Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Chagall and Valadon

This ceiling painted by Marc Chagall was unveiled at the Opéra Garnier in Paris on this day 45 years ago. Happy Anniversary, Paris Opéra ceiling!


I just learned/read more about this mysterious and fascinating woman, born Marie-Clémentine Valadon, over the weekend. She was the mother of the great painter Utrillo. Born on September 23, 1865 to an unwed laundress, she was a circus acrobat until a fall from a trapeze in 1881 ended her career. After that she became a model and artist, living la vie bohème in Montmartre.

She modeled for (and in the case of at least the latter two, had affairs with) Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, and Puvis de Chavannes. She observed the techniques of painters with whom she worked and became a painter herself, with guidance and support from Degas.

In 1883 she gave birth to a boy, Maurice Valadon, who would become the painter Maurice Utrillo, taking the family name of Miguel Utrillo y Morlius, owner of the tavern Auberge du Clou. Suzanne Valadon never disclosed Maurice's true paternity, with Renoir and an amateur painter named Boissy, whom she had met at the Chat Noir café, among the possibilities, though Utrillo's widow, Lucie Valador Utrillo, claims Utrillo's real father was Puvis de Chavannes.

Suzanne Valadon is the model for Puvis de Chavannes' The Sacred Wood Dear to the Arts and Muses, Toulouse-Lautrec's Equestrienne (At the Cirque Fernando), and Renoir's famous paintings Dance at Bougival, Dance in the City, Umbrellas, and Girl Braiding Her Hair. Her portrait was painted by himby Toulouse-Lautrec, and by her son Utrillo; she did self-portraits as well. One anecdote claims it was Toulouse-Lautrec who suggested, alluding to the biblical tale of Susanna, she take the name Suzanne because she spent her time posing nude for older men.

From January to June of 1893 she had an affair with Erik Satie, whom she met when he played piano at the Auberge du Clou. In 1894 she became the first woman painter to be admitted to the Societé Nationale des Beaux Arts. She was married twice after the Satie affair, the second time to an artist twenty-one years her junior.

She fed caviar to her cats on Fridays and her "bad drawings" to a goat she kept in her studio. She tried to help her son with his alcoholism by encouraging him to paint; she was, in fact, his only art teacher. She died on April 7, 1938 and is buried at the Cimetière de Saint-Ouen. Her funeral was attended by Picasso, Braque, and Derain.

Female nude by Suzanne Valadon. I admire her nudes' lack of passivity, their realistic/unidealized body sizes and shapes, and the unapologetic attitudes they tend to exude. Her work is a refreshing departure from the artistic tradition established by the men who preceded her.

Addendum 10/2/09:  Check out an expanded version of this post on my friend K.'s blog, for her terrific series "Fine Art Friday."


  1. Very interesting post.
    What a life she has had, it must have been facsinating and so motivating to live around all these great artists and become a painter herself!

    I love Erick Satie, his works are so nostalgic...

    You absolutely have to come to Paris to see this exhibit (until January 4th):

  2. Thank you so much for introducing me to this wonderful artist - I just love her use of colors.

  3. Suzanne Valadon was quite a fine artist in her own right. She has work at the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The next chapter of my fiction Paris blog, FreezeFrames, mentions Valadon and of course Utrillo, the bad boy of Montmartre. Thanks so much for the lovely Chagall ceiling!

  4. Thank you for introducing this wonderful artist.
    I agree her nudes are different than the male French masters.