Suzanne Valadon Part 5. Her son Maurice Utrillo, her husband Paul Mousis and her lover Erik Satie

Suzanne Valadon and her son Maurice (c.1889)
Suzanne Valadon and her son Maurice (c.1889)

My look at the life of Suzanne Valadon would not be complete if I didn’t spend some time looking at the early years of her son Maurice and how he had such an effect on her life.  In my earlier blogs I told you that Suzanne, who was eighteen years at the time, gave birth to her son on December 26th 1883.  She was unmarried at the time and would never reveal the identity of the father.   She decided on the name Maurice for her son, reasoning that as none of her previous or present lovers had that Christian name it would therefore not give a hint as to who actually was Maurice’s father.  However in January 1891 she persuaded one of her former lovers, Miguel Utrillo to agree to sign the Act of Recognition naming himself as Maurice’s father.  The document was signed on February 27th 1891and it stated:

“…27 February 1891.  Act of Recognition of Maurice, Masculine Sex.  Born 26 December 1883 and inscribed on the 29th following at the mairie 18th arondissement as son of Marie Valadon and unnamed father.  Set up by us Charles-Paul-Auguste Bernard, assistant to the mayor, officer of the civil state 9th arondissement, on the declaration made by Michael (Miguel) Utrillo, 28 years of age, journalist of 50 Boulevard de Clichy, who has recognised as his son the aforementioned Maurice.  In the presence of Charles Mahut, 44 years of age, employed, residing in Paris, 5b Impasse Rodier, and of Félix Dunion, 44 years of age, waiter, residing in Paris, 3 rue Saint Rustique, who have signed with the petitioner and ourselves after reading.    Paris. 8 April 1891…”

One should note that the document refers to Suzanne by her original Christian name Marie (Marie-Clémentine) and not Suzanne, the name she changed it to on the advice of Toulouse-Lautrec.  So was Miguel really Maurice’s father, if not, why would he sign such a document?  It was not as if it was a “spur of the moment” decision as one can see by the dates at the start and the end of the document the process took almost six weeks to complete which would have given Miguel time to consider what he had been asked to sign and time to back out of the agreement.  Whether Miguel was the father we will probably never know.   She had many lovers as a teenager including Pierre-Puvis de Chavannes, the French artist.  There was also Adrian Boissy, the drunken accountant from an insurance company she met at the Moulin de Galette one night, and who according to Suzanne, took her to his home, plied her with drink and raped her. 

There is probably no greater love than that which a  mother gives to her children and although I am sure there was a maternal love between Suzanne and Maurice her maternal instinct must have been sorely tested as Maurice was not a normal child.  During his very early days Maurice was looked after solely by Suzanne’s mother, Madeleine, and their Breton maid, Catherine, whilst Suzanne pursued her career as an artist’s model.  To say that Maurice was not a typical child would be something of an understatement.  At times he would lie peacefully on his grandmother’s lap and then suddenly his body would become stiff and he would shudder violently, biting his lip until it bled and hold his breath until his whole face turned purple.  In later childhood this small waif-like little boy would throw himself on the floor in fits of rage.  Suzanne’s grandmother’s only solution was to give him some watered down wine to try and calm him down.  It was not Suzanne that spent the most time with him but his grandmother.  It was she who comforted him during his fits and rages.  It was she who fed and clothed him.  It was she who shared her bed at night with him.  It was she who gave him the nickname Mamau which stayed with him all his life.  Madeleine had spent little time or had shown much love towards her daughter Suzanne and she was now probably trying not to make the same mistake with her grandson.  In turn, Maurice loved his grandmother and revelled in her company.  Suzanne was not jealous of this grandmother/grandson close relationship, in fact as she had tried, without success, to please her mother all her life she was pleased that she had “given” her son to her mother as this had evoked so much pleasure.

Nu assis se coiffant by Suzanne Valadon (1896)
Nu assis se coiffant by Suzanne Valadon (1896)

At the age of five Suzanne enrolled Maurice at a nursery school, Pension La Flaiselle, in the rue Labat.  Her son hated the school, in fact he was terrified by it and yet although knowing his fear, Suzanne never walked the long distance up the hill to reach the place which, by doing so, would have afforded her son a modicum of comfort.  This terror Maurice felt began to have an effect on life at home as the older he got the more he would lapse into spells of depression often followed by bouts of extreme violence which manifested itself into the smashing of the household china and ripping down the curtains.  Despite the doctor’s prognosis that he would “grow out of it”, the violent episodes continued but at no time could Suzanne see the correlation between his mood swings and his unhappiness at the school.   Suzanne saw his terror of school life as a form of cowardice and whimpishness for one has to remember that as a child of Maurice’s age, Suzanne was completely fearless.  Suzanne showed Maurice little sympathy; on the contrary, she was embarrassed by his antics. When things got out of hand at home Suzanne would just leave the house to party or be with a lover and leave Maurice for her mother to handle.

