed encouragement.
Suzanne, meanwhile, was at last accepted as an artist of note by dealers, gallery owners, and by those who controlled salons of importance. But her successful personal and professional liaison with Utter lasted for barely 12 years before they drifted apart. However, during that often tempestuous marriage, both Utrillo and Valadon reached dizzy heights of fame and fortune, with Valadon notorious for her extreme generosity.
In 1938 Suzanne Valadon, recognised as a great artist, collapsed at her easel and died in hospital.
Utrillo outlived her, having married and given up his wayward life.
It has been possible to fake Utrillos ever since he painted his groundbreaking scenes of the streets, steps, and picturesque paths of Montmartre. On the other hand, no one, but no one, could recreate a drawing with the power and strength of line of a Suzanne Valadon.