Suzanne Valadon. Part 3 Pierre-August Renoir

Dance at Bougival by Renoir (1883)
Dance at Bougival by Renoir (1883)
(featuring Suzanne Valadon and Eugene Pierre Lestringuez)

I ended my last blog about Suzanne Valadon with her relationship with Pierre Puvis de Chavannes ended and she had moved back in with her mother.  That summer she had become pregnant and in December 1883 had given birth to a baby boy whom she named Maurice.   The following year, after she had got herself back in shape and had employed a nanny to look after her son, she went back to her old life of modelling for artists by day and revelling in  café-bar life at night…..    

In 1883, before she became pregnant Suzanne was employed as a model by Pierre-August Renoir.  Besides being an artist an artist’s model they had something else in common – they both originated from Limoges.  Renoir had returned to Paris after extensively travelling around Europe and North Africa.   Despite being moderately well-off due to the sale of his paintings he chose to live in the less salubrious area of Montmartre.  Suzanne and Renoir would stroll along the streets of Montmartre arm in arm and nobody was in any doubt that they had become lovers.  They would go dancing at the Moulin de la Gatte on Sundays and picnic at Argenteuil and Chatou on sunny summer days. 

However, I want to turn the clock back two years to 1881 to look at what Renoir was doing at the time and, by doing so, look at the interaction between Suzanne and him a couple of years later.   Renoir had completed his famous painting Les Déjeuner des Canotiers (Luncheon of the Boating Party) in 1881 (see My Daily Art Display August 2nd 2011), which had been a group portrait of his friends dining on the upstairs terrace of Restaurant Fournaise which was in the small village of Bougival on the bank of the River Seine.   It was here that his friends would gather to eat and dance and watch the oarsmen row their boats up and down the river.  One of the people depicted in the painting was Aline Charigot who Renoir would eventually marry in 1890 albeit Aline had already given birth to their son, Pierre, in 1885. 

In 1882,  a year after completing the Déjeuner des Canotiers painting he was commissioned by Paul Durand-Ruel to complete three paintings, which became known as the Dance Series.  The series consisted of Dance à Bougival, Dance in the City and Dance in the Country.  These were life-sized works measuring about 180 x 90 cms.  In all three paintings there are two main characters, a male and a female dancing.  In the first two paintings, the model for the female was Suzanne Valadon and in the third one, the model was Aline Charigot. 

Dance in the City by Renoir (1883) (featuring Suzanne Valadon and Paul Lhôte)
Dance in the City by Renoir (1883)
(featuring Suzanne Valadon and Paul Lhôte)

The setting for Renoir’s painting Dance in the City is a high class Parisian establishment, for this is a “white ball”, which was favoured by the upper classes. Although the painting once again depicts a couple dancing, this work is all about the woman as the man is almost hidden from our view.  There is a shimmering opulence about this work.  Renoir has depicted the woman, modelled by Suzanne Valadon, wearing a two-piece white silk gown, – her toilette de bal (dance dress).  The cut of her dress reveals her back and shoulders.  Her partner, was thought to be modelled by Renoir’s close friend, Paul Lhôte, a journalist and writer of short fiction.  He is wearing formal evening wear and the tails of his long coat swish with the movement of the dance.    Both the man and woman wear white gloves which in a way makes the dance a more formal event ensuring that the bare hands of the man do not touch the delicate skin of the woman.  Their hands are clasped as in the Dance à Bougival but in this painting it is just the lightest coupling of hands. 

Suzanne Valadon always maintained that the Dancing à Bougival work featuring her was painted in-situ at Bougival thus implying that she was part of the Bougival “in-crowd”.  In later life she talked about her relationship with Renoir and the Dance à Bougival painting saying:

“…He fell in love with me and at Bougival he painted me in his famous picture…”

