Suzanne Valadon (1865–1938) was born in Bessines-sur-Gartempe, to a domestic worker and an unknown father. Suzanne (née Marie-Clémentine) was taken to Paris by her mother, to escape the small-town attitude toward her beautiful bastard daughter. As a girl, she ran the streets of Montmartre, as the still-rural area grew into the famous (and infamous) quartier of artists and bohemians.
Young Marie-Clémentine worked as a seamstress, for a florist, in a market, and, the story goes, as a circus performer, until a fall ended that career. A petite and luminous beauty, she soon found work as an artist’s model, posing for (and in many cases having affairs with) the painters whose names came to define that moment in art history: Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Puvis de Chavannes, Steinlen, among others. Thinking of all those “old men” leering at her, Toulouse-Lautrec suggested that the name “Suzanne” might be better suited to her career as an artist’s model.
Among her lovers was Erik Satie, who was wildly enamored of her. After she left him, broken-hearted, he wrote his obsessive cycle, “Vexations.” Upon his death, her 1893 portrait of him was found in his tiny, chaotic studio.
In 1883, Valadon gave birth to a son, the identity of whose father she never divulged. In an apocryphal anecdote, she takes the baby to Renoir: “Not mine, the color is wrong.” Then to Degas: “Not mine, the lines are wrong.” She confided in her friend, the artist Miguel Utrillo: he replied that he’d be delighted to sign his name to anything created by Renoir or Degas, et voilà, le fils, Maurice Utrillo.
Meanwhile, no longer content merely to sit on the model’s side of the easel, Suzanne had begun to apprentice herself informally to the artists who were painting her. Though unschooled, she worked diligently at her technique, and was eventually rewarded with the ultimate compliment from Degas: “Maria, you are one of us.”
Valadon’s work embodies her bold and unconventional personality: strong lines, intense colors. Her female nudes are earthy and solid. Her portraits—dancing girls, domestic workers, the members of her family—always aim for the truth of that subject’s “soul.” She said, “You have to have the courage to look a model in the face if you want to have contact with the soul. Don’t ever bring me a woman to paint who is looking for kindness or beauty—I will find her out right away.”
She was the first woman to exhibit a male nude (though she did later acquiesce and cover her Adam with a fig leaf). Her still lifes and landscapes express her abiding love of nature. “Nature has a complete hold on me,” she said. “I am passionately and profoundly charmed by the trees, the sky, the water.”
In 1894, she was the first woman to exhibit with the Société Nationale des Beaux Arts. She showed at the Salon d’Automne and eventually at the prestigious Galleries of Berthe Weill and Bernheim Jeune. In 1933, she joined Femmes Artistes Modernes, and continued to exhibit with them until her death in 1938.
L’avenir dévoilé, ou La tireuse des cartes
The fortune teller clearly has done well,
her lapis satin dress and silver bracelet,
and shiny raven hair tamed in a chignon.
This woman’s future isn’t hard to tell:
such beauty’s never other than an asset,
her tousled ginger braid cascades; her skin
like rosy marble, warmly shimmering.
She’s languid on a couch of crimson velvet,
embroidered throws of scarlet, emerald,
and onyx-black; her robe draped just behind.
The fortune teller plucks a card and works it:
This one’s the Queen of Diamonds. This one tells,
Mam’selle, of your impending luck, and wealth
of any sort you choose. You will profit
in love, and art . . . (and who knows if, in time,
the times will catch up with her, incarnate
Femme à la contrebasse
How much more angled could this parlor be?
With olive walls stolid, and frame upon frame
of a window, glass leaded, just over a mantel
of onyx and ivory, which bevels from yellow
She, on the other hand, curve against curve,
is a woman who plays double bass.
Is she out of proportion to show the importance
of elegant fingers and wrists that are strong?
The bass bends its waist to her, posing and poised,
her own face a study in wide-eyed and wonder.
And what will you do with this, viewer,
with this new confusion of music, of muse
and of mistress, when she to be played upon’s
suddenly player, and she to be painted,
her skin for the offering, walks round the easel
with ease, becoming the painter?
Portrait de famille
Clockwise, from top left:
The perfect skin, his hair and beard close-trimmed,
his suit and tie impeccable. He takes
such obvious care
of himself and others, ever tries to make
it all respectable. Stands a bit distant.
We’re fairly certain that she hasn’t smiled
in thirty years. There must have been
one night (beguiled? beguiling?). Her lips sealed,
not just turned down in that eternal frown
but also signed in silence.
It’s said that melancholy often skips
a generation. Dear boy, heavy head,
rests heavy on his hand, elbow on knee.
It’s all too clear, he’d really rather be
(anywhere else) at the boîte, or at his easel.
At center, right hand at the heart,
and fingers spread apart, between the breasts.
The gaze is straight and clear, a bit ironic.
At center, yes, and holding all intact.
If these are family bonds, they are ionic.
Raminou assis sur une draperie
There are certain disadvantages
to being an artist’s cat: you can’t,
for example, jump into the lap
of a model who’s naked, even
if the studio is cold; you can’t
expect the scratch behind the ears when
she’s painting, and though she leaves the food
down for you, sometimes you can’t touch her
for hours because she’s lost in her work.
And you must be careful with your claws
so you don’t ruin her props: the fine
silk; filmy cotton; that haunted cloth
that stares at you with hundreds of eyes.
You can’t play like a normal cat; trap
mice in corners; make noise at midnight;
mewl at the moon. But then, after all,
an Egyptian goddess on a swirl
of soft fabrics, you’re made immortal.
Maurice Utrillo, sa grand-mère et son chien
He’s learned to look into his mother’s eyes
and gazes straight with equal parts chagrin
and love, the drunken nights no more surprise
to her. He holds his left hand angled, strong and fine;
his face is pale, his beard Mephistophelian
(what deal’s been struck with whom, and at what price?).
Grandmother, meanwhile, looks off to the side
and downward, face etched, permafrost, the frown
she nearly always wears (despite their life
if not of luxury, at least of pride).
Her life’s work too shows clearly in her hands.
She managed to escape the village gibes
and get to Paris. Why then can’t she smile?
Her daughter, lovely, could’ve had any man
she wanted (and she did). The boy’s profile—
one has one’s theories. Yes, the girl was wild.
But family is family: mother, son,
grandmother—even some love set aside
to lavish on the dog, with gentle eyes
and paw outstretched beside Grandmother’s hand.
La Chambre bleue
Voluptuous, a luscious word, Delight
and Pleasure stretched out, languid, on the bed,
a silky spread, white flowers on a sky
of turquoise, azure, blending to celeste;
a canopy for privacy, a tent
in which to scintillate the every sense—
but wait. This odalisque is fully dressed:
a peach chemise, pajama pant striped green
and white, and (gigolette!) a cigarette
protruding, brazen, from her lips. It seems
she isn’t lying there, a box of sweets
to be consumed. She has her yellow journal,
a crimson-covered book (perhaps Colette?)
Another root of volupté is will.
This mirror tells no lie. She’s sad and tired,
and every corner of her being’s drawn
down, the earthward tilt of cobalt eyes,
lips pressed together in a jaded frown;
the shoulders slump a bit, her neck’s the creased
axis that supports the heavy head,
and flesh is mottled, modeled cool and green
and lavender and blue, a zag of red
across one cheek (en colère?), orange and rust,
the cinnabar of curtain, drooping leaves
in faded jade, and apples, red and mustard,
autumnal, long since fallen from the tree.
This is the toll of love and gravity.
And yet you cannot disregard the beauty.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 8, on page 38
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