Girl with a red bonnet

She was a muse to Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec and a celebrated artist in her own right – so why is SUZANNE VALADON, once one of the most famous figures of the Montmartre milieu, virtually unknown today?

Suzanne painted by Renoir in Dance at Bougival
Suzanne painted by Renoir in Dance at Bougival
Suzanne was the model for Renoir's  Dance in the City
Dance in the City

This is the story of the French painter Suzanne Valadon. Yet for most of us today, she is completely unknown. In the 1880s, Suzanne Valadon was considered the Impressionists’ most beautiful model. She’s the girl in the red bonnet we see dancing in Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Dance at Bougival (1883), which now hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

She’s the elegant woman in the white satin ballgown in his Dance in the City (1883), which greets viewers on the upper floor of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. She’s also the sullen drunkard who gazes resignedly out of the canvas in Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s The Hangover (1887-89).

And if you visit the National Theatre in Prague, it’s Suzanne you’ll see as the winged figure painted on the stage curtain by the Czech artist Vojtech Hynais. With her golden hair, dramatic eyebrows and intense stare, it’s easy to see why she stole the hearts of the painters and their public.

But behind Suzanne’s captivating façade lay a passionate, tempestuous character with an unconventional past. Born Marie-Clémentine Valadon in 1865, in rural France, she was the illegitimate daughter of a linen maid. When her mother’s poverty obliged them to move to Paris, Suzanne – still a child – worked in one unskilled job after another until, aged 15, she was offered employment in a circus. But just months later a fall from a trapeze ended her career as an acrobat.

Changing her name to Maria, she began working as a model in Montmartre, which by the late 19th century had become the unofficial capital of avant-garde art. During the day it was a quaint haven, but when the sun set, the windows of hundreds of venues lit up, drawing a nocturnal population of artists, prostitutes and anarchists.

In Montmartre, Suzanne’s beauty quickly won her admirers. With growing confidence, she posed for – and had affairs with – some of the most renowned painters of the day, including Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec. It was reportedly Lautrec who gave her the name Suzanne, a reference to the Bible story ‘Susanna and the Elders’ (Suzanne had a habit of posing for older men).

Suzanne in The Hangover by Toulouse-Lautrec
Suzanne in The Hangover by Toulouse-Lautrec
Germaine Utter in Front of Her Window by Suzanne Valadon
Germaine Utter in Front of Her Window

One piece of gossip ran that Renoir’s long-time lover, the unlikely, plump Aline Charigot, became furious when she saw Suzanne in his Dance in the City painting, and smudged out her competitor’s face. And it was rumoured that she tried to beat Suzanne with a broom when she caught her and Renoir locked in a passionate embrace in his studio.

Suzanne basked in the attention she received. Then, one day, Renoir found her sketching in secret and realised that his model was a talented artist in her own right. In fact Suzanne had been drawing, privately, since childhood. There was no money in the Valadon house to afford drawing materials, so she used stubs of charcoal and scraps of paper – whatever she could find – to make her pictures. A pragmatic woman, her mother was furious to see her wasting her time, so Suzanne had grown used to keeping her hobby to herself.

The Paris art scene was still a steadfastly male environment at this time. Respectable, middle-class girls didn’t work and if a woman had to earn a living, painting was hardly a reasonable or lucrative method. A lady’s amateur interest in art or music was considered enchanting, a sign of good breeding; painting as a serious profession was a scandal.

Suzanne at work in her studio
Suzanne at work in her studio
A portrait of Suzanne by Toulouse-Lautrec
A portrait of her by Toulouse-Lautrec

Of course, there were recognised female artists who had made a successful career of it. The prestigious (but conservative) Paris Salon – where reputations were made and talent showcased – was growing more receptive to women artists, and even went so far as to award 14 women first-class medals in 1879. But a skilled woman still struggled to gain even a fraction of the recognition that a man of similar talent might enjoy. Even the acclaimed Impressionist painters Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt (whose delicate pictures in pastel colours were accepted as ‘feminine’) had to suffer the criticism of their immediate circle.

But in Suzanne’s case, her low class and modelling career enabled her to enter the profession discreetly. When she progressed from drawing to painting, she excelled, producing vibrant figures and portraits that showed the human form in a frank, matter-of-fact style. Suzanne’s pictures of children flew in the face of idealised images of social harmony.

Her youngsters were unashamedly naked. They were not posed but awkward, their scrawny limbs contracted into clumsy postures; ungainly, unaesthetic, but utterly natural. Other artists showed what people wanted to see; Suzanne showed what was true. She spurned the notion of the ‘woman artist’ – she was an artist, pure and simple.

Many found her work shocking: at a time when women were meant to be seen and not heard, Suzanne was rebellious and outspoken, refusing to be confined by tradition or gender stereotypes. But Toulouse-Lautrec and Edgar Degas, who became close friends, could see her talent. Degas, the great painter of ballerinas, was famed for being caustic, opinionated and cynical, but he encouraged Suzanne’s painting, admiring her strength of character and affectionately calling her ‘terrible Maria’.

Woman in White Stockings by Suzanne Valadon
Woman in White Stockings
Nudes by Suzanne Valadon
Nudes by Suzanne Valadon
In 1894, when she was still in her 20s, her work was accepted to the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris, an extraordinary achievement for a working-class woman with no formal art training, even if this show lacked the historical prestige of the official Paris Salon. Once her ability was publicly acknowledged, however, her bohemian lifestyle provoked scandal. She had given birth to an illegitimate son, the future painter Maurice Utrillo, when she was just 18, and to this day, the identity of Maurice’s father remains a mystery.

