You’ve almost certainly seen the face of Suzanne Valadon, the woman who modeled for Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s famous painting Dance at Bougival (1883). But Valadon’s life was so much more eventful and fascinating than that one moment in time—as a new biography makes clear.
Valadon cut an absolutely incredible path across the 19th century and early 20th century Paris, captured by author Catherine Hewitt in her new book, Renoir’s Dancer: The Secret Life of Suzanne Valadon. Born to a working-class single mother, Valadon was a larger-than-life character in the artistic community of 19th century Paris, partying all night at the Moulin de la Galette, posing for Renoir and Post-Impressionist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and carrying on an affair with composer Erik Satie. But she was a successful painter in her own right, one who was almost entirely self-taught but mentored by Edgar Degas and exhibited at the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts.
Hewitt follows Valadon through multiple name changes—born as Marie-Clémentine, she became the model Maria and finally the artist Suzanne—as well as her birthing a child out of wedlock and attempting a conventional marriage to a wealthy man before running off with a friend of her son’s.
In short, Valadon covered an incredible amount of personal and artistic ground. I spoke to Hewitt about Valadon’s life and legacy. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
JEZEBEL: Who was Suzanne Valadon?
Catherine Hewitt: In the 1880s, she was actually recognized as one of the most well-known models used by the Impressionists. She had this incredible appearance—this golden hair and dramatic eyebrows. But she had rather a tempestuous character, as well, and a secret beneath that, and that was that she was actually born Marie-Clémentine Valadon, in rural France. Her mother was a very poor linen maid, no money in the family, and became pregnant and didn’t know who the father of her child was. So Suzanne was born with this air of mystery, if you like, around the person that she was.
When she was very young, she was taken up to Paris by her mother, who had to go and find work. She went to school and didn’t do very well. She was rather rebellious and caused a lot of trouble for the teachers and eventually got thrown out of school and had to start working very, very young—really, before she was a teenager. But this was quite usual in the country, for children to go out and work quite young. She went from one menial job to another. Then finally, she got some work as an acrobat in the circus, when she was about 15. She absolutely loved this. But she had a terrible tragedy, because she fell from a trapeze and injured her back very badly and so couldn’t carry on doing this job.
Then, a friend suggested she get into modeling. She really enjoyed her work, and she posed for some of the most renowned artists that we know now, like Toulouse-Lautrec and Renoir, and some less well-known artists, too. Then one day, the story goes that Renoir was waiting for her to arrive for a modeling session and she didn’t turn up and he didn’t know where she was, so he went to her house and he discovered that she was drawing. What amazed him was that her drawing was actually incredibly good. That she had this secret—that she was a model and yet she was also a talented artist, but nobody has realized this until now.
This was quite a difficult time for a woman to be an artist, because the Paris art scene was very much a male-dominated world. It was very hard for a woman to make a profession out of art, especially out of painting. So, she starts wanting to do more painting and drawing herself, and it’s very hard. But because she’s quite low class and she’s a model, she can be with the artists and get into the cafes and all the places that the artists go. Her work was very bold and vibrant, very colorful and frank and matter of fact, and a lot of people found like her self-portrait very shocking. But she made some great friends and a couple of these were Degas, the great painter of ballerinas, and also Toulouse-Lautrec. They really encouraged her, and I think because of Degas’s assistance, she actually entered work and was accepted to the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in 1894. That was a really massive achievement for a woman from the lower class.
But in fact what made Suzanne stand out and I think largely what appealed to me, writing the book, was that she had this incredibly colorful lifestyle. And it was that that made her quite well known at the time. She led a very bohemian lifestyle. She had a child out of wedlock, illegitimate, a little boy, who would, in fact, go on to become the future painter Maurice Utrillo. She had affairs with all sorts of men. Many different painters, but also one of them was the composer Erik Satie, who was rather an eccentric character. She got married and people thought she was going to stay married and be in a bourgeoise relationship, and she finally ran off with her son’s friend, who was half her age. And her son was a brilliant painter himself, but he really, really suffered from alcoholism. This became a real problem throughout her life. It really overshadowed her work.
I was going to ask you, how unusual was she in terms of being a working woman artist? In that impressionist milieu in Montmartre. How unusual was this for her to embark on this?
It was quite unusual. People will have heard probably of Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt, both of which were acknowledged and recognized women artists at the time. But both of those women actually came from quite well-to-do backgrounds. What was so different about Suzanne was that she had no formal art training. She came from this very low class. That was really the thing that was unusual. She really was quite ahead of her time in the fact that she was, in effect, a single working mother, working in a creative profession, at a time when that just really wasn’t done.
Why do you think she isn’t better known than she is? She’s really unusual, and her face is very familiar to us as Renoir’s dancer. That’s a painting that hangs in a lot of dorm rooms. Why isn’t her history as an artist better known?