However Renoir stated quite categorically that he simply made a few sketches of Suzanne and the paintings was completed at his studio.  The painting Dance à Bougival is housed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston which acquired the work in 1937.  In this painting we see Suzanne Valadon dancing with Eugene Pierre Lestringuez, another of Renoir’s friends, who was an official at the Ministry of the Interior and who featured in a number of Renoir’s works including Les Déjeuner des Canotiers.  In this outdoor dance scene there is not the formality that we saw in the painting Dancing in the City.   Gone is the woman’s formal toilette de bal, replaced by a light pink dress with red piping.  The hands of the dancers are not gloved.  Gone is the man’s formal attire, replaced by a loose fitting blue jacket and wool sweater and atop his head he wears a yellow straw hat which hides part of his face and his eyes.  Gone are the lightly touching hands and in its place we see the left hand of the man gripping the lady’s hand tightly while his right hand snakes around her waist pulling her body into his.  Suzanne wears a large bright red hat, the colour of which draws your eyes to it and, by doing so, we focus on the faces of the dancers.  Look at the faces closely.  The woman pulls her face away from that of her partner and looks downwards avoiding any eye contact with the man whilst he stares at his partner with an unnerving intensity.  What is going on between the pair?  There is a strange uneasiness, tenseness, between the couple. There is no sense of intimacy between the dancers.

Facial expression (Detail from Dance at Bougival)
Facial expression
(Detail from Dance at Bougival)

As the artist, Renoir, was the one to decide on how he would depict the pair’s facial expressions and body language, what made Renoir portray the couple in this way?  Was Renoir in some way transferring Suzanne’s character into the painting?  This was supposed to be a joyful event in which couples twirl in the open air so why this pensiveness?  It is almost as if the man has said something inappropriate to the woman and she is slightly offended or could it be that the averting of her eyes is simply her way of teasing her dancing partner? 

Dance in the Country by Renoir (1883) (featuring Aline Charigot and Paul Lhôte
Dance in the Country by Renoir (1883)
(featuring Aline Charigot and Paul Lhôte

Another question posed by Renoir’s Dancing series paintings that although Suzanne Valadon modelled for Dancing à Bougival and Dancing in the City why did the artist decide to switch to Aline Charigot for Dancing in the Country, who we see depicted partnering Paul Lhôte.  When I look at and compare  the faces of the two females depicted in the paintings I have to say that Suzanne’ thinner and more delicate face  is the more attractive and sophisticated and it could be that for a country dance scene Renoir decided that the fuller face with the rosy cheeks of Aline were more suited when it came to the ambience of the country.  Or could it be that Aline Charigot’s insisted that she, and not Suzanne, featured in the third work. 

The one aspect that the Bougival and City paintings have in common is the distracted expression on the face of Suzanne Valadon.  In both paintings she pays little attention to her partner and lacks the smile which Aline Charigot has on her face in Dancing in the Country.  Is this just coincidental?  Could it be that Renoir’s depictions of Aline and Suzanne give us a better feeling as to how he viewed his two lovers.  

The Bathers by Renoir (1887)
The Bathers by Renoir (1887)

Suzanne travelled to Guernsey with Renoir in order for him to paint some pictures including a nude portrait of her.  Although he later destroyed the painting it is thought that he used the face for the central character in his painting The Bathers which he completed in 1887.  Amusingly, Suzanne was adament that it was not just her face that was used for the painting, but her whole body !!   Their painting trip to Guernsey was rudely interrupted with the news that Aline Charigot was coming to visit Renoir and one can only imagine Suzanne’s anger when Renoir arranged for her to return to Paris immediately so that the women would not meet.  There was obviously no love lost between Aline and Suzanne both vying to be Renoir’s one true love.  As I said earlier, Aline won that battle as she and Renoir eventually married.  

Suzanne Valadon by Pierre Auguste Renoir (1885)
Suzanne Valadon by Pierre Auguste Renoir (1885)

Suzanne’s position as Renoir’s lover ended almost as soon as it had begun but she still modelled for him and in 1885 he completed a head and shoulder portrait of her.  At our first glance of this portrait we are aware of her facial expression.  It is not one of happiness but is one of despondency but it is still a charming depiction of his one time lover.

