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

The Poor Fisherman by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes

The Poor Fisherman by Pierre Puvis de Chevannes (1881)
The Poor Fisherman by Pierre Puvis de Chevannes (1881)

My last blog looked at the early life of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes as well as feature a series of four large wall paintings he completed in the 1860’s.  In today’s blog I will conclude his life story and feature one of his best known paintings entitled The Poor Fisherman.  

Following the success of his wall paintings for the Musée de Picardie he went on to complete many other wall painting commissions, such as the staircase of the Hôtel de Ville at Poitiers.  In 1874 the Department of Fine Arts in Paris commissioned him to paint a number of wall paintings depicting the childhood and education of St Geneviève, the patroness of Paris, for the church of Saint Genevieve, which is now the Pantheon.  Puvis procured a second commission  for work in the Pantheon in 1896, depicting Genevieve’s accomplishments in old age which consisted of a single composition coupled with a triad of panels, the whole of which surmounted by a frieze. 

One of his largest commissions came in 1891 when Charles Follen McKim a partner in the architect firm of McKim, Mead and White, who had designed the new Boston library, went to Paris and approached Pierre Puvis to provide wall paintings for the grand staircase and loggia of their new building.  Puvis agreed to carry out this extensive commission despite being sixty-seven years of age.  Then Puvis had a change of heart when he accepted a commission for work in the Paris City Hall and so the following year, 1892, the Americans had to send over another representative to Paris to ask Puvis not to renege on his original agreement. After prolonged negotiations in July 1893 Puvis put pen to paper and the contract for the wall paintings was finalised, agreeing to pay the artist the sum of two hundred and fifty thousand francs.  Puvis completed his Paris City Hall commission in 1894 and in 1895 he began on the paintings which were to adorn the walls of the Boston Library.  To ensure that the wall paintings blended in with the internal architecture the architects sent Puvis samples of the marble which was to be used for the staircase and its surroundings.  Puvis worked on the wall paintings at a purpose built studio at Neuilly, just outside of Paris and completed them in 1898.  They were then shipped out to America.   Puvis never saw for himself his paintings in situ in the Boston library.   For a much more detailed account of this commission it is worth having a look at: 

Pierre Puvis did not exclusively work on large-scale wall paintings, he would often relax by carrying out smaller easel paintings and today I am featuring one such work which he completed in 1881 and entitled The Poor Fisherman, which is housed in the Musée d’Orsay. Although not the size of one of his wall paintings, it is still a large work, measuring 155 x 192 cms.

The Angelus by Jean-François Millet (1859)
The Angelus by Jean-François Millet (1859)

In the painting we see a forlorn-looking man, head bent, standing up in his boat with his hands clasped together in front of him as if in prayer and it is his stance along with the connection between Christ and his Apostles and fishermen, which gives the painting a somewhat religious feel to it.  Is he praying for success in his forthcoming fishing expedition or as some would have us believe it could be that it was noon and, as a practicing Catholic, the fisherman was reciting an Angelus prayer.  This supposition is based on the similar stance of the figures seen in Millet’s 1859 The Angelus painting.   On the bank there is a woman, his daughter, collecting flowers and his sleeping baby, lying on his back in a bed of wild flowers. One is struck by the bleak landscape and the contrast between the seemingly happy female as she picks the flowers, the peacefully sleeping child with the troubled poverty-stricken fisherman as he bows his head down in silent contemplation.   

The work was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1881 and received a mixed reception and was not sold until 1887 when the French State purchased the work whilst it was on show at the French art dealer, Durand-Ruel’s showroom.  So what is there not to like about the work?  Is it just too depressing?  Does it fail to conform to the artistic norm?  In an article in the December 1916 issue of the The Art World magazine entitled “A Trivial Work of Art: The Poor Fisherman by Puvis de Chavannes, the art critic Petronius Arbiter summed up the painting:

“…It is an absolutely trivial work; and, coming from him, was a complete surprise and much criticized at the time. In the first place the lines of the composition are so zigzag that the work is irritating instead of soothing to the eyes. Then the sprawling of the badly drawn child over a low shrub, every leaf and branch of which would prick out of it all sense of sleep or even of comfort, is absurd.  Then the head of the mother is too large, and the hair that of a man rather than that of a woman. Then the man looks ‘sawed-off,’ for he is represented as standing with his knees against a seat in the boat. But where is the rest of his lower legs? The boat is either not deep enough or his lower legs are abnormally short, or sawed-off. This is also manifestly absurd. Then the head is so childishly constructed as to be ridiculous. Moreover, what is he doing – praying, fishing, philosophizing over his destiny, or what? The whole thing is childish to a degree. Here we have a meaningless ‘individuality’ with a vengeance…”

However the article’s author begrudgingly had some good words to say about the work:

“…The picture has but one redeeming feature – its charming colour.  A delicate general tone of mauve pervades the whole creation and the gradation of the tones in the water are so skilfully painted that we are drawn into the far distance whether we will or no.  That is, the values of the picture are remarkably true…”

Le Pauvre Pêcheur by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1881)  The National Museum of Western Art
Le Pauvre Pêcheur by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1881) The National Museum of Western Art

The artist painted another version of The Poor Fisherman in which he depicts just the fisherman and his baby child which this time lies in the botom of his boat.  This copy can be seen at the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes died in October 1898 aged 73.   Shortly before his death he married his long time companion, Princess Marie Cantacuzène.   She died just a few months before her husband.

Following my last blog, which looked at the early life of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, I was ticked off by the author Aimée Brown Price for using information from her books on the artist and not acknowledging the fact.  To defend myself I have to say up until receiving her email I had no idea she had written these books and probably took her information unknowingly from a third-party source.  However to rectify my misconduct I have given you below the title of her books on Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and I am sure if you want to read a more detailed account of the life and works of the artist they will be invaluable.

Aimée Brown Price, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Volume I: The Artist and his Art.  Volume II:  A Catalogue Raisonné of the Painted Work. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. ISBN 9780300115710, box set, two volumes, 750 pp. 1200 illustrations.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Part 1 Wall paintings

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1882) aged 58.
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1882)
aged 58.

In my previous couple of blogs I looked at two married couples, all four of whom were artists who based themselves around Copenhagen and the Skagen area of northern Denmark.  The two wives, Anne Ancher née Brøndum and Marie Krøyer née Tiepcke both spent time studying art in various Paris ateliers, one of which was run by the French painter, Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes and so I thought over the next two blogs it would be interesting to look at his life story and examine some of his truly beautiful works of art.  In this first part I am going to concentrate on a series of his decorative works – his first set of wall paintings which can be seen at the Musée de Picardie in Amiens, a town in the Picardy region of northern France.  Pierre-Cécile Puvis, as it was not until somewhat later in life that he attached the ancestral name of his Burgundian forefathers “de Chevannes” to his surname, was born in Lyon, into a wealthy bourgeois family in December 1824.  His mother was Marguerite Guyot de Pravieux and his father, Marie-Julien-César Puvis de Chavannes, who was the Chief Engineer of Mines for the region.  His father’s wealth would ensure that Pierre never wanted financially for the rest of his life.  Pierre was the youngest of four children.   He had two sisters, Joséphine and Marie-Antoinette and a brother Edouard.     He went to school at the Lycée Royal and the Collège Saint-Rambert, in Lyon.  Later he attended the Lycée Henri IV in Paris and in 1842 at the age of eighteen Pierre Puvis had obtained his baccalaureate.  By 1843 both Pierre’s parents were dead.  His mother died in October 1840 and his father died three years later in Nice.   In 1843 he briefly enrolled at a law school in Paris but left after a few months. His father had had high hopes that his son would follow in his engineering footsteps.   However, any hopes of proceeding on to an engineering career via the l’Ecole Polytechnique in Lyon were dashed when he was struck down with a serious illness whilst studying for the entrance exam.  For most of 1844 and 1845 he had to convalesce at the home of his sister Joséphine and her husband Esprit-Alexandre Jordan in Mâcon in central France.   

