‘Model, Painter, Rebel’ – Barnes Foundation Opens the First Major Suzanne Valadon Retrospective

Above: Suzanne Valadon. The Blue Room, 1923. Centre Pompidou – Musée National d’Art Moderne/CCI, Paris, on deposit to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Limoges, State Purchase, 1924. © 2021 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo by Jacqueline Hyde / Image © CNAC/MNAM, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY.

Exhibition images by Daniel Jackson

There is a sort of pantheon of muses from what would be considered art’s great Modernist period – let’s bracket it from the 1860s to some inexact point around the 1950s, when it was decided that art had in fact become “contemporary” (and/or postmodern). Their names are surely less familiar than those whom they inspired; but if you know something about art, you probably know who they are: Camille Claudel to Rodin, Dora Maar and Marie-Thérèse Walter to Picasso, Emilie Louise Flöge to Klimt, and Kiki de Montparnasse to any number of the Surrealists, but especially Man Ray (she now even has a lingerie line fittingly named in tribute to her).

But likely none were so directly influential as Suzanne Valadon, née Marie-Clémentine Valadon, whose first American solo retrospective has just opened at Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation (Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel runs through January 9, 2022). Indeed, by just 15 years of age she was modeling for the likes of Renoir (that’s her in his immortal Dance at Bougival), Toulouse Lautrec, and Théophile Steinlen, while immersed in a now storied turn-of-the-century Montmartre (Paris) art scene that was arguably as culturally epochal as punk would be a hundred years later. Lautrec, also her lover for a time, gave her the biblical nickname “Suzanne” early on, and it just stuck.

She would ultimately self-train as an artist – unheard for a woman at that time – and become a beloved protege of Edgar Degas (to this day he’s regarded as essentially asexual, so it’s not likely they were also intimately involved). Seemingly fearless, and unflinchingly rebellious, her early paintings of Rubenesque female nudes caused some scandal, but also won her earnest and considerable respect in an art world still utterly dominated by the male point of view. She never agitated for women’s causes, specifically – but by the very way she lived and worked, she most intrepidly blazed a path forward for the more determinedly feminist artists that would follow on from her.

When she suffered a stroke at age just 72 in 1938, she was in the act of painting. She died in the hospital hours later, and her funeral was attended by her friends and colleagues Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and André Derain. Eighty-three years later, she is finally being paid proper tribute in America.

Just as the exhibition was opening (it will travel to Copenhagen’s Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek after) we caught up with Barnes Foundation Deputy Director for Collections and Exhibitions Nancy Ireson – also formerly of London’s Tate Modern – who acted as curator, to discuss Valadon’s considerable legacy.

What made this the right time for the first major US exhibition on Suzanne Valadon?

Valadon’s work feels very contemporary; she dared to tackle themes in her work that are still relevant today. She shows the tensions in family relationships, explores the ways in which women relate to their bodies, and celebrates female desire. It is amazing to think that many of the works in the show are more than one hundred years old.

How did she come to be muse to so many notable artists in that late 19th Century Montmartre scene?

As a teenager, Valadon was a sought-after artist’s model. Petite in stature, with bright eyes and clear skin, her looks clearly won her many admirers. But she also seems to have understood how to help painters produce their best work. She modelled for hours uncomplainingly, and was flexible enough to hold challenging poses. If she were alive today, we might think of her modeling as part of her own creative practice.

When she exhibited at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in 1894, what was the status of women artists in France, and Europe in general?

Though women artists had more opportunities in the 1890s than they had historically, it was still incredibly hard for a woman to make her name in the art world. Those who did show works in public exhibitions tended to have benefited from an art education. Valadon was self-taught, and so her success is all the more exceptional.

How did her work react against the dominantly male point of view of that time? 

Valadon painted the male body with evident desire, and was not afraid to explore topical themes. In her painting Marie Coca and Her Daughter Gilberte, for instance, she captures a woman torn between personal freedom and parenting. I don’t know of a male artist doing something similar in 1913.

How would one best describe her work stylistically, especially as she was creating it at such a time of radical upheaval in the art world? And how much influence did she draw from the prevailing avant-garde?

Valadon learned from the artists who she’d worked for and lived amongst, but she had a style that was very much her own. I think her friend Degas captured something of this when he called her drawings “hard and supple.” He seems to have understood Valadon’s special ability to capture the contours of a body with an exacting line, all the while retaining a sense of softness. 

Is the Barnes exhibition more about narrative, or about ideology? How did you approach telling her story?

The Valadon show at the Barnes features works from all periods in the artist’s career, and so is a perfect introduction to a body of work that you may be encountering for the first time. But it also shows how, at different moments in that career, she explored particular themes. While in the 1910s, she focused on the female nude, for example, many of her later works are vibrant floral still-lifes. 

What do you hope people will take away from the exhibition?

Most importantly, the show at the Barnes offers the sheer joy of discovering an artist whose work has never been fully celebrated in this country. So many people – including some who have worked for decades in the visual arts – have asked me “why haven’t we seen this before?” Valadon’s The Blue Room is surely one of the greatest paintings of the early Twentieth Century. 

What is Suzanne Valadon’s legacy in regards to the modern history of women artists? 

Simply by persisting – by pursuing her passion against the odds – Valadon paved the way for women artists of the future. Despite facing countless obstacles, she proved that a woman could make a lasting mark on the art world. Now it’s time for art history to recognize that contribution.

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