Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel
Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia
September 26, 2021 - January 9, 2022
Reviewed by Ed Voves
The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia recently opened an exhibition devoted to the art of Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938). This is the museum's third survey of a French woman artist, active during the late nineteenth-early twentieth century. Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel follows in the footsteps of Berthe Morisot, Woman Impressionist (2018) and Marie Cuttoli, the Modern Thread from Miró to Man Ray (1920).
The three exhibits, if considered together, trace a cultural continuum during the revolution of Modern Art. Morisot, Cuttoli and Valadon, respectively, were women of the affluent, middle and working classes. Each proved capable of creating or commissioning inspired works of art which graced the walls of their exhibitions at the Barnes.
Of these three trend-setting women, Suzanne Valadon's life journey from artist's model to professional artist was perhaps the most extraordinary. Forging a path through the obstacle course of poverty and social class, Valadon lived and loved and painted on her own terms.
Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel is, surprisingly, the first exhibition of Valadon's art works in the U.S. For that, we have to thank Nancy Ireson of the Barnes Foundation for planning and organizing this brilliant survey of all aspects of Valadon's life and work.
Scholars and enthusiasts of Impressionism will immediately recognize Valadon's name - and more to the point, her face and figure. Valadon was the model for many key Impressionist works, including two of Renoir's 1880's dance paintings. Dance at Bougival and Dance in the City were "show-stoppers" at the landmark 2015 Discovering the Impressionists exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Gallery view of the Discovering the Impressionists exhibition
at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Before the opening of Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel, I wondered if Ireson and ther colleagues at the Barnes could entice the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to send Dance at Bougival down to Philly for another visit. But instead of such a well-known favorite to open the exhibition, another, lesser-known, painting featuring Valadon was selected. The choice, unexpected and unsettling, sets a provocative tone for the whole exhibition.
The Kiss of the Siren was painted in 1882 by Gustav Wertheimer (1847-1902), an Austrian artist active in Paris. It is a very pre-Impressionist painting, though it dates to only a year before Dance at Bougival.
Ed Voves, Photo (2021)
Gustav Wertheimer's The Kiss of the Siren, 1882
With its morbid mix of mythology, misogyny and erotica, The Kiss of the Sirenwould seem to be more relevant to the theories of Sigmund Freud than the life of an artist's model who yearned to draw and paint. Yet this weird painting yields revealing insights into the society in which Valedon lived and labored.
Gallery view of the Suzanne Valadon exhibiton at the Barnes Foundation.
A display of paintings for which Valadon modeled appears at right.
Modeling was hard work. Holding a pose for fifty minutes at a time, often in contorted body postures, was exhausting labor. And since modeling involved sessions of posing nude, the potential damage to a young woman's reputation was considerable. Modeling like acting was regarded by many people in the late 1800's as a step above prostitution.
Modeling was not the first career choice of Suzanne Valadon. Born in 1865, Marie-Clémentine Valadon was the daughter of an unwed mother who cleaned homes and worked as a laundress. Valadon tried to escape such toil and drudgery by performing as a circus acrobat.
After being injured in a fall from a trapeze, the sixteen year-old Valadon began modeling for some of the most dynamic painters in France, including Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The Impressionists were, for their era, remarkably free of gender bias as testified by their respect for Morisot whom they regarded as a colleague rather than a "woman artist."
It was Toulouse-Lautrec who wittily compared Valadon to Suzanna, the Old Testament heroine who had been spied upon in her bath by the wicked elders. Valadon, whose attitude to sexuality was frank and independent, evidently enjoyed the joke. She began signing her works of art with the Hebrew woman's name.
While posing, Valadon also observed the artists sketching and painting her. She had nursed a love of art from childhood and began to draw in her spare time. When Toulose-Lautrec saw her early efforts, he was much impressed. But it was Edgar Degas who paid Valadon the supreme compliment. He purchased one of her drawings - and then urged her on to further efforts, including print-making.
“From time to time in my dining room,” Degas wrote to Valadon, “I look at your drawing in red pencil, still hanging, and I always say to myself: ‘This devil … had the genius of drawing.' Why don’t you show me something else?”
