Artists & Designers

Suzanne Valadon (French, 1865–1938)

Born to an unmarried maid in 1865, Suzanne Valadon became a professional artist against all odds. Forced to support herself from the age of 10, she worked odd jobs in her Montmartre neighborhood in Paris as a waitress, nanny, and acrobat before becoming an artist’s model when she was 15. Posing for artists such as Pierre Puvis de Chavanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, she taught herself to draw and paint through observation. At the age of 18 she gave birth out of wedlock to Maurice Utrillo, who would became a recognized artist in his own right. Her drawings caught the eye of Edgar Degas in 1890 and she became his pupil and close friend. Degas taught her printmaking with the hope she could thus earn a living and introduced her to various art dealers. In 1894, Valadon was the first woman admitted to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, a prominent exhibition group for artists seeking exposure outside of the more traditional Parisian Salon.

With the financial support that came from her marriage to Paul Mousis, a well-to-do clerk, in 1896, Valadon was able to devote herself to painting full time. She favored painting realistic female nudes—an unconventional choice for a female painter—and floral still lifes, creating an individual style that paralleled Post-Impressionism and Fauvism, seen particularly in her use of rich color. Her female subjects were typically portrayed as common, candid, and unapologetic, thus escaping the emphasis on sexuality and idyllic beauty traditionally found in the work of male artists. Valadon also rejected the social mores placed upon women artists by painting her new lover, André Utter, in the nude. Valadon married Utter in 1914 after separating from her first husband in 1909.

Valadon took up painting seriously in the year of her divorce, exhibiting at the Salon d’Automne in 1909 and the Salon des Indépendants from 1909 to 1911—two exhibition collectives that provided venues for avant-garde artists In 1924, after receiving a contract from the Parisian dealer Bernheim-Jeune, Valadon’s success skyrocketed. Though she continued figure painting, still lifes and landscapes began to play an important role in her artistic output in the 1920s and 30s. Valadon’s personal life had many ups and downs and eventually took a toll on her health; she died of a stroke while painting in her home in 1938.

Excerpt from

Kelsey Martin and Nicole Myers, DMA exhibition text Women Artists in Europe from the Monarchy to Modernism, 2018.

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