The Ponytail (Suzanne Valadon) by Renoir (1886)
The Ponytail (Suzanne Valadon) by Renoir (1886)

In 1886 he completed another portrait of her which is sometimes referred to as The Braid (Susan Valadon) or The Ponytail (Susan Valadon) and which is housed in Museum Langmatt, Baden.   This is a far more sensuous portrait of Suzanne and her downward gaze adds to her innate sensuality.  There is no doubt that she was an extremely beautiful woman and one can see why artists like Renoir were drawn to this amazing young lady.  Renoir, besides employing her as a model and becoming her lover, did something else which was to change the course of her life.  He took an interest in her desire to draw and paint and nurtured the idea that she, one day, would become a great artist. 

                                                ………………………….. to be continued.

If you would like to have a more in-depth view of Suzanne Valadon’s lifestory then I would recommend that you read a book entitled The Valadon Drama, The Life of Suzanne Valadon, written by John Storm in 1923.

La Loge by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

La Loge by Renoir (1874)

Today’s featured work of art was not my original intended offering.  That sounds somewhat strange but actually there is logic to my decision.  I was researching a painting when I came across today’s work and there seemed, at least in my mind, a good reason to offer you today’s painting before I showcased my original work.

The French word La Loge in the context of a theatre means the theatre box and it has been the subject of a number of paintings.  Today I want to look at La Loge by Pierre-Auguste Renoir which he completed in 1874 and now hangs at The Courtauld Gallery in London.  Today this work of art by the Impressionist painter is looked upon as one of the most significant works of the Impressionist movement.  At the time of this painting it was estimated that over 200,000 theatre tickets were sold every week in Paris.  However, going to a Parisian theatre in the nineteenth century was not just about taking in the latest plays by the likes of Victor Hugo or Alexandre Dumas or the less formal vaudeville shows which were also very popular at the time, it was about being seen by other theatregoers.  Men would accompany and flaunt their wives or lovers.  Proud fathers would show off their daughters and “out-of-towners” would take the opportunity of dressing up and sample the Parisian lifestyle.   It was an almost indoor form of promenading, which was the leisurely walking in public places dressed in one’s finery and carried out as a social activity.  Attending  the theatre was a chance to showcase one’s most expensive clothes and accoutrements as well as parading one’s latest beau.  What could be more satisfying than to flaunt one’s wealth or one’s new lover?  It was a question of seeing and being seen and going to the theatre dominated the cultural life of the city.  As well as seeing actors on the theatre stage the theatregoers were actually quietly performing on their own  social stage.

Being seen

The way Renoir has depicted the scene in the theatre box sums up this attitude.  We see a lady and gentleman seated in their box.  Take a look at their demeanour.  Are they depicted as locked in concentration at what is happening on the stage below?  No they are not.  The lady stares out at us with her gloved hand holding her opera glasses and resting it on the lavish velvet frontage of the box whilst her other hand clasps a black fan and a white lace handkerchief in her lap.  Protocol of the day demanded that ladies must wear gloves on formal occasions.

Her face is now not hidden from view by her opera glasses.  She is revealing her face to all who may wish to gaze at her.   So how would you describe her?  Is there a delicate elegance about her or does she look rather brash.  She is without doubt beautiful and has little trepidation about letting people admire her from afar.  She wears a lavish dress, one she has probably saved for this very outing.  This is her tenue de premiere or opening-night attire.  Her costume would often be referred to as a robe à la polonaise or polonaise which was popular in the late eighteenth century and saw a was revival a hundred years later in the 1870’s.  It consisted of a fitted overdress which extended into long panels over an underskirt.  The magic of Renoir’s painting is that from a far one can see the three dimensional form of the dress with all its folds and yet up close it was just a series of brushstrokes.  It is almost magical the way the artist has painted this work.

The elegant dress oozes a sense of wealth but that is not the only thing which advertises the financial situation of the couple.   The style of the dress also oozes the ladies sensuality.  Note the position of the rose which immediately draws our eyes to the décolletage which emphasizes her cleavage. The low-cut neckline was a popular feature of evening gowns of that era.   Another rose placed in her hair once again draws our eyes to her simple but elegant coiffure.

