PRINT May 2022



Suzanne Valadon, Self-Portrait, 1911, oil on canvas, 28 1⁄2 × 22 5⁄8".

A SELF-PORTRAIT from 1911 shows Suzanne Valadon at work, presumably creating the image before us. Holding a paint-streaked palette, she turns slightly to the right with lips pursed and eyes narrowed, likely scrutinizing her reflection in a mirror beyond the frame. When Valadon made the portrait, at age forty-six, she would have been quite accustomed to holding a pose. Raised by a single mother in Montmartre, heady epicenter of the Parisian avant-garde, she began working as an artist’s model at the age of fifteen, sitting for the likes of Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec, her friend and lover, who nicknamed her “Suzanna” (her real name was Marie-Clémentine) in winking reference to the biblical figure whose beauty tormented older men. Less familiar to the middle-aged Valadon was holding a brush. The self-taught artist didn’t seriously develop her practice until she was in her thirties, when marriage to a wealthy businessman afforded her the necessary time and support; she only began working with oil paints in 1909, the same year she left her conjugal home to take up with André Utter, a friend of her son, Maurice Utrillo, and more than twenty years her junior. Forged in a moment of personal and professional renewal, Self-Portrait declares Valadon’s hard-won status as subject and painter, mistress of her own canvas double. Valadon spent more than a decade watching male artists assess her and pick her apart; now behind the easel, she contemplates herself with shrewd determination.

Self-Portrait hangs at the entrance to “Suzanne Vala­­don: Model, Painter, Rebel,” on view through July 31 at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, and is an apt opening statement for a show that rehabilitates an overlooked female artist on her own terms, steering clear of anachronism or hagiography. Valadon was admired in her time—even hailed as a “virile” talent on par with Gauguin and Cézanne—but her libertinism and career as a model (only one step above prostitute in the eyes of bourgeois society) left her legacy vulnerable to devaluation. In an art market conditioned by sexism and classism, Valadon has been collected less than the men she posed for and was slower to receive attention than primmer and better-bred women artists like Mary Cassatt or Berthe Morisot. The Glyptotek does not own any works by Valadon. Albert Barnes, whose eponymous foundation in Philadelphia originated the exhibition last year, similarly overlooked Valadon when building his formidable impressionist and post-impressionist collection.

Aware that Valadon’s work has long been overshadowed by her sensational life story, curator Nancy Ireson has delicately balanced the artist’s biography and her oeuvre, presenting the two as complementary and interdependent. Valadon’s modeling, highlighted in the second room, is described as a necessary precursor to her art, making her particularly attuned to the realities of the female form and the sleight of hand involved in its idealization. Knowing firsthand how strenuous and dull professional posing could be, Valadon depicted bathers, nudes, and odalisques half-heartedly holding positions that expose the artifice of the tropes rolled out for the male gaze. Such works thematize women’s self-fashioning but also femininity’s unraveling. The woman in Nude Sitting on a Sofa, 1916, for example, crosses her legs as if resting between posing sessions. The subject of Nude on a Red Sofa, 1920, similarly appears to be on break and stares vacantly at the ceiling, her left foot dropping on the floor. Bare bodies are awkwardly hunched. There are fat rolls and pendulous breasts. Skin is rendered with a dappled effect that looks, at times, like cellulite.

Suzanne Valadon, La petite fille au miroir (Young Girl with Mirror), 1909, oil on board, 41 × 29 3⁄8".

Valadon also underscored the ways in which all women learn to model, officially or otherwise. Though she painted all kinds of pictures—the exhibition includes still lifes, allegorical scenes, portrait commissions, even the odd landscape—it is her intelligent and critical compositions on girlhood that stand out. Nude with a Mirror, 1909, is exemplary in its treatment of adolescence, showing a preteen coming to terms with her pubescent body and its sexuality. The naked figure holds a hand mirror behind her back, craning to see the rising curves of her buttocks. In a companion piece from the same year, Young Girl with Mirror, it is an older woman, probably a maid, who wields the mirror before her young charge in a solemn rite of passage. In sharp contrast to Renoir’s innocent darlings, Valadon’s girls are knowing, even world-weary. The unlovely toddler in Marie Coca and Her Daughter Gilberte, 1913—more blotchy-faced than rosy-cheeked—splays her doll’s legs and peers up at the viewer in a gesture of provocation unnerving from a child so young.

That Valadon was a sharp observer of women does not mean she was unaffected by the pressures of social expectation or by myths of youth and beauty. As Ireson observes, Valadon appeared uncomfortable with her own aging, “gloss[ing] over” her wrinkles and sags in the double portrait Adam and Eve, 1909, which shows Utter alongside a forty-four-year-old Valadon looking as taut and nubile as Botticelli’s Venus—albeit with ample pubic hair. Ireson reminds us that Valadon didn’t necessarily paint female nudes to explode the genre. Though full-frontal views were still risqué subject matter for women artists, toilette scenes were popular and sellable, and even Valadon’s strange iterations were solid financial gambles. As one critic wrote in 1928, “Her works are the acts of a painter, not a dreamer.” This clear-eyed retrospective embraces Valadon as a pragmatist and a provocatrice.

Hannah Stamler is a writer and Ph.D. candidate in history and interdisciplinary humanities at Princeton University.