Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The Mistress of Montmartre

Suzanne Valadon:

Mistress of Montmartre
by June Rose

This is the very well-researched biography of a fascinating woman. It reads like a novel and has many illustrations.

Suzanne Valadon was an influential personality in the artistic world of Paris in the late nineteenth century. She modelled for and was the lover of many of the famous Impressionists: Dégas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Renoir among others.

She also had a relationship with Puvis de Chavannes and a torrid six-month affair with Erik Satie, who was devastated when she left him and never had any other lovers.

She was also a good painter in her own right - she was encouraged by Degas who recognised her talent. She painted landscapes, still lifes and female nudes, naked in an unashamed way that was shocking at the time.

In 1894 she was the first woman to be admitted to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Her work can be found today in many international galleries, including Centre Pompidou in Paris and at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As a painter, she will always be overshadowed by her strange but talented son Maurice Utrillo. His paternity was by no means certain. There is an amusing and probably apocryphal story about this in the unpublished memoirs of one of Utrillo's collectors, Ruth Bakwin:

"After Maurice was born to Suzanne Valadon, she went to Renoir, for whom she had modeled nine months previously. Renoir looked at the baby and said, 'He can't be mine, the color is terrible!' Next she went to Degas, for whom she had also modeled. He said, 'He can't be mine, the form is terrible!' At a cafe, Valadon saw an artist she knew named Miguel Utrillo, to whom she spilled her woes. The man told her to call the baby Utrillo: 'I would be glad to put my name to the work of either Renoir or Degas!' "

Suzanne Valadon was an illegitimate child and claimed (untruthfully) to be a foundling. As a child she moved with her mother to Paris and became a laundress.

While Suzanne was still in her teens, they went to live in Montmartre and there she became an acrobat in a circus. An injury ended this career and then she became a model and artist.

She had two failed marriages: to the exchange broker Paul Mousis and the young painter André Utter who was twenty years her junior.

When she died Georges Braque, Andre Derain and Pablo Picasso all attented her funeral at the Cimetière Parisien, St.-Ouen (Paris).

Many of our members will have seen Renoir's exuberant "Dance at Bougival", for which Suzanne Valadon and Paul Lhote were the models, when it was at the NGV as part of the blockbuster Impressionist exhibition in 2004.

Renoir painted Suzanne many times.

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