One of the key things is that Suzanne hated the term “woman artist.” She did not want to be a “woman artist.” She just wanted to be an artist, pure and simple. She didn’t want gender to be a defining category.
Also, her work doesn’t fit very neatly into a category such as Impressionism or Cubism. Her style was quite hard to define, and it was quite shocking, as well. She said herself, I won’t flatter a subject, and she painted people very honestly, warts and all. Another reason she’s not better known is also the company she kept. She falls into the shadow, a little, of people like Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, and Maurice Utrillo, her own son, really, in the end, has been remembered more than she has. Which I think is a shame, because she really was ahead of her time in the work that she did and the way she went about things.
I thought one of the things that was also striking about this, she’s a defining model for the Impressionists and she’s hanging out with them in these cafes. But her art is stylistically different. Her work looks more like later, post-Impressionist work.
Right, absolutely. Her work doesn’t necessarily reflect that sort of background that she had when she was modeling, for example.
Definitely, her work was very avant-garde. The thing with Suzanne is that she really crossed that turn-of-the-century period. She caught the end of Impressionism and was around that, but then she was also in Paris when you’ve got people like Picasso coming in and Cubism. She was exposed to all these multiple influences. I think she took a little bit of everything. She rather sort of cherry-picked the bits and pieces from different artists that she liked and employed different styles and things like that. But you’re absolutely right. She isn’t an Impressionist by any means. And her style is very difficult to define.
You set out to write a biography of Valadon as an artist. It’s interesting to me that the title is Renoir’s Dancer and that’s the way in. The cover is that painting. How did you go about thinking about how to excavate her life from this vision of her as a model, a figure in a painting? How did you set out to tell that story?
As you say—it was a key in. It’s a painting that a lot of people know. That was really the thinking behind the title, telling the story behind the woman that we all know from this painting.
Really I was very lucky, insofar as my family owns a house down in the little village in the middle of France where Suzanne was actually born. So I knew a little bit about her already. I started looking into village local archives and looking at family records, going back quite a long way. The more I uncovered, the more I realized this is a really fascinating story. I started as I guess many people do, with the Renoir painting, then I realized there were other paintings of her around. She turned up in lots of these well-known paintings, and interestingly enough, often she looks very different. If you compare some of the paintings of her by, for example, Toulouse-Lautrec, to the studies that Renoir did of her, they’re very very different. I think that’s one of the things that attracted artists to her. She could be molded a little bit into what they wanted. She was beautiful, but all the artists gave their separate spin on it.
But I started, as I said, going back to the local archives and from there, I could flesh out a little bit the character, going back to newspaper records and various things like that. Getting back to those primary sources and starting to build up her character from there
People know her for her work as a model, but you set out to tell the story of Valadon as an artist. Unfortunately, women often appear in art history as models and not as artists, and people are prepared to think of models in a certain way. How did you balance telling her story with the expectations or assumptions that people might have?
That’s a really good question, actually. It’s certainly, it’s not an easy one. But I found that actually going to the paintings—it sounds obvious, but it’s a wonderful way into understanding Suzanne as a person and in fact why she doesn’t fit the brackets that we perhaps expect of a woman artist. I found that making the jump from her being a model, when one starts to look at her paintings and her drawings, they in a way offer the greatest demonstration that she doesn’t fit a set pattern that we might have in our minds of a woman artist.
Her paintings are, it’s fair to say, brutally honest. Some of the portraits and even the self-portraits, they’re not very flattering. There’s a wonderful self-portrait she did later in life, where she shows herself with these very aging, sagging breasts, topless. She wasn’t afraid to criticize either other people or herself. And I think that in itself that very style is the main thing that as I was writing helped me to overcome, if you like, the prejudice that people might have approached the book with.
Her life story really challenges a lot of the popular conceptions about women and Impressionism and the way—the popular image of the movement and the roles women could play in it. Impressionism was such a radical art movement at the time and now it’s so totally associated with kitsch, almost.
Absolutely. I think that’s true. This is the thing with Impressionism, we look at it now and think, oh, it’s all very chocolate box paintings and the sort of thing we have on our tea towels. But at the time it was radical. It was really quite shocking in many respects, and I think that’s very easy to forget. I think even today, a lot of people would look at Suzanne Valadon’s work and think it can be quite challenging. And certainly her portraits. they’re very surprising insofar as how unflattering they are sometimes of the subject. But when we think she was producing that kind of work when Impressionism or just after Impressionism was considered radical, it starts to make it a little bit clearer quite how avant-garde she was.
There’s this very interesting upending of assumptions in finding out that this pretty young woman in one of these cheerful fluffy Renoir paintings—as we see it today—went on to produce this very in-your-face work that still reads as in-your-face.