Maurice playing with slingshot by Suzanne Valadon (1895)
Maurice playing with slingshot by Suzanne Valadon (1895)

It was in 1888 that a new lover for Suzanne came on to the scene in the form of a young wealthy banker, Paul Mousis, whom she had seen around the café-cabaret establishments, Auberge du Clou and the Chat Noir.  Mousis would mingle with the artists who were at the Auberge du Clou and because he was a generous man, he would keep them supplied with drinks, and by this gesture, he was accepted as “one of their own”.  The Auberge was just a short distance from Toulouse-Lautrec’s home and Mousis along with his new friends would often visit the painter’s home and join one of Lautrec’s frequent soirées and it was here that he met Suzanne, who was acting as Lautrec’s unofficial hostess.  Mousis was immediately besotted with this beautiful young French woman and within a few weeks of their first meeting he had proposed marriage.  She refused him but said that she would readily become his lover.  Her reasoning was quite simple.  Being Mousis’ lover meant that she was on equal terms with him, whereas marrying Mousis would make her his property and in some way subservient. 

During her late teens and early twenties Suzanne had a number of lovers and would often tire of them very quickly.  Mousis offered her not only his companionship and love-making but financial stability and yet Suzanne, three months into their relationship, strayed, this time towards the strange enigmatic musician and composer, Erik Satie whom she met whilst he was playing the piano at Le Chat Noir café.  Twenty-one year old Satie was a dropout from the Paris Conservatoire, who had given up the bourgeois lifestyle he had whilst living with his parents, and moved to the bohemian lifestyle of the Montmartrois.   One would have thought that Paul Mousis would have been horrified at this turn of events but he wasn’t, maybe because he too was having a liaison with another woman!   Satie was besotted with Suzanne.  He even proposed marriage to her on their first meeting.  He lavished upon her numerous gifts, took her for walks in the Luxembourg Gardens and strange as it may seem, he would often go out in the evening with Suzanne and Mousis.  This was indeed a ménage à trois.  However the leading role in this love triangle was always Suzanne.  She choreographed the love triangle.  She constantly fussed around Satie looking after all his needs, such as feeding him, darning his socks and cleaning for him.   In Ornella Volta’s 1989 book, Satie seen through his letters, the depth of his love for Suzanne can be clearly seen.  He wrote to his brother in 1893:

“…I shall have great difficulty in regaining possession of myself, loving this little person as I have loved her …she was able to take all of me. Time will do what at this moment I cannot do…”

Mousis was not deterred by the presence of Satie as he felt that Suzanne was the only woman who could satisfy him sexually.  However all good things had to come to an end and Mousis became tired of the love triangle and told Suzanne it must end.  She refused to give up Satie and so Mousis went off for six months.  He did return and once again took up with Suzanne but now it was the turn of Satie to complain and tell Suzanne to end her relationship with Mousis.  Once again and highlighting her control of the love triangle she refused and Satie ended the ménage à trois being unable to share her with Mousis.

Portrait of Erik Satie  by Suzanne Valadon (c.1892)
Portrait of Erik Satie by Suzanne Valadon (c.1892)

In 1894 Suzanne and Mousis set up house at No. 2 rue Cortot, just two doors away from the house belonging to Satie.  After a short while, neighbours would refer to Suzanne as Madame Mousis.  She did visit Satie and it was in 1892 in his one-room house, two doors away, at No. 6 rue Cortot, that she had painted the twenty-six year old musician’s  portrait.  It is entitled Portrait of Erik Satie and it can now be found in the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.  It was Suzanne’s first attempt at portraiture in oil.  It measures just 22 x 41 cms and because the height of the portrait is double that of its width there is an elongated look to it.  Satie almost fills the canvas.  His facial expression in this painting is one of dourness.  His red lips are partly hidden by his waxed moustache and the pince-nez glasses give him an intellectual air. 