With the support and assistance of Degas, Valadon became quite expert in printing techniques, especially drypoint etching. In 1894, Valadon's skill and dedication was recognized by the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. She became the first woman artist to be admitted to the ranks of this important exhibition group.
The naturalness of the people Valadon depicted in her early drawings and prints, relaxed and at peace with their bodies, is key to understanding her as a person and as an artist. This naturalness was carried over to Valadon's later paintings, particularly her nudes.
The Barnes exhibition devotes much attention to Valadon's nudes. Valadon staked her claim to paint them from her own viewpoint as a woman and as a professional artist. That she did so, was based on personal choice but also on the artistic regard with which nudes were held - and their high-selling prices on the art market.
Overwhelmingly - but not exclusively - Valadon's nudes are female. How different these are from the femme fatale in Gustav Wertheimer's neurotic Kiss of the Siren! The young women Valadon painted "in the state of nature" are healthy and comfortable with themselves, as unburdened from anxiety and embarrassment as they are from corsets and shirtwaistes.
This includes the striking and forthright Black Venus, painted in 1919. Unlike other nudes showing African women from this era, Valadon's model is free of all manner of social commentary, political symbolism and agenda. She stands an independent person, free to be herself.
Valadon remained a figurative, realist painter for her entire life. However, living and working in Montmartre, Valadon was aware of the radical developments and evolving currents of Modernism. There are certainly allusions to the work of her contemporaries in her paintings. But for the most part, these references serve as a way to assert her own unique viewpoint, what we would call today her "take" on the world.
Valadon was familiar with the Symbolist movement which dominated much of French art in the 1890's and early twentieth century. Valadon had modeled for the premier Symbolist painter, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898), so it is not surprising that she should have taken up the theme of Arcadia, as can be in her Joy of Life, painted in 1911.
Another painter, Henri Matisse, painted a pastoral landscape, or perhaps "dreamscape" is more appropriate, entitled Joy of Life (1905) now in the collection of the Barnes foundation. There are certainly allusions to this icon of Modernism in Valadon's 1911 painting. But for the most part, these references serve as a way for her to assert her own unique viewpoint of such an idyllic world. It is myth setting, to be sure, but inhabited by flesh-and-blood people.
The difference between Valadon's handling of great themes of art and Matisse's interpretation is best appreciated by comparing one of her key paintings, The Blue Room, with Matisse's odalisque paintings.
Shortly before World War I, Matisse visited Algeria and Morocco in order to explore the culture of these countries. The influence of his visits affected Matisse's art in numerous ways. One was his series of paintings of scantily-clad young women, posing in submissive postures. Matisse's odalisques recalled Ingres' Grand Odalisque (1814), the signature work of exotic sensuality, Orientalism.
Valadon's The Blue Room resoundingly rejects the whole Orientalist genre, whether Matisse's paintings or Ingres'.
In The Blue Room, Valadon decorates the setting with many of the hallmarks of Matisse, particularly the colorful and richly-textured fabrics he so loved, as can be seen in the flower-printed bedspread and stripped pantaloons. Valadon's protagonist, however, is anything but a docile odalisque. Instead, she is a sturdy, self-assured, working-class woman, smoking a cigarette. She is her own woman.
With The Blue Room, Valadon effectively turned the tables on the whole tradition of male-painted portraits of women as "objects" of desire. When Valadon painted women - with or without garments - she never portrayed them as objects. She treated them the way she wished to be treated herself - as an individual.
Valadon's Marie Coca and Her Daughter Gilberte is a fine example of her ability to create a sensitive, fully-realized portrait. The sitters was her niece and her daughter. Painted in 1913, it is a striking examination of the stresses and cares of life - of a mature woman and of a child. As with most high-caliber portraits, we are enabled to appreciate this work on the level of the individuals it portrays and also to reflect upon the timeless, universal questions it poses.
What fears and anxieties lie behind the haunted eyes of Valadon's niece? Why does her little daughter, gazing at us with a blank, listless expression, clamp down so firmly on the head of her doll? We will never know, but this "gray area" of uncertainty is fertile ground for speculation and reflection upon the human condition.
