The life of French artist Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938) sounds like something from a movie script. Born to a single mother living in poverty, Valadon grew up in Paris and began working in her teens as a model for artists. It’s believed she taught herself to draw as a child, and after modeling for years, she launched her own decade-long career as an artist. Valadon became one of the most successful women artists in France in the early 20th century. She is best known for her portraits of women, her depictions of female nudes, and her still life paintings.
Working as a Model
As a model, Valadon worked for several well-known artists including Auguste Renoir and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. She served as the model for several of Renoir’s most beloved paintings, including Dance at Bougival (pictured above), Dance in the City, and Girl Braiding Her Hair. Born Marie-Clémentine, Valadon received the nickname Suzanne from Toulouse-Lautrec as a reference to the biblical story of Susanna. Valadon did not receive a formal art education. As a self-taught artist, Valadon learned by observing the techniques of the artists she modeled for.
Becoming an Artist
Valadon’s artistic production ramped up in the 1890s when she stopped modeling and began painting full-time. Her talent caught the attention of the artist Edgar Degas, who purchased her work and supported her career. Her experience as a model gave her insights that allowed her to depict the human body in new and compelling ways. An expert at draftsmanship, Valadon displayed a keen understanding of how the body moves in space and how to translate it to two dimensions. An etching from 1893 depicting two women in the bath testifies to her skill. One figure leans over in an awkward position that is difficult to draw. With a few lines and some cross-hatching, Valadon evokes the curvature of the woman’s spine poking through the skin of her back and the strain on her muscles as she maintains balance. The contrast with the second woman’s upright body indicates Valadon’s artistic abilities.
Valadon became an accomplished portrait painter, particularly of women. Unlike many male artists dominant at the time, Valadon didn’t objectify the women she painted, instead presenting her subjects as individuals with dignity and personality. This painting depicts an unidentified girl sitting at the window. Holding a bouquet of flowers in an almost possessive manner, she looks out the window, perhaps wishing for greater independence. Valadon’s style is distinctly modern as the surface of the table defies the rules of linear perspective and the trees outside the window melt into a flat plane of green.
This painting, The Blue Room, is Valadon’s best-known work and is generally considered to be her masterpiece. Valadon juxtaposes various textures and patterns in a kaleidoscope of color that grips the eye. The portrait relates to the early 20th century feminist conception of the “New Woman,” an independent woman who challenges traditional patriarchal views and traditions. Valadon’s woman smokes and reads books. She wears pants and has short hair. Looking away from the viewer, she is lost in her own thoughts. This painting also powerfully appropriates the reclining female pose commonly depicted in Old Master paintings, demonstrating Valadon’s knowledge of art history despite her lack of formal education.
Like Rembrandt and Van Gogh, Valadon also made self-portraits over the course of her career. This self-portrait, made when she was in her early 60s, is remarkable for its honesty. Valadon depicts the signs of aging on her face through angled lines and sharp planes of color. Proud of all her accomplishments in life and in art, Valadon looks the viewer head-on. If you look closely, you’ll notice that the self-portrait you see before you is the reflection in a mirror placed on a table with a still life arrangement. This highlights the candor of her self-portrait -- no photoshopping here! -- and makes a commentary on the nature of painting as representation.
Valadon gained recognition as an important artist during her lifetime, and several of her paintings were acquired by French museums before her death. She continues to gain fame today, and last year, the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia held the first solo exhibition of Valadon’s work in the United States. Her paintings and drawings are in the collections of US museums including the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the National Museum of Women in the Arts.