Renoir’s Dancer: The Secret Life of Suzanne Valadon
St. Martin’s Press, 2018, 381 pages
The lives of female artists have seldom been easy. This turns out to have been painfully true of the French Post Impressionist Suzanne Valadon, who began her life as the illegitimate daughter of a linen maid in the Limousin region of France. Her mother, left widowed young, by a husband who was a forger, subsequently apprehended, and sentenced to hard labor, decided to move to Paris to better her lot and that of the young daughter born to her some years after her husband’s death. Fate dealt the pair a severe blow, for the year of their move was 1869-70, or the year of the Paris Commune, and the resulting rioting, and famine.
Somehow Madeline and her daughter survived, and in a few years young Maria, (she changed her name to Suzanne in her twenties) became an artist’s model. She was a favorite of Puvis de Chavannes, of Renoir, of Toulouse Lautrec, and many others. Curiously, this girl with small education, and no other artistic training than observation, took to drawing. The odd, and the direct aspect of her work, was arresting, so much so that she came to the attention of no less an exacting critic and collector than Degas. It was the lines of her drawings, their incisiveness, their confidence, that impressed the grand old man of Parisian alternate art. She had an honesty and precision in her work that was unusual.
Valadon was equally atypical in her private life, a lover of many, including Erik Satie, Renoir, and possibly Toulouse -Lautrec, she married late, at thirty one, after having partially raised her own illegitimate son. Her husband was a Parisian business man named Mousis, who was not the father of her child.
Maurice had been recognized by the artist Miguel Utrillo, although, the child’s parentage may have been altogether different. Suzanne refused to specify the name of the father, and so Marurice Utrillo’s paternity remains a mystery.
Catherine Hewitt’s biography is hampered by the paucity of information about Valadon’s early life. Hewitt makes up for these patches of undocumented time by describing the life of peasants in the Limousin, or the street life of Montmartre. This is a common difficulty for any biographer. Where little material about a subject is available, the biographer must either speculate or else provide background information, and the backstory Hewitt opts for here is handled with a deft fiction writer’s turn of phrase. However, given the restraints on the biographer, it might have been as well to accept the limited documentation, and simply focus on Valadon’s life in Paris. Beginning the story during the upheavals of the Commune, might have provided an exciting opening, and a parallel to the subsequent artistic revolution.
Paris, and its environs, are where this biography is at its most readable. Suzanne Valadon was one of those attractive individuals who are hubs of acquaintance for gifted, and creative people, and there are few more notable hotbeds of artistic ferment than late nineteenth century Paris. That was a party not to be missed. All one has to do is spend an afternoon at the Musee D’Orsay, to see what life might have been like for Suzanne in her twenties. Hewitt here, emphasizes the gender politics Valadon had to overcome, and that is a valid point, but as Hewitt notes, Valadon’s working class background gave her an entree not shared by her Impressionist sisters. Where earlier female painters, like Berthe Morisot, and Mary Cassatt had to absent themselves from the cafe discussions for respectability’s sake , Suzanne could go to Le Chat Noir, drink with the boys, shudder at their exclusion of Van Gogh, and discuss art. The gender issue was ameliorated by Suzanne’s working class credentials. Suzanne went where she wanted.
Her second claim to fame is that she was the mother of the artist Maurice Utrillo, although that seems to have proven a mixed blessing. He was in and out of mental institutions from an early age, and a hopeless alcoholic. His mother taught him to paint in an effort to find some mental stability, and miraculously, Maurice had talent.
What emerges as really impressive about this woman is her determination, her realism. She would become an artist, no matter what impediments blocked her progress, would keep her son, no matter what stigma attached to his illegitimacy, would live by her own rules, no matter how these outraged the conventions of her era. Simply put, the qualities you see in her art were the qualities she brought to her life. Her art is devoid of artfulness, though this biography, practiced, professional, and readable, lacks the subject’s raw candor.