Suzanne Valadon: From Trapeze Performer to Artist


Marie-Clémentine Valadon, better known as Suzanne Valadon was a French Post-Impressionist painter who created compelling, unorthodox and sometimes even “scandalous” figure paintings. She lived a spirited life as tumultuous and sensational as the celebrated epoch of 19th century French art in which she had a critical role.

As the daughter of a laundress, the petite Suzanne Valadon grew up in the Bohemian quarter of Paris, Montmartre perched atop a hill, not too far from Paris. In 1882, the writer Félicien Champsaur wrote that Montmartre was alive with vivacious artists, writers and intellectuals that were surrounded by the locals, “the starchy ladies of the rue Bréda, the retired folk of Batignolle,” and they “sprouted like weeds.” In the midst of the rustic beauty, the newcomers frequented the dance halls, café concerts and cabarets like Chat Noir and Moulin Rouge. Suzanne Valadon was interposed in this artistic mélange.

By the age of ten, Suzanne Valadon was supporting herself with small jobs as a waitress and selling vegetables in a stall among the hustle and bustle at Les Halles marketplace. When not working, the young Valadon liked to follow behind processions. She would turn cartwheels and perform handstands on the horses’ backs. Her capers caught the attention of Ernest Molier, the owner of Cirque Molier, an amateur circus that invited Parisian society to watch the performers in the ring at Place Pigalle.


Molier trained the young Valadon to be a performer in his shows. While she mastered the trapeze, she took part in pantomimes and danced for men. By the age of 15, Valadon went from selling vegetables to becoming a full-fledged trapeze artist. However, she sustained a horrible fall and hurt her back in less than a year.  No longer able to perform, the trapeze mishap led her in a completely new direction.

After her recovery, a model who lived nearby suggested that Valadon accompany her and other girls to an “unofficial models’ market” in the Butte, twisted old streets at the top of Montmartre. The trapeze performer did not realize that she was participating in “one life of the district” for yet another. Petite, blue-eyed and with a curvaceous figure, she became popular among the artists who soon forgot their theories, for it was said that she had “luminous blue eyes that attracted men like flies.”

She modeled from 1880 through 1893 for several important painters including Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Despite the fact that she could not afford formal art lessons, there are at least two narratives on how she became an artist.

One account stated that she was taught etching and drawing techniques from her close friend, Edgar Degas. Another report, in January 1950 Life magazine, stated that she was late to a modeling session with Renoir who went to search for her. The artist found Valadon with pastel sticks in hand, working on a nearly finished self-portrait. Embarrassed, she tried to hide the picture but Renoir took it from her. Her first effort at portraiture hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. In either adaptation of her artistic beginnings, Valadon took up the brush to become an painter.

Suzanne Valadon lived a life full of twists and turns. In 1883, she gave birth to Maurice Utrillo (who also became an artist). She was the first woman to show at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, and just two years later she began painting full-time. Valadon gave her first solo exhibition in 1911. Considered a huge success, she attracted critical acclaim and new patrons.

After losing her heart to many, she fell in love with French bohemian painter André Utter, a friend of her son who was 21 years younger than she was. In 1909 when she painted Adam et Eve, a depiction of Valadon and her new lover, it signified the first instance that a painting of a nude woman and man together was ever exhibited openly by a female artist.

The young trapeze artist, who finally found her calling, rose to fame in the 1920s. She had four major exhibitions during her lifetime. Her paintings and prints transformed the genre of the female nude. She painted working class women in casual poses with indelicateness and loose brushstrokes. Critics condemned her renderings, accusing her of being a woman-hater and that her artwork had a “masculine quality” and an “un-feminine bravado.”

Suzanne Valadon, though she was artistic and a thriving painter, is often brushed aside as an artist’s model or the mother of the artist, Maurice Utrillo. However, her work was equal to her contemporaries such as Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Renoir. Her works included The Bath (1908), Family Portrait (1912), The Abandoned Doll (1921) and Reclining Nude (1928) among others.

In 1938, Valadon spoke to Francis Carco, a friend and chronicler of Montmartre. She told him that she “never surrendered” and she had “never betrayed anything” for which she believed in. Suzanne Valadon died doing what she loved most, painting at her easel in March 1938, at the age of 73. Her obituary was reported in the newspaper, Le Figaro, and stated that Suzanne Valadon was the wife of painter André Utter and mother of painter Maurice Utrillo, not an artist herself.

By Dawn Levesque

National Museum of Women in the Arts
NUVO Magazine
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Victoria and Albert Museum

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