Look at her neck and the pearl necklace she is wearing.  Also we can just make out a pair of diamond earrings dangling from her ears and if we look at the hand which holds her opera glasses we note a gold bracelet around her slender wrist.  The wealth is there for us to see but more importantly it is there for the other theatregoers to note.

This is a summation of the “seen and being seen” philosophy.  She is wanting to be seen in all her finery whilst he is concentrating on seeing.  Renoir used one of his regular models, Nini Lopez, as the model for the lady.


The sitter for her male companion in the theatre box was Edmund Renoir, the brother of the artist.  He, like the lady, is dressed elegantly in his formal clothes.  Renoir has depicted him wearing a white shirt with a starched cravat, black trousers and gold cufflinks.  His attire, which is typical of that of the wealthy male theatregoer also exudes a sense of affluence but its plainness and subdued colour allows the more colourful female to be the centre of attention.

The aspect of this painting which we cannot be sure about and I will leave you to decide is whether we are seeing a husband and wife out for an evening at the theatre or are we looking a wealthy man accompanied by an elegantly dressed courtesan.  Can we deduce the truth from looking at the painting but beware of falling into the trap of being too judgemental !!!

Renoir exhibited this painting in the First Impressionist Exhibition which was held in the former studio of the photographer Nadar at 35 boulevard des Capucines in Paris on April 15, 1874.  This work, which gives us an insight into Parisian life in the late nineteenth century, is now hailed as a masterpiece of art and one of the most significant works of the Impressionist movement.  At the time it was exhibited it helped establish the reputation of Renoir.  The painting gives us an insight into life in the French capital during the late nineteenth century.

Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Luncheon of the Boating Party by Auguste Renoir (1881)

My Daily Art Display today features one of the best known Impressionist paintings.  It is Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renoir which he painted in 1881.  Although I would rank Impressionism outside my top three favourite art genres, I was fascinated by this painting and the story behind it.

Maison Fournaise (c.1890)

I suppose firstly I should examine the setting for the painting, which is the balcony at the Maison Fournaise.  This building is situated on the ÎlIe de Chatou, an island situated across from the small town of Chatou, which is situated on the right bank of the Seine.   Boating on the Seine became a very popular form of recreation in the middle of the eighteenth century and whereas Argenteuil, a little way upstream from Chatou, where the Seine is wider and with its more prevalent winds, attracted sailors, the Îlle de Chatou was the ideal spot for rowers.  Alphonse Fournier, who was a river toll collector and a part-time boat carpenter, set up his boat building workshop along with his boat rental business in 1857.  Alphonse also used to organise boat regattas and water festivals.   At the same time, his wife, an accomplished cook, opened a restaurant next door.  This restaurant, combined with the boat rental facility and its many organised boating events, was a very popular family-run business.   Their daughter Louise-Alphonsine, who became a popular and well-known artist’s model, greeted the clients whilst their son Jules-Alphonse charmed the ladies and assisted them into the boats.  Artists visiting Maison Fournaise were never short of potential models for as Renoir wrote:

“…..I was constantly spending my time chez Fournaise-there I found as many beautiful girls as one could ever wish to paint!…..”

The Island of Chatou had other thing going for it.  Rail travel allowed Parisians easy access to this area in the countryside.  If you look carefully under the awning you can just make out, at the top left, the blue-gray outline of the Chatou railroad bridge, part of the government’s recently completed transportation projects that had made access to this riverside destination possible to everybody, not just to the members of the upper class.

La Maison Fournaise, today.

The setting also radiated   peace and tranquillity along with its ideal light conditions and proved a haven for artists with the likes of Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Berte Morisot, Edouart Manet and Camille Pissaro often visiting the location.   Auguste Renoir was also a regular caller and he once described his love of the establishment in a letter to friend:

“…You could find me anytime at Fournaise’s. There, I was fortunate enough to find as many splendid creatures as I could possibly desire to paint……….. I can’t leave Chatou, because my painting is not finished yet. It would be nice of you to come down here and have lunch with me. You won’t regret the trip, I assure you. There isn’t a lovelier place in all Paris surroundings….

