Susan Valadon. Part 2 – The artist’s model

Suzanne Valadon
Suzanne Valadon

In my last blog I looked at the early life and upbringing of my featured artist, Susan Valadon.  She and her mother Madeleine had moved from Limoges and had come to live in the Montmartre district of Paris.  They had survived the siege of the capital by the Prussian army as well as the bloody fight between the Communards and the French government troops which followed.  Suzanne had been trained as a seamstress but had ended up as a teenager working in a circus which culminated in her being injured in a fall whilst standing in for a trapeze artist.  She now needed to find an alternate income source……………

A friend of Suzanne suggested that she should consider becoming an artist’s model despite the modelling profession was looked upon as a risqué form of employment and just one inevitable step from becoming the artist’s lover and it was a profession which was frowned upon in many quarters.  Her mother believed that her daughter would become nothing more than a common prostitute but Suzanne, headstrong as ever, was not to be deterred.  Suzanne would meet every morning at the fountain in the Place de Pigalle with other young girls and wait to see if she would be chosen by an artist.  She had a lot of things going for her.  She had an elfin-like vivaciousness.  Her skin was soft and ivory in colour.  Even though she was till just sixteen years of age her figure had ripened.  She was a cross between an attractive and charming child and a self-assured voluptuous woman and more importantly ,as far as her job prospects were concerned, she was just what an artist was looking for.  She was constantly being chosen to model and she adored this new life.  She recalled the first time she was picked out of the waiting group of prospective models and sitting before an artist for the first time: 

“…I remember the first sitting I did.   I remember saying to myself over and over again ‘ This is it! This is it!’  Over and over I said it all day.  I did not know why.   But I knew that I was somewhere at last and that I should never leave…”

For her, modelling for artists meant that she was one of the players on the Montmartre artistic stage.  Her daily routine was fixed.  She would pose for the artists in the afternoons until the light started to fail, then in the evening she would accompany them to the bars and café-concerts and partake in what was known as the “green hour” – the time for relaxation in the pub, the time for stimulating conversation, but most importantly, the time for imbibing the 136 proof, anise-flavoured, green spirit, absinthe.

In 1882, when she was seventeen years of age, she was summoned by the French artist, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, to attend his studio at Neuilly.   Pierre Puvis, who was fifty-seven at the time, was still a bachelor but was involved in a long lasting loving, but non-sexual, relationship with Princess Marie Cantacuzène, the wife of a Romanian nobleman.  Pierre and Marie would eventually marry in 1898, a few months before both of them died, Marie in the August and Pierre in the October.  Despite the forty year age gap Pierre Puvis and Suzanne became lovers and she moved into his Neuilly apartment.  She was dumbstruck by the opulence of his home.   This was a far cry from the lodgings she shared with her mother.  Pierre and Suzanne however could not have been more dissimilar in temperament.  She was wild, edgy and vocal whereas the artist was quietly spoken, laid back, and often lost in quiet contemplation.  She would hanker after a night at a café-cabaret while Puvis wanted nothing more than to go for a quiet stroll with her along the banks of the Seine. 

Suzanne Valadon by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1880)
Suzanne Valadon by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1880)

Susanne Valadon modelled for Pierre Puvis de Chavannes for his pastel on paper work which he completed in 1880.  The nude study was untitled but one can see the physical attraction of the model to the artist.  It is a stunningly beautiful work of art.  Suzanne, like many of the artists’ models had no problems with posing nude and early photograph below shows her in such a pose.

Suzanne Valadon          (photo)
Suzanne Valadon

The liaison between Pierre Puvis and Susan Valadon lasted for six months and during that time he probably became a slightly more spirited person through being around Suzanne and in return he seemed to have instilled a calming influence on the hyper young woman. It was the first time that Suzanne had been in some ways dominated by a man.  It would appear to be a similar situation to the Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins scenario in Pygmalion.  Inevitably the liaison came to an end.  It did not end in a fiery confrontation with insults being hurled.  Their liaison as lovers had run its course.  It was just a quiet and mutual ending to a relationship which they had both enjoyed.  Suzanne returned home to live with her mother in her one-bedroom Montmartre lodgings on the rue du Poteau but still on occasions modelled for Pierre. 

Le Chat Noir
Le Chat Noir

Suzanne soon returned to her old ways of modelling by day and celebrating at night and one evening whilst in Le Chat Noir she met Miguel Utrillo, a Spanish engineering student who was studying in Paris.  Soon the two became close friends which inevitably lead them to become lovers.   Utrillo was not the first man since Puvis that Suzanne had slept with as she had quite a number of sexual partners and so maybe it was not surprising that in late summer of 1883 she became pregnant.  The question on most people’s lips was – who was the father of Suzanne’s child?   Her friends would question her and put forward a name, to which Suzanne, not at all upset by the questioning, would just smile and amusingly state: “It could be” or “I hope so”.   Suzanne gave birth to a baby son on December 26th 1883 after a very prolonged and painful birthing process overseen by an irritable midwife and her ever drunk mother.  After giving birth Suzanne lapsed into a coma for two days.  The baby was registered at the town hall in Montmartre as Maurice Valadon.   Why Maurice?   Suzanne’s reasoning behind the choice of name was that none of her recent lovers had the name Maurice!   

Her old one-bedroom apartment in which she had been living with her mother was now not big enough and so after the birth Suzanne and her baby along with her mother Madeleine moved into a three-bedroom apartment in rue Tourlaque.  This was more expensive but Suzanne was not concerned, nor had she been concerned when she was pregnant and too big to be used as an artist’s model and her money from modelling dried up.   She was receiving money from an admirer or lover but she would never reveal the source of her income.  Once up and about, Suzanne reverted to her nights out at the bars and clubs accompanied by different men including Miguel Utrillo.

                                                                                          ……. to be continued

Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

One thought on “Susan Valadon. Part 2 – The artist’s model”

  1. I was a bit confused when I read the part about Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and his relationship and marriage with princess Marie Cantacuzene. Being a romanian, I immediately thought at Princess Maria (Maruca) Cantacuzino wife of the romanian composer George Enescu who lived and died in a different period than the one you mention. After some research I saw that indeed there was a different Maria Cantacuzino who lived between 1822 and 1898, wife of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. I read a lot of interesting things on this newly discovered (for me) princess. Not only was she the muse for Chavannes, but also the painter Theodorre Chasseriau was inlove with her and inspired by her. She was close to romanian painters Pallady and Luchian as well and also to some romanian writers of the time and it seems she was very knowledgeable in the domain of art.

    Sorry if my comment is a bit off topic but I got excited by this new piece of history. Thanks for your interesting posts!

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