Self-portrait, 1898, Suzanne Valadon
Self-portrait, 1898, Suzanne Valadon. Oil on canvas, 40 cm × 26.7 cm (15.7 × 10.5 in). Museum of Fine Arts Houston. Right: Detail of Joy of Life.

Suzanne Valadon was a woman of many firsts, storming into the top echelons of French art and planting her flag as one of the most important painters of the early 20th century.

The Early Life of Suzanne Valadon

Suzanne Valadon (1865–1938), born Marie-Clémentine Valadon, was raised in Paris by her mother, with the family trapped in destitution. She was a fiery girl willing to do things her own way, a character trait that no doubt survived long past childhood.

At 15, she joined the circus, performing as an acrobat. And while working there, she met painters employed to create designs for the sets. Other artists came to view the circus, meeting Valadon in the process.

“I had great masters. I took the best of them, of their teachings, of their examples. I found myself, I made myself, and I said what I had to say.”
—Suzanne Valadon

She left this career behind after a trapeze accident, pursuing a much safer job as a model for the artists she’d met there and their circle of friends (during this time, she went by “Maria,” perhaps to protect her identity). While modeling, she picked the brains of the painters, getting a world-class art education from some of the leading painters of the time.

Valadon made charcoal and pastel drawings through the 1880s, mostly of her family. But she finally took the leap to painting in 1892. Over the next decade, she made a significant amount of work in traditional genres like still lifes and landscapes, as well as highly perceptive and well observed female nudes. These paintings eschewed the habits of the ever-fantasizing male gaze for something much more empathetic and real. Consider her later masterpieces like “Nudes” (1919) and “Reclining Nude” (1928).

Adam and Eve, 1909, Suzanne Valadon
Adam and Eve, 1909, Suzanne Valadon. Oil on canvas, 162 × 131 cm (64 × 52 in). Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (models: Suzanne Valadon and André Utter).
Joy of Life, 1911, Suzanne Valadon
Joy of Life, 1911, Suzanne Valadon. Oil on canvas, 122.9 × 205.7 cm (48.3 × 80.9 in). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Finding Success

In the first decade of the 20th century, Valadon found a high level of recognition and success. And though she lived a highly nontraditional lifestyle, she was allowed into the professional artist organizations and major exhibitions of her time, becoming a central figure of the French art scene during the Belle Époque.

She expanded into large format works around 1910, creating enormous paintings that hummed with sexual energy and joie de vivre. This could be extremely literal, as with her 1911 painting “Joy of Life.” 

Valadon’s later career saw her rise to the top of the art world, thanks in large part to her mixture of influences from Symbolism to Post-Impressionism and her own innovations. In short, she could not be pinned down. Her accomplishments ranged widely across subject matter and style. 

She mastered the playfully erotic, as with her 1909 work “Adam and Eve” (the modesty-protecting leaf over Adam’s genitals was added more than a decade later). But she also could be highly experimental, as with her 1927 self portrait.

The Blue Room, 1923, Suzanne Valadon
The Blue Room, 1923, Suzanne Valadon. Oil on canvas, 90 × 116 cm (35 × 46 in). Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris.
Self-Portrait, 1927, Suzanne Valadon
Self-Portrait, 1927, Suzanne Valadon. Collection of the City of Sannois, Val d’Oise, France, on temporary loan to the Musée de Montmartre, Paris.

The Legacy of Suzanne Valadon

“I had great masters. I took the best of them, of their teachings, of their examples. I found myself, I made myself, and I said what I had to say.” —Suzanne Valadon

Among turn-of-the-century painters, there are few as confident and independent as Valadon. Her painting reminds us of that singular genius behind the greatest paintings—the ability to bring the viewer into a completely new point of view.