The Fournaises’ two businesses flourished until 1906 when Madame Fournaise closed the restaurant and four years later Alphonse Fournaise wound down his boat rental enterprise.  Then, unfortunately, over the years,  the deserted premises started to fall into disrepair.  Madame Fournaise died in 1937.  By the 1970’s the buildings were at the point of complete dereliction.  However in 1977 the town of Chatou bought the building and five years later it listed it as a building of historic significance, joining the register of Les Monuments Historiques and restoration work began with the support from The Friends of Maison Fournaise and The Friends of French Art.   Currently the building is a museum, La Fournaise Museum, and in 1990 a restaurant reopened on the premises

So now we know the setting for the painting let me introduce you to some of the people featured in this wonderful painting.  As in a number of Renoir’s paintings, he liked to include portraits of his friends.

The Participants
  1.  Aline Charigot, seen holding a dog, was a seamstress and part time model for Renoir.  Aged twenty-seven at the time of the painting met Renoir in 1880 and they were married in 1890, despite a thirteen year age difference.  The couple had three children, Pierre, Jean (who became the well-known filmmaker) and Claude.  Despite being much younger than Renoir she died four years before him in 1915, aged 61 and was buried in the churchyard at Essoyes in the Champagne-Ardennes region of France which was her childhood home.  Renoir who died a few months before his seventy-ninth, in Cagnes, was laid to rest alongside his beloved wife.
  2. Jules-Alphonse Fournaise, wearing a straw boater and sportsman’s T shirt leans against the balustrade.  He was the son of the owner of Maison Fournaise and was in charge of the boat rentals.
  3. Louise-Alphonsine Fournaise, leaning against the balustrade is the daughter of the owner of the establishment and a war widow.
  4. Baron Raoul Barbier, sporting a brown bowler hat, has his back to us as he engages the proprietor’s daughter in conversation.  Formerly a cavalry officer and war hero later became mayor of colonial Saigon.  The two loves in his life were women and horse racing.
  5. Jules Laforgue, a Symbolist poet, journalist on the La Vie Moderne newspaper and private secretary to Charles Ephrussi (No.8)
  6. Ellen Andrée, seen drinking from her glass. Aged 24 at the time of the painting, she was a Parisian actress and mime at the Folies Bergère and sometime artist’s model for Renoir, Manet and Degas (See My Daily Art Display June 7th where the actress has modeled for the Degas painting).
  7. Angèle Leault, some time Parisian actress and singer and also a market flower seller.
  8. Charles Ephrussi, wearing a top hat and in conversation with his secretary.  Russian-born Ephrussi was a wealthy art collector and historian as well as being editor of the prestigious art magazine, Gazette des Beaux-Arts.  He was a great supporter of the Impressionist painters.
  9. Gustave Caillebotte, in the right foreground with a cigarette in his hand.  He was a good friend of Renoir and a well-known painter in his own right.  He was a collector of Impressionist paintings and also one of Renoir’s wealthy patrons.  Renoir’s prominent positioning of Caillebotte was not accidental but was a measure of his importance to Renoir.  He lived in a house overlooking the Seine, not far from Chatou.  Caillebotte  was trained as an engineer, built boats and was a great sportsman.  This maybe accounts for Renoir’s youthful portrayal of him (he was 33 at the time of the painting) in his boating attire, consisting of a sleeveless white T shirt and blue flannel pants.  On his head is a flat-topped straw hat around which a blue ribbon is tied.  This indicates that Caillebotte was a member of the privileged Cercle Nautique de la Voile boating club.  He was godfather to Renoir’s eldest son, Pierre.
  10. Adrien Maggiolo , Italian journalist on Le Triboulet newspaper.
  11.  Eugène-Pierre Lestringuez, official at the Ministry of the Interior and close friend of Renoir who often modeled for his paintings.
  12.  Paul Lhote, wearing a straw hat in conversation with Lestringuez and the actress Jeanne Samary.  He was a writer of short fiction and a journalist and close friend of Renoir.
  13.  Jeanne Samary, holding her black-gloved hands to her ears.  Actress at the Coméie-Francais in Paris.

