1865–1938 / French painter
From artist’s model to artist
Suzanne Valadon grew up in poverty in Montmartre. At the age of just 15 she became part of the district’s famous bohemian community when she began modelling for great painters like Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. For Valadon, this was not just a way to earn a living – she had her own artistic ambitions. While celebrated artists were producing portraits and nudes of the beautiful young woman, she secretly began painting for herself. Her outstanding talent was soon discovered by Edgar Degas, who presented her work to art dealers and helped her exhibit her works. In 1894 Valadon became the first woman painter to be admitted to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, and in 1915 she held her first solo exhibition in the gallery of renowned Parisian art dealer Berthe Weill.
An unconventional life
Valadon was an autodidact who never received an art education. This meant that her work was not constricted by academic norms. She was a free spirit who remained dedicated to her art career even after the birth of her illegitimate son – the future painter Maurice Utrillo – when she was just 18. She continued to live in Paris, leading an unconventional life with her grown-up son and her lover André Utter, 20 years her junior. The trio, all painters, worked alongside one another and exhibited together.
As an artist and as a woman, Valadon transgressed the boundaries of her day. Extraordinarily, she was able to break with the centuries-old stereotype of the woman as a model and muse to become an emancipated artist in her own right. Today, her extensive body of work, which is situated between post-impressionism and modern art, is considered extremely radical, with its characteristically compact colour schemes and strong lines.
Candid and unabashed
With her powerful portraits of women and her candid nudes, Valadon revolutionized nude painting. She portrayed the naked female body from a woman’s perspective. No longer a projection surface for male fantasies, on her canvasses women’s bodies were realistic and objective – without an air of voyeurism. This unconventional painter was a free-thinking woman and a radical artist.