A somewhat controversial figure, Suzanne Valadon (given birth name Marie-Clementine Valadon) was the illegitimate daughter of a French domestic worker. Born in September of 1865, Valadon lived to be only 62 years old – but her life was certainly never dull.
From the age of ten, Valadon supported herself as she grew up in the bohemian quarter of Paris, doing such odd jobs as performing in a circus, working as a waitress, and even a nanny. At age 16, a fall from a trapeze sent her life down a different path.
For 13 years beginning at age 15, Suzanne modeled for some of the most well-known artists of the era including Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Valadon was what we would probably call today a ‘loose woman,’ causing a stir in the cabarets and clubs of Montmartre. Many articles about Valadon’s life portray her as a woman who constantly drew attention in a provocative way, taking numerous lovers at a very young age. Even her paintings demonstrate her proclivity for what some may have considered shameful at the time, many of them of nude women. Valadon also created landscapes and still lifes which were described as vibrant and powerfully rich in color.
Many believe that her bold renditions of nude women and the representation of their sexuality was born out of her years as a circus performer and artist’s model. While she could not afford formal art training, her close relationships with some of the most prominent artists of the time resulted in her transformation from artist’s model into a successful artist in her own right. She also had sexual affairs with some of the artists she posed for.
At age 18, Valadon gave birth to Maurice Utrillo out of wedlock; Utrillo also became an artist. At nearly 50 years old Valadon married Andre Utter, who was also an artist and 21 years younger than Valadon. While her artwork attracted a substantial amount of attention due to its passion and intensity, her personal life drew just as much attention. Rising to the peak of her fame in the 1920s, during her lifetime she had four major retrospective exhibitions.