In 1846 his life was to change as for part of his recuperation he decided to go on a trip to Italy.   It was during his journey around Italy that he fell in love with the art that he saw, and the frescos and murals stimulated his interest in painting and so, on his return to Paris, he announced his intention to become a painter.  The first painter he approached for an apprenticeship was the French history painter and portraitist Emile Signon but he was turned down and told to seek out Ary Scheffer who eventually arranged for Pierre to be trained at the atelier of his brother, Henri Scheffer.   In 1848 Pierre embarked on a second trip to Italy, this time accompanied by the painter Louis Bauderon de Vermeron.  On returning from Italy in late 1848, he worked at Eugène Delacroix’s studio but this only lasted a fortnight as Delacroix was taken ill and the studio was closed and Pierre went to work at the atelier of the French history painter Thomas Couture.  In 1850, Pierre Puvis set up his very own studio in rue St Lazare and in that year he had his first work, Dead Christ, exhibited at that year’s Salon. 

Later in the 1850’s Pierre Puvis, art changed and he concentrated on large decorative pieces for large houses or other important establishments.  These were neither frescos nor murals but were painted canvases which were then affixed to the wall.   These wall paintings were often secured to walls by a method known as marouflage where the canvas was “glued” to the wall by an adhesive which when it dries is as strong as plaster or cement.  The terminology marouflage comes from the French word, maroufle, which is the word to describe the sticky substance which has congealed at the bottom of artist’s paint pot.  

Le Paix (Peace) by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1861)
Le Paix (Peace) by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1861)

In 1861 Pierre Puvis produced two large paintings, each measuring 3.4 x 5.5m, one entitled Peace and the other, its companion piece was entitled War.  The work entitled Peace depicted an idyllic land with figures from ancient times relaxing in a peaceful landscape, with not a care in the world.  In the background we can see people riding horses, running and dancing whilst in the foreground we observe goats being milked.  Fruit is plentiful and we see it being gathered up.    Life in this state of peace and tranquillity could not be better and it is thought that Pierre Puvis based his work on Virgil’s fourth Eclogue in which the poet described such a place: 

“…..the uncultivated earth will pour out

her first little gifts, straggling ivy and cyclamen everywhere

and the bean flower with the smiling acanthus.

The goats will come home themselves, their udders swollen

with milk, and the cattle will have no fear of fierce lions….”

La Guerre (War)  by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1861)
La Guerre (War) by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1861)

In the work entitled War things couldn’t have been more different.  Gone is the idyllic landscape, now supplanted by a background showing a gloomy and desolate landscape in which we can see homes burning.  In the left mid-ground we see a soldier in all his armour, with his red cloak fluttering behind him as he pitilessly kills civilians.   In the foreground we see women on their knees begging for mercy as three riders sound their horns.  Could it be they are the attackers sounding off in a triumphal fashion or are they fleeing the enemy and urging their people to hurry along?  Behind the horsemen we see a column of stragglers, some being carried, fleeing the enemy.  Look at the beast on the ground to the left of the women.  See how by showing the white of its eye we get a sense of its fear whilst the other animal, next to it, raises its head, its neck stretched to the limit, as it bellows for mercy.  The French State purchased Peace and because Puvis did not want his pair of paintings to be separated he donated War to the French State.  Following the completion of Peace and War in 1861, Pierre Puvis found himself without any commissions so decided to paint two more works to act as companion pieces to Peace and War

Le  Travail (Work) by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1863)
Le Travail (Work) by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1863)

He entitled them Work and Repose and submitted them to the Salon of 1863. 

Le Repos (Repose) by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1863)
Le Repos (Repose) by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1863)

At around this time in Amiens a new museum, Musée de Picardie, was being built and one of its architects, Arthur-Stanislas Diet, approached Pierre Puvis to see if all four of these works could be placed on the wall of the museum’s monumental main staircase and the gallery.  He agreed.  The French State loaned the first two paintings to the museum and Pierre Puvis donated the other two works. 

La Paix by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1867) Philadelphia Museum of Art
La Paix by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1867)
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Four years later in 1867, Pierre Puvis produced smaller versions of Peace and War which can now be seen at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

La Guerre by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1867) Philadelphia Museum of Art
La Guerre by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1867)
Philadelphia Museum of Art

In my next blog I will feature some of Pierre Puvis’ smaller works and continue with his life story.