In the shadow of Le Sacré-Cœur in Montmartre, Paris, there is a small square known as Place Suzanne Valadon. Thousands of tourists flock through this intermediary patch of lamplit cobbles every year, but few will have heard the name Valadon — least of all in art class. She is immortalised elsewhere in Paris too; in Le Louvre, for example, where she appears in several paintings by Henri Tolouse Lautrec, including Young Woman at A Table and The Hangover. In both, she is hunched over a cafe table, peering into the middle distance, an expression somewhere between exhaustion and disdain cut into her pale face.
Valadon would have been in her early 20s when she modelled for Lautrec and was in the process of establishing herself as a professional artist. Born in 1865 in a small village near Limoges in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine région of southeastern France, Marie-Clementine Valadon had known poverty for most of her life. At the age of nine, she followed her mother to Montmartre, where, at 18, Valadon gave birth to her son, Maurice Utrillo, who would become one of the most celebrated painters of the School of Paris.
The pressures of parenthood forced Valadon to take any job she could get. From the age of 15, she worked as a laundress, a waitress, a nanny, a dressmaker’s assistant, and even a trapeze artist. It was here, under the circus tent, that she was first spotted by two members of the Paris art world: Antoine de La Rochefoucauld and Theo Wagner, symbolist painters, who were charged with designing the sets for a show at Cirque Medrano. Valadon liked the theatricality of performance, and after a fall forced her to leave the circus and sidestep into modelling, she started going under the name Maria, treating her new occupation as a role that she would be required to perform without fault.
She soon started sitting for the artists of the Montmartre avant-garde, many of whom attended her performances when she was a circus performer. She also modelled for wealthier, more established artists, including Berthe Morisot and Pusi de Chavannes — the latter of whom became a close friend and confidant. She spent many afternoons in de Chavannes’ sunlit studio in Neuilly, where she posed for a range of figures in his neo-classical scenes. After the day’s work was done, the pair would walk back to Place Pigalle – which by that time teemed with literary cafes and artist’s studios – chattering all the while. Valadon would later recall how intimidated she felt in de Chavannes’ company and how embarrassed she was at the thought of confessing that she too harboured artistic ambitions.
Valadon learned everything she knew from observation. While modelling for the likes of Puvis, Renoir, Lautrec and others, she made mental notes of their materials, their processes and techniques, their mistakes and corrections. She then took all of these and set about making herself an artist – finding her own style in the work of the artists she sat for. Alas, few of these artists actively encouraged Valadon to paint, apart from Lautrec, who was clearly devoted to her – naming one of his portraits Big Maria. Valadon, it should be noted, was only five feet tall.
Edgar Degas was also a fan of Valadon’s work. After seeing her in one of Lautrec’s paintings, he showed up at her doorstep and announced, “You’re one of us,” by which we can only assume he meant artists or bohemians or perhaps avant-gardists. Despite never sitting for him, Valadon went to Degas studio on a daily basis. In his eyes, Valadon was an artist first and last. He found her harshness refreshing and invited her to join him and his friends as they drank their way around Paris’ nightclubs. The pair’s camaraderie extended to their work as well. Both were fascinated with the female form, especially when contorted in the act of grooming. Her 1893 work, After The Bath – produced shortly after Valadon began a relationship with the composer Erik Satie – shows a woman drying her hips with a towel, her eyes fixed on her own thighs. In anybody else’s hands, this work would be imbued with a sense of the erotic. But Valadon forms an intimacy not between the viewer and subject but between the subject and their own body.
Despite these early indications of talent, it wouldn’t be until the 1920s that Valadon would find success, by which time she was in her 60s. The most incantatory of her works from this period is ‘The Blue Room’. Created in 1923 and currently on show at the Glyptoteket in Copenhagen, the portrait depicts a woman reclining on a plush bed adorned with floral fabrics of the deepest Prussian Blue. A couple of books lie at her feet, and a cigarette hangs from her mouth. Dressed in her pyjamas, she sees no need to cast her gaze towards us. This is a moment of pure, dreamlike relaxation – the undulating curves and emphasising a surprisingly modern sensuality distinct from the sexual realm.
Unlike the artists she sat for, Valadon has never been regarded as a ‘great artist’ and rarely receives the gallery space she deserves. Perhaps it’s because she was born poor; perhaps it’s because she was a woman. Either way, she is one of the most criminally underappreciated artists of the Paris art world, and her work deserves to be remembered. Thankfully, she was recently given her first solo exhibition in Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation. Suzanne Valadon: Rebel, Painter, Model, which features five decades worth of Valadon’s work, is currently on show in Copenhagen until July 31st.