In the summer of 1886 Suzanne and Satie parted company in acrimonious circumstances.  It is not clear what happened to initiate this final breakdown of their relationship, but final it was.  It is alleged that Satie was devastated, hurling himself on the floor weeping bitter tears and bitterly declaring that he was left with “nothing but an icy loneliness that fills the head with emptiness and the heart with sadness”.  In 1889 Satie left Montmartre and his one and only true love, Suzanne Valadon. It was also 1896 that Mousis and Suzanne were said to have married, but did they ever officially marry?  Although Mousis was often referred to as “Suzanne’s first husband” there is no official record of their marriage or divorce in either the mairies of Montmartre or Pierrefitte-Montmagny and maybe when her friends talk of  her marriage to Mousis it was just a figurative expression rather than a literal one.

Nu à la toilette by Suzanne Valadon (1892)
Nu à la toilette by Suzanne Valadon (1892)

If we go back four years to 1892 there was a change in Suzanne Valadon’s lifestyle.  Her wealthy lover, Paul Mousis had tired of the bohemian lifestyle of Montmartre and wanted to return to his former bourgeois lifestyle which he believed befitted a successful banker and so he decided to lease a house in the village of Pierrefitte, situated in the Seine valley, and which lay twenty kilometres north of Paris.  This was to be a weekend retreat for himself, Suzanne and her family.  Suzanne’s grandmother, Madeleine, was delighted to move back to a quiet rural village similar to the one she had been brought up in.   She was now in her late sixties, a somewhat wizened old woman who suffered badly from rheumatism and who was still addicted to alcohol and spent much of her time in a semi-drunken haze.  Her one love, her one great pleasure in life was her grandson Maurice.  He still suffered from swiftly changing moods and his grandmother could only control his uncontrollable rages by plying him with glasses of wine.   However the alcohol did not always have the desired effect and instead of calming him down it lead to him demanding more glasses of it until he virtually passed out. He had become an alcoholic.

In 1894 Mousis, who loved living in the area decided to build the family a new house atop the Butte Pinson which was between the village of Pierrefitte and the village of Montmagny.  Suzanne was still uncertain about the move away from Montmartre so Mousis told her that the building of the new house was simply a business investment.  He also tried to persuade Suzanne that to achieve a great artistic standing she needed to move away from the chaos of Montmartre life.  As a compromise he agreed that Suzanne should keep her Montmartre studio in the rue Cortot.  Suzanne would commute back and forth between their home at Montmagny and her studio in Montmartre by her own pony and trap which Mousis had given her.  Soon she began to appreciate life at Montmagny and developed a passion for flowers and the enjoyment of gardening. 

Notwithstanding her new lifestyle and her love of nature, she was not able to ignore the ever-increasing problem she had in her life – her son Maurice and his worsening mental behaviour.  By his teenage years he like his grandmother had become addicted to alcohol but now it was not just wine, it was now the “green devil” itself, absinthe.  In his late teens he had also become much more violent during his uncontrollable rages and Mousis and Suzanne consulted many doctors and psychiatrists.  It culminated in 1901, just before his nineteenth birthday, when during a particularly nasty rage a doctor was called to forcibly sedate him and he was committed to the asylum of Saint-Anne where he remained for three months.   This was a terrible time for Suzanne as it was during her son’s confinement she also learnt of the death of her good friend and mentor, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, who had died in a sanatorium at the age of thirty-seven.  The cause of death was partly put down to complications arising from his alcoholism and Suzanne must have wondered what her son’s fate would be.

Whilst Maurice remained in the asylum, Suzanne filled her life by concentrating on her art and spent nearly all the time at her studio in rue Cortot where she completed a series of nude drawings for which she served as her own model.  Maurice was finally released from the asylum and according to his mother, “he looked better than he has for years – and so beautiful”.  He was off drink but was very listless, avoided everybody and sat reading his books.  A turning point came when Suzanne persuaded him to take up art as a hobby.  Reluctant at first, he soon took a liking to it and within two years, would spend most of his time in his mother’s studio in Montmartre.  In that time, he had completed no fewer than 150 works. By the age of twenty-three he was living in her studio.  The only think he disliked about life in Montmartre was the people.  People everywhere and he just wanted to shut himself away from them all.  They annoyed him and soon the rages returned and to cope with the rages he turned back to drink and would, during the day, paint with excruciating hangovers.  Despite his abhorrence of people he would still go out and wander around Montmartre painting en plein air.  When buoyed by alcohol he would engage in conversation with others in the drinking establishments he frequented.  He always introduced himself as Maurice Valadon, adamantly shunning the name “Utrillo”.  The drinking resulted in his old habits returning – the violent outbursts of rage often culminating in fights with the locals. 

One day in 1909, which was to have an effect on his life and the life of his mother Suzanne, he was sitting outside painting when he was approached by a young man who introduced himself as a fellow artist.  He was André Utter.

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