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White Gray Black

Suzanne Valadon (French, 1865–1938)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

French painter and artist’s model. She led a lonely childhood in Paris as the daughter of an unmarried and unaffectionate maid, seeking refuge from her bleak circumstances by living in a dream world. While residing in the Montmartre district of Paris, she became an artist’s model, working in particular with those painters who frequented the Lapin Agile. From 1880 to 1887, for example, she sat regularly for Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, posing for both the male and female figures in the Sacred Wood (1884–6; Lyon, Mus. B.-A.). She also modelled for Renoir, Luigi Zandomeneghi, Théophile Steinlein, Jean-Louis Forain, Giuseppe De Nittis and Jean-Jacques Henner. No longer able to tolerate the passive role of the model, she became a full-time painter in 1896, making use, however, of the working methods that she had observed in the studios of these painters.

Valadon is thought to have taught herself to draw at the age of nine. In 1883, the year of her first signed and dated work, a Self-portrait (pastel, Paris, Pompidou), she gave birth to Maurice Utrillo, who later achieved fame as a painter in his own right. She entrusted him to his grandmother so that she could return to her work as a model. She was encouraged to continue with her own art by Renoir’s enthusiastic response to one of her pastels and by a visit to Degas instigated by Toulouse-Lautrec. The appreciation shown by Degas for one of her red chalk drawings, and his subsequent purchase of three drawings from the Salon de la Nationale in 1894, renewed her determination to draw. Degas introduced her to various collectors, including Paul Durand-Ruel and Ambroise Vollard, and taught her drypoint, etching and soft-ground etching techniques in the hope that she could earn her living through printmaking; she produced just over 30 prints.

Valadon’s marriage to Paul Mousis in 1896 finally gave her the financial support to abandon her work as a model in order to devote herself full-time to painting in a studio at 12 Rue Cortot in Montmartre. Her favourite subjects were realistically depicted nudes in a decorative setting, as in Adam and Eve and After the Bath (Neither Black nor White) (both 1909; Paris, Pompidou). Like Puvis de Chavannes and Matisse, she also undertook such large allegorical compositions as the Joy of Life, a hymn to the happiness and love that she found with the French painter André Utter (1886–1948), whom she met in 1909 and who became her companion after she left Mousis; she married him in 1914 after divorcing Mousis. Her later paintings, such as the Blue Room (1923; Paris, Pompidou) and Still-life with Violin (1923; Paris, Mus. A. Mod. Ville Paris), are characterized by a richer use of colour and by a preference for extremely crowded decorative backgrounds. Her eventual critical and commercial success was signalled by such society portraits as that of Mme Mauricia Gustave-Coquiot (1915; Menton, Mus. Pal. Carnolès), wife of the art critic Gustave Coquiot. Her happiness, however, continued to be marred by personal problems and excesses that eventually ruined her health.

Colette Giraudon
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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