There’s this real divorce between the style in some of the Renoir paintings and Suzanne’s own style. I think that’s really interesting. It’s quite hard to bridge that gap. But yes, in a way, it shows you how constructed some of those Impressionist paintings are, in fact.
How much of a role do you think the fact that she had this working-class background had in the way that her career played out and the way that she has not been remembered even as much as other female painters of the era. She seems relatively less well-known to people. How do you think her background plays into that?
I think background did play a very significant part. Because she didn’t have this formal training, she can’t be attached to another artist. We talk about Degas, but that was an informal arrangement between them. She didn’t have a well-regarded tutor that we can fit into the bracket of or think of her along with. So I think certainly class played a part in why perhaps her name doesn’t trip off the tongue quite as easily as say Cassatt or somebody like that.
But I think almost more than class it is the fact that the style of her work doesn’t fit into these categories. It is very out there and very original and unique, and because it can’t easily be branded together with Impressionism or another style, I really do think that it’s almost that more than the class that actually played a role in her not being remembered.
The parts about her being able to mix socially with artists were really interesting. She had this access that a woman from a more bourgeoisie background wouldn’t necessarily have had.
Absolutely, and that’s really important. Basically, the cafes in the 19th century were where all the exciting, artistic conversation happened. Thinking about artists like Manet, who held court—women could not go to these places or if a woman did, she would be looked at as really, morally, of ill repute. For example, Morisot wouldn’t join the other, male Impressionists in the cafes. It really would have been going far against the expectations her class and her family placed on her. Suzanne could sneak into a cafe a little bit more easily. Basically, to put it crudely, she had nothing to lose. She had no family reputation that could be sullied.
It’s interesting that she had that access, but it took a series of men to vouch for her to get into those privileged art spaces. She had to have Degas vouching for her. The lack of the bourgeoisie background put her into contact with these people but also the lack of that background meant she had to have them vouch for her.
Yeah. that’s true. I mean, certainly, people like Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec particularly, in a way they were kind of like rungs on a ladder for her. If she had had nobody behind her, it would have been even more difficult. And it’s a shame for us women today to think of that situation. But I think it’s true unfortunately at the time you did need men to a degree to help you get on in a career like that. But she did sort of come into her own and stand independently once she had got to a certain level. And I think one of the most important, key moments for her was when she left her husband. Standing on your own two feet and suddenly having to provide for yourself and doing it through something creative like art was a really, really bold move.
Yeah, and I don’t mean to suggest that she didn’t fully have the ability, just that the structure was such that you could be the biggest genius in the world—but if you didn’t have Degas to speak for you it would be hard to get a salon to listen to you.
I do think that’s true, unfortunately. It might have been possible, but it certainly would have been a lot more difficult if she hadn’t had that backing and that encouragement.
What impression would you like people to leave with, having read your book? The subtitle is about her “secret life.” How would you like to correct the historical record about her?
I would really love for people to finish the book and come away with the impression, firstly, that there was a lot more to her than the painting you see on the cover. Also that she was ferociously strong as a woman. And that in many ways she really ploughed a furrow for those of us women today working in creative professions. We can look to her as a bit of a pioneer; certainly as far as a single mother in a creative profession is concerned. I find that really exciting and inspiring for those of us who work in creative professions. Whatever we may think about our work these days, what we deal with is nothing compared to the degree of difficulty that somebody like Suzanne faced. And yet she kept going. I find that really inspiring. I think the fact that she stuck to her guns and didn’t give up on her dreams, that’s a really exciting message for everybody to take away.
I really enjoyed reading it just because the degree to which she truly did not give a fuck was incredible. It was really aspirational.
I wasn’t sure if I could say things like that! But yes, absolutely. You’re quite right. And I think that’s brilliant, and particularly, because I think we have this image of the 19th century as it all being very prim and proper and everybody behaving themselves. And actually, it’s quite wonderful to have a woman coming forward and she uses some very colorful language and pretty much does what she wants. It’s quite, yes, empowering to see someone doing that.
I think that also the traditional narratives that are weirdly tenacious about the women who were artist’s models—the stereotype would suggest that she, I don’t know, died of consumption, poor, in a garret. And when all’s said and done she had quite a life!
Absolutely, that’s completely true. She did really well and she died in her 70s, and had a fantastic life. There really was almost nothing she didn’t do. She was one of those women who tried everything, if not once, probably twice, and there are great stories of her when she was younger—apparently, she’s meant to have slid down a banister at the Moulin de la Galette dance hall, wearing only a mask. When she became well known and famous and started earning quite a lot of money in the 1920s, she would feed her dogs sirloin steak and her cats would get caviar. It’s fantastic. She’s incredibly flamboyant as a character, and I found that certainly really inspiring and really exciting as I was uncovering her story.