From the outset, Maurice was a difficult child (he discovered alcohol before puberty, some say as young as nine) but the responsibilities of motherhood did not temper Suzanne’s wild streak. Even while she struggled as a working single mother, Suzanne enjoyed affairs with countless painters – and the eccentric composer Erik Satie – before eventually marrying businessman Paul Mousis when Maurice was 12.

For a time, it seemed as though she might settle into a respectable bourgeois marriage, but the illusion was shattered 12 years later when Suzanne began an affair with her son’s friend, the painter André Utter, who was more than 20 years her junior. Divorcing her husband, Suzanne moved – with André and Maurice – into an apartment in the Rue Cortot in Montmartre, where they became known as the Unholy Trinity.

Suzanne with her son Maurice
Suzanne with her son Maurice
Mother and son with her lover André
Mother and son with her lover André
Suzanne was a livewire who would not be tamed. One night she surpassed even the most brazen of Montmartre’s extroverts by sliding down the banister at the Moulin de la Galette dance hall wearing nothing but a mask. Another time, she was reported to have been seen wearing a coat adorned with carrots and carrying a bouquet of lettuce leaves trimmed with snails. Then, she was spotted out with a menagerie of animals including a goat. Neighbours complained of loud, raucous parties being thrown at all hours.

Having struggled in poverty for most of her life, by the mid-1920s Suzannne was earning well, exhibiting and selling her work through several renowned Parisian dealers. And Maurice – despite his alcoholism, a constant shadow over their lives – was making a small fortune with his nostalgic paintings of Montmartre street scenes. Suzanne was determined to enjoy the benefits of their success.

Family Portrait by Suzanne Valadon
Family Portrait
Marie Coca and Her Daughter Gilberte by Suzanne Valadon
Marie Coca and Her Daughter Gilberte by Suzanne Valadon

Many a Brit on holiday has gazed longingly at the derelict châteaux dotting the picturesque landscape of rural France. When Suzanne saw one in Saint-Bernard in the east of France in 1924, she didn’t simply dream – she bought it as a country retreat for herself, André and Maurice. She also purchased a gleaming, ostentatious Panhard car and hired a chauffeur to drive it. And if the car was being serviced or repaired, she would take a taxi the 440-odd kilometres from Paris to Saint-Bernard.

 Suzanne had always disdained fashion, but now she purchased hats and furs in all colours from Paris’s top designers, which she knew she would never wear. When her dogs showed a liking for a fur coat she had recently bought herself, it immediately became their bed. Those same dogs dined on juicy sirloin steak that Suzanne had specially prepared by her favourite local restaurateurs, while her cats enjoyed the fine taste of caviar.

Other artists showed what people wanted to see: Suzanne showed what was true

In Montmartre, the stories of Suzanne’s largesse abounded; she picked up 50 children from the local area and treated them to an evening at the circus. She saw a young artist working in the street on a cheap canvas and replaced it with one made of linen. She noticed a cigarette burn on a friend’s sofa and ordered them another. Taxi and train drivers were given eye-watering tips, while tramps found themselves dining like kings.

Still living it up in her 60s, Suzanne was one of Montmartre’s timeless eccentrics. The Unholy Trinity lived and worked at the Rue Cortot until 1926, when Suzanne and Maurice moved to a lavish apartment funded by Maurice’s dealer and the philandering André began to lead an increasingly separate life. Suzanne remained in Montmartre – alone once Maurice married in 1935 – for the rest of her life. She died of a stroke in April 1938, fittingly where she was happiest: at her easel. Her funeral, reflecting her celebrity, was attended by the former prime minister, Edouard Herriot, and the artists André Derain, Marc Chagall and Raoul Dufy.

In her lifetime, Suzanne Valadon produced some 478 paintings, 273 drawings and 31 etchings. Her surviving works adorn the walls of permanent collections across the globe. There have been numerous exhibitions of her artwork since her death. Meanwhile, Suzanne still greets viewers with her challenging stare from the compositions of Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and many other great artists whose works now hang in museums around the world. In June this year, Suzanne’s painting The Acrobat or the Wheel (1927) came up for auction at Christie’s in London. It sold for £75,000.

So why isn’t Suzanne Valadon more of a household name? Even for those who have heard of her, she remains Maurice’s mother, Renoir’s model, Toulouse-Lautrec’s muse. Or she’s remembered for having rubbed shoulders with Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani and Vincent Van Gogh. Suzanne was in some ways a victim of the celebrated company she kept. Her lack of prominence also owes much, though, to her rejection of the label ‘woman artist’. She painted what she saw with honesty, bold outlines and strong colours.

‘I can’t flatter a subject,’ she once warned an admirer. Truth is not always pretty. There was nothing half-hearted about Suzanne’s work – or her life. Suzanne’s story is one of a series of setbacks and challenges. But she stood strong in the face of adversity, both personal and professional. By so doing, she dramatically altered women’s place in Western art. Not only did she never give up, she also made the most of every second. It is a valuable and inspiring lesson that stands the test of time.

This is an edited extract from Renoir’s Dancer: The Secret Life of Suzanne Valadon by Catherine Hewitt, to be published by Icon Books on Thursday, price £25. To order a copy for £20 (a 20 per cent discount) until 12 November, visit you-bookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15.