With this group of people we can see that Renoir was illustrating the nature of Maison Fournaise which welcomed customers from a variety of social backgrounds from the wealthy aristocrats to the humble actors.   With the new rail system in place along with the shortened working week, everyone, no matter what their occupation, was able to escape the city and enjoy the pleasures of the Parisian suburbs at the weekends.  The forty year old artist in producing this large masterpiece depicted the modern life of Parisians as they relaxed.  Renoir’s painting captures the idyllic atmosphere as his friends wine and dine on the riverside terrace.  Renoir gathered most of the participants in the painting together early on so that he could organize the composition.  Later he worked on the individual figures as and when they were able to model for him.  It was a grueling time for the artist and Renoir felt the pressure on him to complete the work.  He had a love-hate relationship with the work commenting once:

“… I no longer know where I am with it, except that it is annoying me more and more….”

He made many changes to the work before he was completely satisfied. The final result was a veritable gem of Impressionism.

La Lecture, Deux Femmes aux Corsages Rouge et Rose by Renoir

La Lecture, Deux Femmes aux Corsages Rouge et Rose by Renoir (1918)

My Daily Art Display for today is a painting by the French Impressionist painter Pierre- August Renoir.  He was born in Limoges, France in 1841.  He came from a working class family.  His father Léonard was a tailor and his mother Marguerite was a dressmaker.  At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to a M. Levy a porcelain-painter and he worked in the local porcelain factory.  His ability to draw was soon noted and he was soon working in the department which painted designs on the finished fine china.   At the age of twenty one he began studying art in Paris where he met Alfred Sisley and Claude Monet.  He led a very frugal existence at this time and often could not afford to buy the paints he needed for his art work.  Renoir was twenty three years of age when he exhibited his first paintings at the Paris Salon.  His works were greeted with much acclaim at the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874

In 1881 Renoir set off on his travels visiting Algeria, Spain and Italy.  In Italy he visited Florence and Rome and saw the works of the great Masters, such as Titian and Raphael.  In the summer of 1883 Renoir spent the summer in Guernsey, with all its varied landscapes with its beeches, cliffs, bays, forests and mountains.  Whilst there, he created fifteen paintings of the island.  From there he moved back to mainland France and for a time settled down in the Montmartre district of Paris and it was whilst here that he met Suzanne Valadon who modeled for some of his paintings including The Bathers and Dance at Bougival.  Valadon also was a model for Toulouse-Lautrec before becoming a noted painter herself.

In 1890 Renoir married his lover, Aline Victorine Charigot, a model he had used in his painting Luncheon of the Boating Party and with whom he had already had a son, Pierre five years earlier.  His wife and children featured in many of his paintings as did their nursemaid Gabrielle Renard who as well as carrying out her domestic duties, often modeled for Renoir.

In 1907 due to the fact that he suffered badly from rheumatoid arthritis and to try and alleviate the symptoms he moved to the Cagnes-sur-Mer in the south of France.  Despite his arthritis he continued to paint until his death in 1919 at the age of 78, five years after the death of his wife Aline.

My Daily Art Display today is Renoir’s painting La Lecture, Deux Femmes aux Corsages Rouge et Rose which he completed in 1918 a year before he died.  This was by far his most successful of his large scale works.  It is a tender and harmonious portrait of two women as they sit serenely, completely absorbed in the words of a book they are reading.  They seem totally oblivious to what is happening around them, even unmindful of the artist himself.  The dark haired lady on the right is thought to be the erstwhile long serving maid Gabrielle Renard who had left the family five years earlier after looking after them for nineteen years.   The woman on the left maybe Andrée Heuschling, who was introduced to Renoir by Matisse, and who later married Renoir’s son, the film maker, Jean.

Finally, I will leave you with the words Théodore Duret, the French journalist, author and art critic,  who wrote of Renoir in his book,  Histoire des peintres impressionnistes:

“Renoir excels at portraits.  Not only does he catch the external features, but through them he pinpoints the model’s character and inner self.  I doubt whether any painter has ever interpreted women in a more seductive manner.  The deft and lively touches of Renoir’s brush are charming, supple and unrestrained, making flesh transparent and tinting the cheeks and lips with a perfect living hue.  Renoir’s women are enchantresses”