Imagine that you, a lover of turn-of-the-century French painting, discover a major artist of that period, someone you’ve never heard of—yet someone perhaps to set beside Matisse, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, and van Gogh as an inventor of modernism in art.
The Barnes Foundation has introduced us to that artist in its current special exhibition, on view through January 9th. Suzanne Valadon: Model, Artist, Rebel is the first U.S. solo retrospective of the work of Suzanne Valadon (1865–1935), the groundbreaking model-turned-artist whose cool-eyed yet empathetic art pushed forward the modern in technique and attitude. The first woman painter admitted to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, she had a successful 40-year career but is now largely forgotten, overshadowed, ironically, by her son, Maurice Utrillo.
As exciting as her drawings and paintings are in themselves, the show is almost equally concerned with the remarkable string of “firsts” she brought about in both art and society.
As Barnes executive director Thom Collins expressed it, Valadon’s career is essentially about representation and access. Who is permitted to be represented in art? Who is “authorized” to be the maker of that art? To a large degree, it was Valadon who challenged and changed assumptions about both.
Valadon was born in 1865, fatherless, to a woman who moved with her to Paris, where she scraped a living as a housecleaner and laundress. After a brief career as a circus acrobat, Valadon became an artist’s model at age 15. She was a very good one, holding difficult poses and collaborating creatively with artists. The show offers several of these works, with Valadon depicted as everything from laughing flirt to fatal siren. In some paintings she played all the roles, including adolescent boys. She is the rosy-cheeked girl in Renoir’s beloved Dance at Bougival (1883).
Then followed her extraordinary transformation from model to artist. She had loved to draw since a child, and she observed the techniques of the artists, including Renoir, Degas, and Toulouse-Lautrec, whose studios she modeled in and who became her friends. However, a model at that time was a member of the demimonde, not far from being considered a prostitute. And, artistically, a female model was the “object” to the artist’s “subject,” and often, especially in nude poses, an offering to the “male gaze” characterized by sexual desire. An “object” in art was not expected to become its painter, and she was revolutionary in doing so.
Valadon began with works on paper—she had no money to buy paint. Degas recognized her talent, bought her drawings, and taught her to make engravings, which she could sell, achieving some financial security. At first, she drew women in their daily tasks, groups of children, her illegitimate son Maurice. (At a time when bastardy was socially disabling, her friend the painter Miguel de Utrillo “recognized” Maurice, giving him his name, though he was likely not the father.) Her drawings, like the delightful Children Dressing in the Garden (1910), employ a distinctive thick but supple line, capable of catching the subtlest gesture and expression.
At age 28, she married a successful businessman and moved with him to a comfortable life in a suburban house, where she had her own servants, whom she used as models. Thus supported, she renewed her artistic career, turning from drawing to painting.
Then in 1909 Valadon fell in love with her son’s 23-year-old friend, Andre Utter, 20 years her junior and three years younger than her son. The affair, however disruptive, brought a joyous renewal of her sensual and artistic life, celebrated unashamedly in paintings like Joy of Life (1911) and Adam and Eve (1909), modeled by Utter and herself in the nude. She divorced her husband and established a new household of her own in Montparnasse, painting and selling art to maintain it. Utter gave up his own painting to manage the careers of what he called the “two terrible children”: Valadon and Utrillo.
A painting documenting this new menage is her audacious, cool Family Portrait (1912) – of her mother, son, lover, and self. Another painter might have depicted an embroiled set of conventional family members grouped around the “head of house,” likely male, but Valadon shows each person in his separate world, each looking a different direction. She depicts herself as the household head, handsome, strong, even dimly haloed: she is the only one to look out at us.
Marie Coca with Her Daughter Gilberte (1913) suggests a visual commentary on the ambivalence inherent in motherhood, which it is likely she knew well. The composition is skewed, almost dizzying, with the mother and child in an awkward pose, the mother gazing to her right, disengaged, the frowning daughter leaning hard against her mother, staring at the viewer, and squishing her doll, also frowning. It is hard to read it as anything but a recognition of the tension of simultaneously raising a child and following a life of one’s own – a tension never apparent in, for instance, Renoir’s paintings of the same subject.
Valadon’s life changed again with the advent of World War I: Utter joined the French military, and they were separated for years until he was wounded in battle. Her move to be near him as he convalesced provided a strange idyll in the French countryside during which she made a series of landscape paintings.
After the war, back in Montmartre, she produced many paintings of nudes, a genre continuing its popularity from the 19th century and respected because of its classical past. She drew on her own experience of modeling and her knowledge of the lives of ordinary women to re-define this deep-rooted European genre. The pose of Nude on a Red Sofa (1920) is traditional, but the nude is a full-bodied, sensual, and unidealized woman. She is placed among rich, colorful patterns that underline the sensuality of the scene, recalling Matisse. As in much of her painting, her distinctive wide, varying line seems to hold in the overflowing color.
The Blue Room (1923) gives us a still more unconventional “nude”—clothed! She is like a model on her day off, reclining in pajama pants, smoking, with her books at hand, enjoying herself. Her body is unidealized, full and powerful, which for Valadon signified female sexuality. The patterned background adds to the sensual pleasure of the scene but is subordinate to the dominating figure. Valadon’s view of her is characteristically impassive and objective.
Throughout her career Valadon continued to work in a figurative style, independent of any school. In addition to the nude, she reimagined other European genres, especially portraiture. Only titled and rich people had their portraits painted. Pictures of ordinary people were “genre” paintings, to be viewed by people “superior” to them. Valadon demolished that notion of who could have her portrait painted in a series of beautiful, detailed, and soberly undecorated portraits of people she knew, showing them as dignified and successful, even if they weren’t – yet. A charming example is Andre Utter and His Dogs (1932), showing the middle-aged Utter full length and lord-like on his land, with walking stick and dogs, though in truth he was broke. Valadon democratized portraiture.
She also brought change to self-portraiture. Throughout her life she made portraits of herself, recording and confronting her aging face, as in the defiantly colorful Self-Portrait of 1927. Each is frank and confident, looking out at the viewer.
The exhibition catalog is useful and well written, but not well made. Some sections of text are almost indecipherable owing to the absence of space between the words, and some elements are not well designed. The book appears to have been produced automatically by a computer, a far cry from the catalogs that used to be the highlight of a publisher’s list and a handsome permanent record of a museum’s achievement. Apparently that standard is unaffordable now, but this catalog does not do justice to an artist we should remember and cherish.