Bessines-sur-Gartempe 1865 – 1938 Paris
Suzanne Valadon was born in Bessines-sur-Gartempe, near Limoges, the illegitimate daughter of a housemaid. She had jobs as a milliner and waitress before joining the circus, but a fall put an end to her career as a tightrope walker. From the age of fifteen the beautiful Valadon modelled for artists in Montmartre, particularly those who frequented the Lapin Agile. She modelled for Puvis de Chavannes, Renoir, Zandomeneghi, Forain and others, shrewdly observing their working methods. Having taught herself to draw as a child, Valadon became an artist, producing her first signed and dated work, a pastel Self-portrait (Musée du Pompidou, Paris), in 1883. That year she gave birth to Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955), the future painter of Montmartre, whose father was the Spanish painter Miguel Utrillo (1862-1934). Maurice was left with his grandmother while Suzanne went back to work as a model.
Valadon was encouraged by Renoir and Degas, who bought three of her drawings in 1894 and taught her to etch; she produced about thirty prints. Degas also introduced her to influential collectors and dealers, including Paul Durand-Ruel and Ambroise Vollard. In 1893 she painted the composer Erik Satie; their brief, passionate affair prompted a marriage proposal, but Valadon turned Satie down. Three years later Suzanne’s marriage to the Montmartre stockbroker Paul Mousis gave her the financial stability to paint full time.
Valadon proudly forged her own style, largely independent of her male artistic mentors. She painted confident nudes, sleekly bounded by black lines; bold landscapes and spare, powerful still lifes. The large, allegorical composition The joy of life reflects her happiness with the painter André Utter (1886-1948), nineteen years her junior, who became her lover in 1909 and her husband in 1914, after her divorce from Mousis. Valadon’s later paintings, such as the Blue room, 1923 (Musée du Pompidou, Paris) are characterized by a richer use of colour and intricate, decorative backgrounds.
In 1924 a contract with Bernheim-Jeune revived Valadon’s finances, enabling her to buy the Château de Saint-Bernard in the Auvergne. There were retrospectives of her work in 1929 and 1932; in 1937 the Musée de Luxembourg bought three major paintings and many drawings. Valadon died in Paris in 1938.