A woman with dark hair and matching wing-like eyebrows lounges on a bed amid clashing fabrics. She’s casually propped up against a squashy pillow and her ankles are crossed. The pose is associated with Renaissance nudes, but here it’s subverted – not least because our model is clothed, in a pink camisole and baggy green-and-white striped trousers. She looks away, pensive, with a cigarette between her lips and a couple of books at her feet. She has broad shoulders and strong arms and legs, and her skin is a blotchy pink. Far from an idealised nude laid out for a male viewer, she’s a liberated modern woman who smokes, reads and, most importantly, isn’t always sexually available.

The Blue Room (1923) is one of more than 50 works included in Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Featuring paintings, drawings and prints made between 1890 and 1937, the retrospective brings together family portraits, nudes, still life and society images, and is the first institutional exhibition devoted to the artist in the US. “Hopefully it won’t be the last,” says curator Nancy Ireson. “In her lifetime, she wondered whether she would one day receive the recognition she deserved. I hope that by raising awareness she gets her due.”

Suzanne was born in 1865 in Bessines-sur-Gartempe and raised by a single mother in Paris. She began drawing when she was nine and after a string of unsuccessful jobs became an artist’s model at 15. She posed for Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Degas; she sold her first artwork to Degas in the early 1890s, and he became an avid supporter of her career. In her twenties she became the first woman to be admitted to Paris’s Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Throughout her life, she produced unapologetic self-portraits and images of women that raised important questions about ageing, beauty, and female desire.

Suzanne had first-hand experience of what it felt like to be a model, and it was partly by observing the technique of other artists that she taught herself to paint. But the style she developed – with a bold outline and a vivid palette – was very much her own. It’s there in Nude Sitting on a Sofa (1916), with its striped blanket in mustard, red and black, and in Self-Portrait (1927), which shows the artist staring out at us self-assuredly from a mirror. She once said, “You have to be hard on yourself, be honest, and look yourself in the face.” The canvas is swathed in colour, from the expressive blue dish and the burgundy drapery to her orange top with a geometric pattern in black.

Suzanne challenged social conventions in her life as well as her art. In 1883, she gave birth to her son, Maurice Utrillo, whose father’s identity is unknown and who himself went on to become a successful artist. In 1896 she married a businessman called Paul Mousis and her living situation improved considerably: she moved into a suburban family home with household staff and was provided with a studio in Montmartre. “Because you now have a secure life, think only of work, of using that singular talent that I’m proud to find in you,” encouraged Degas. She did, though in 1909 she rejected her middle-class marriage and began an affair with her son’s friend André Utter, more than 20 years her junior. She divorced her husband and moved in with André together with Maurice and her mother.

She began painting in earnest when she met André, stirred perhaps by the new romance, but also no doubt because she was now the head of the household and paintings would earn her more money than works on paper. Produced a couple of years after her divorce, Family Portrait (1912) shows Suzanne, her hand placed on her chest, with her ageing mother, her proud lover, and her melancholy son, his head in his hand. Standing tall at the centre of the reconfigured household, Suzanne appears as the matriarch, responsible for those around her. As Nancy says, there’s a hint of the holy family about it.

“I think she understood the power of being controversial,” says Nancy, flagging another highlight in the exhibition: a double portrait of Suzanne and André in the guise of God’s first man and woman. When Adam and Eve (1909) was first painted, there were no fig leaves; here was full-frontal male nude, a recognisable portrait, and an open celebration of desire. “I think it shows her audacity, but also her understanding of what people expected of women,” adds Nancy. “You often see her playing with the language of art history.” By depicting herself and her lover as part of an allegorical scene, Suzanne managed to avoid censorship. It was easier to be Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Creativity and motherhood are regularly pitted against each other, but it seems that for Suzanne, having a family inspired her art – even if her depictions of family life aren’t always celebratory. Just as she defied expectation by having her husband pose for her in the nude, she also wasn’t afraid to portray the pressures of motherhood. Marie Coca and Her Daughter Gilberte (1913) shows Valadon’s niece slumped in a floral armchair with her daughter leaning against her legs. They look in different directions; with limp hands and a glazed-over expression, the mother is either bored or worn-out or both, while the child is dominant, clutching a doll by its head and gazing directly at the viewer.

A woman admitting to mixed feelings about motherhood is still a taboo (just look at the backlash Rachel Cusk received when she published A Life’s Work in 2001). As is a woman romancing with a much younger man. “Suzanne’s story is contemporary,” says Nancy, “and the sorts of issues that arise from her life and work are still at play.” She painted The Blue Room at the height of her success, when she had a reliable market and could afford to be bold. It marked a significant shift in her career, but this retrospective shows that there were subtle nuances throughout – from her days as a working-class model to those as a celebrated artist. She strove to overcome inequalities in life and in art, to be taken seriously, and her success was unprecedented.

Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel is at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia from 26th September 2021 until 9th January 2022.

Words by Chloë Ashby.

Image credits from top:

Suzanne Valadon. The Violin Case, 1923. Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris, Museum Purchase, 1937. © 2021 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York / Image © Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris, France/ HIP / Art Resource, NY.

Suzanne Valadon. Reclining Nude, 1928. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975.

Suzanne Valadon. Black Venus, 1919. Centre Pompidou – Musée National d’Art Moderne/CCI, Paris, on deposit to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Menton, Gift of M. Charles Wakefield-Mori, 1939, © 2021 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image Credit: Musee des Beaux-Arts, Menton, France/Bridgeman Images

Suzanne Valadon. Seated Woman Holding an Apple, 1919. Private collection, Miami. © 2021 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York / Image © Sotheby’s 2021.

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