(Marie-Clémentine) Suzanne Valadon was a French painter and artists' model who was born Marie-Clémentine Valadon at Bessines-sur-Gartempe, Haute-Vienne, France. In 1894, Valadon became the first woman painter admitted to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. She was also the mother of painter Maurice Utrillo. The subjects of her drawings and paintings included mostly female nudes, female portraits, still lifes, and landscapes. She never attended the academy and was never confined within a tradition. Valadon spent nearly 40 years of her life as an artist.
The daughter of an unmarried laundress, Valadon began working at age 11 after a short attendance to primary school and worked in a variety of areas including a milliner’s workshop, a factory making funeral wreaths, a market selling vegetables, a waitress in a restaurant, and then finally in the circus. Valadon became a circus acrobat at the age of fifteen, but a year later, a fall from a trapeze ended that career. In the Montmartre quarter of Paris, she pursued her interest in art, first working as a model for artists, observing and learning their techniques, before becoming a noted painter herself.
Valadon debuted as a model in 1880 in Montmartre at age 15. She modeled for over 10 years for many different artists including the following: Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes, Théophile Steinlen, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. She modeled under the name “Maria” and was thought to have had many affairs with the artists she modeled for. She was considered seductive, provocative, comely, voluptuous, and flighty as a model. Toulouse-Lautrec nicknamed her “Suzanne” after the biblical story of Susanna and the Elders. She was considered a very focused, ambitious, rebellious, determined, self-confident, and passionate woman. She was also known to be good friends with Edgar Degas. In the early 1890s she befriended Degas who, impressed with her bold line drawings and fine paintings, purchased her work and encouraged her efforts. She remained one of Degas's closest friends until his death.
The most recognizable image of Valadon would be in Renoir's Dance at Bougival from 1883, the same year that she posed for City Dance. In 1885, Renoir painted her portrait again as Girl Braiding Her Hair. Another of his portraits of her in 1885, Suzanne Valadon, is of her head and shoulders in profile. Valadon frequented the bars and taverns of Paris along with her fellow painters, and she was Toulouse-Lautrec's subject in his oil painting The Hangover.
Valadon grew up in poverty with her mother
and did not know her father. She was known to be quite independent and rebellious. She attended primary school until age 11 when she began to work. In 1883 Valadon gave birth to her 'illegitimate' son, Maurice
Utrillo, at the age of 18. Valadon’s mother cared for Maurice while she returned to modeling. Valadon's friend Miguel Utrillo would later sign papers recognizing Maurice as his son, although his true paternity is uncertain. Valadon
helped to educate herself in art by reading Toulouse-Lautrec’s books and observing the artists at work for whom she posed. In 1893, Valadon began a short-lived affair with composer Erik
Satie, moving to a room next to his on the Rue Cortot. Satie became obsessed with her, calling her his Biqui, writing impassioned notes about "her
whole being, lovely eyes, gentle hands, and tiny feet", but after six months she left, leaving him devastated. Valadon married stockbroker Paul Moussis in 1895, leading a bourgeois life for 13 years at an apartment in Paris and a house in the outlying
region. In 1909, Valadon began an affair with the painter André Utter, age 23 and a friend of her son, divorcing Moussis in 1913. Valadon married
Utter in 1914, and he managed her career as well as her son's. Valadon and Utter regularly exhibited work together until the couple divorced in 1934.
Suzanne Valadon was model (of Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, …) and, encouraged by Degas, became a painter herself. She was the first woman admitted to the National Society of Fine Arts. Her son, Maurice Utrillo had an “unstable” character, he became rapidly a very famous painter.
Suzanne Valadon died of a stroke on 7 April 1938, at age 72, and was buried in the Cimetière de Saint-Ouen in Paris. Among those in attendance at her funeral were her friends and colleagues André Derain, Pablo Picasso, and Georges Braque.