Following World War I, Valadon continued to experiment in new genres, landscape and still life, always with notable skill and success, but always as a Realist painter.
Valadon's undeviating realism was an aspect of her "naturalness" and it certainly brought her financial success and popular acclaim. The 1920's and early 1930's were a time when many people, including in France, regarded Abstraction and Surrealism with suspicion, even hostility. There was a call "for a return to order" and, on the surface, Valadon's paintings went with the flow, rather than against the current.
Lack of talent or awareness of the trends in art had little to do, I think, with Valadon's decision to continue painting in a traditional, figurative style. This manner of painting testified to her basic beliefs - as an artist and as a human being.
"In what I've painted, there's not a stroke, not a line, that isn't based on nature. Nature brings me the discipline of a robust truth for the construction of my canvases, designed by me but driven always by the emotion of life."
The "emotions of life" for Valadon were frequently unhappy during the last two decades of her life. Her marriage to a much younger man, initially contented, soured and she experienced much heartache over the troubles and travail of her son, Maurice Utrillo. An artist of promise, alcoholism blighted Utrillo's career and disappointed his mother's belief in his "genius."
As the years passed, Valadon recorded her own image in several self-portraits. The Barnes exhibition displays one, painted in 1927, which is, beyond doubt, a masterpiece. Sophisticated in its composition, it is even more remarkable for its honesty.
Here is the face of a person without illusions but one who refuses to look away or ignore reality. It is the face of a person who has witnessed much pain but remains capable and determined to continue seeking beauty.
Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel at the Barnes succeeds on every level by which an artist's retrospective can be judged. Valadon's reputation suffered somewhat over the years, as Abstract art crowded depictions of "naturalness" off the center stage of the art scene. Happily, that is no longer the case. The exhibit will later travel to the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen.
Most importantly, the Barnes exhibition shows that Valadon lived and worked by a creed that we would all do well to emulate. Suzanne Valadon was not merely a successful or "professional" painter. As an artist, she created works of art which reflected her personal code of life.
"You have to be hard on yourself, be honest, and look yourself in the face."
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved.
Introductory Image: Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Suzanne Valadon's Family Portrait (Detail), 1912. Centre Pompidou – Musée National d’Art Moderne/CCI, Paris, Gift of M. Cahen-Salvador in memory of Madame Fontenelle-Pomaret, 1976.
Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Nancy Ireson of the Barnes Foundation at the press preview for the Suzanne Valadon exhibition, September 23, 2021.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2015) Gallery view of the Discovering the Impressionists exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2015.
Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Gustav Wertheimer's The Kiss of the Siren, Indianapolis Museum of Art.
Barnes Foundation Photo (2021) Gallery display of paintings for which Suzanne Valadon modeled. On display at the exhibit, Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel.
Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Suzanne Valadon's Nude with Striped Blanket, 1922. Musée d' Art Moderne de Paris. Museum Purchase, 1937.
Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Suzanne Valadon's Black Venus, 1919. Centre Pompidou – Musée National d’Art Moderne/CCI, Paris, on deposit to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Menton, Gift of M. Charles Wakefield-Mori, 1939
Suzanne Valadon (French, 1865-1938) Joy of Life, 1911. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot (1876–1967), 1967. © 2021 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York / Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY
Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Suzanne Valadon's The Blue Room, 1923. Centre Pompidou – Musée National d’Art Moderne/CCI, Paris, on deposit to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Limoges. State purchase, 1924.
Suzanne Valadon (French, 1865-1938) Marie Coca and Her Daughter Gilberte, 1913. Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, purchased from the artist, 1937. © 2021 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York / Image © DeA Picture Library / Art Resource, NY
Suzanne Valadon (French, 1865-1938) The Violin Case, 1923. Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris, Museum Purchase, 1937. © 2021 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York / Image © Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris, France/ HIP / Art Resource, NY
Suzanne Valadon (French, 1865-1938) Self-Portrait, 1927. Collection of the City of Sannois, Val d’Oise, France, on temporary loan to the Musée de Montmartre, Paris. © 2021 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York Image by Stéphane Pons
Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Gallery view of the Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel exhibition at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.