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Suzanne Valadon - a Muse Who Inspired

The idea of the muse — someone who inspires you — has fascinated people throughout history. Many well-known artists have claimed that the muses were vital to their art and it's not a trend that seems to be dying — artists today still claim to have muses.

Don’t you think it’s beautiful when another soul inspires you? Makes you feel more alive? See the world with new, passionate eyes? Sometimes this is because the person simply has something that makes us see the world differently, but many times it’s because of our own attraction to that person. As Plato said, at the touch of love everyone becomes a poet. Not everyone is a poet, or artist, though, but those who are, have often created some of their greatest works thanks to their muses. So I thought I’d have a look at some different muses to see what made them stand out. I fell for Suzanne Valadon — a woman who was so much more than just a muse!

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Self-portrait by Suzanne Valadon.

Suzanne Valadon

Suzanne Valadon is interesting, amongst other things, because she didn’t just inspire one artist, but many. Born in 1865, she spent her life in Paris during the Belle Époque. Growing up in poverty with her mother, a laundress, as her sole support, she went to primary school until the age of 11 and then started working in factories, waitressing and doing other odd jobs. Eventually, thanks to some artistic friends she’d made in Montmartre, she became an acrobat in a circus. She enjoyed the circus, but after a year had a fall, which ended that career. She sustained a back injury which she healed from, but it made it impossible to perform.

While at the circus, Berthe Morisot drew a picture of Valadon as she walked a tightrope.

When she was around 15, in 1880, Valadon met Pierre Puvis de Chavannes who she began modeling for and became a permanent fixture in the Montmartre art scene. She frequented places such as Lapin-Agile and Le Chat Noir. Soon, she modeled for several different artists and became well-known for her lively and spirited nature. She notoriously slid down the banister of a popular club one night — stark naked, but wearing a mask!

Having a son when she was 18 did not slow Valadon down — her mother helped raise her son as she kept modeling. She modeled for Toulouse Lautrec, Renoir, Degas…the list goes on. With some of these artists she had affairs, which was common in the day. She also had an affair with composer Erik Satie whom she greatly inspired.

The Influence of Friends

Valadon took it upon herself to educate herself further by studying the artists she worked for and reading Toulouse Lautrec’s books on art. She is said to have started drawing at the age of nine.

While Valadon was headstrong, she may not have made it as far as she did, had she not become friends with Degas, who greatly encouraged her. He’d buy her art and also helped her with the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. It was also much thanks to the marriage with a wealthy stockbroker in 1896 that she was able to focus on her art full-time, no longer needing the financial assistance from modeling.

Unconventional Love Affairs and Artworks

While marrying a stockbroker may have been good for her finances, Valadon had problems in her marriage from early on. In 1906 she met one of her son’s friends, Andre Utter. Her son, Maurice Utrillo had grown up to become interested in art, and Utter was a painter. Having some form of connection with Utter, Valadon began an affair with him three years after meeting him. At the time she was 44 and he 23.

As Utrillo had mental problems, Valadon on-and-off spent time looking after his health, but she never stopped painting. While, at first, she mainly sold a few pieces here and there, her career steadily grew. Critical acclaim was, however, acquired long before commercial success, but it eventually came, if not as great as that of her son’s.

One interesting aspect of Valadon’s career is that she wasn’t officially trained, but self-taught. This led to her adapting her own style. She also, possibly thanks to her independent nature, painted subjects most women did not. It was common for women to achieve acclaim and success in the Paris art world, but they only painted domestic scenes. Valadon painted male and female nudes as well as landscapes and street scenes. She wasn’t just a muse — she changed the art world itself.

Valadon personal life was as unconventional as her professional life. According to one source she: “[…] kept a pet goat who would eat the paintings she deemed unsatisfactory, fed her “good catholic cats” caviar on Fridays (as opposed to the usual fish), and wore a corsage of carrots.” She was also eventually found out by her husband for having an affair and the marriage was ended. She continued seeing Utter and married him when WWI broke out, so that she could receive an allowance from the military. (1)

Valadon and Utter’s relationship continued till her death, though towards the end of the 1920s he’d taken to drinking and sleeping with other women and eventually moved out. However, they never divorced.

Because of her son’s mental health problems and, later, Utter’s drinking and infidelity, as well as unstable finances during parts of her life, Valadon faced difficulties, but she was always surrounded by friends and never stopped painting. In fact, she died of a stroke she had while painting at the age of 72.

The Inspiration

The wonderful thing about Valadon is that she didn’t only inspire a multitude of artists, but became a recognized artists herself — she was the first woman accepted into the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Both an asteroid and a crater on Venus are named after Valadon and plays and movies have been made about her life. It could be said that even now, Valadon is a muse!

1) https://www.wqxr.org/story/weird-classical-saties-quirky-relationship-painter-suzanne-valadon/ 

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