Renoir’s Dancer: The Secret Life of Suzanne Valadon

Catherine Hewitt

Icon £25

Review by Hugh MacDonald

THE Café de la Nouvelles Athenes had a rum roster of regulars in the 1870s. Wandering in off the Place Pigalle, one had to squeeze past a table that would regularly have Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Camille Pissarro discussing art with Emile Zola taking notes for a novel or political tract.

Marie Valadon, a refugee from peasant life in the Limousin, was on the fringes of this almost clichéd Parisian scene. Beautiful, wilful, even reckless, she did not so much decide to live in Montmartre but invaded it. Marie was a force, a muse, a model who became Suzanne Valadon on a matter of whim and forged a life as an outstanding artist from the most unpromising of circumstances.

The scene in the café sums up a major difficulty in Valadon’s life and, indeed, in Hewitt’s book. Valadon is continually defined by her relationship to someone else, usually a man. Thus she is Renoir’s dancer, an allusion to her modelling for Dance at Bourgival, Degas’ student, Lautrec’s lover, Miguel Utrillo’s consort and, most enduringly, mother of Maurice Utrillo, whose fame and success as a painter far outstripped that of Valadon.

Yet she was so much more than an accessory to genius, a bedmate to the greats or a mother to an exceptional son. Her talent was towering, her breakthrough simply inspiring and her life genuinely extraordinary.

Hewitt has a tendency to place her subject in the company of others and to pad out the story with descriptions and digressions that are unnecessary. But when she concentrates exclusively on Valadon and her trials and triumphs this is a compelling book. An illegitimate peasant girl who could have been merely and awfully a victim on 19th century Parisian streets became an artist of genuine power and influence.

With no formal artistic education and primitive tools, Valadon emerged so dramatically as an artist that Degas, on seeing an early work from his one-time model, muttered: “You are one of us.”

She was also one of a kind. Valadon loved sex and drink and never denied herself either. There is a wonderful scene when she is depicted naked sliding down a bannister with childish glee and careless abandon.

She was only 16 when she began life in Paris, not much more than a child when she began posing, regularly in the nude, for older men. Hewitt strongly suggests that Valadon embraced this life but it doled out misery as well as happiness and fulfilment. Affairs with Toulouse Lautrec and Eric Satie ended badly. Marriages came and went.

Valadon, beautiful and clever, found periods of contentment rather than deeply, satisfying happiness. The father of her son remains a mystery. The list of possibilities is long. Utrillo, perhaps out of honour and affection, signed a document stating his acceptance of paternity. Fingers pointed at Renoir, Pierre-Cecile Puvis de Chavannes, an early influence on and financial supporter of Valadon, and Adrien Boissy, an alcoholic artist.

The suggestion that it might be Boissy was accompanied by rumours that the artist had raped Valadon and the pregnancy was the result of that crime. Valadon certainly and subsequently hated Boissy but when pressed on who the father was would only say: “I haven’t decided yet.”

Maurice, her prodigal son, was to prove both a financial boon and an emotional strain for the mother. Alcoholic from an early age, he was incarcerated regularly in jails or asylums. Much in the manner of his mother, he came to painting instinctively, naturally. He was hugely commercial.

His work kept him, his mother and her feckless husband, Andre Utter, in significant, occasionally garish, excess. They were called the Unholy Trinity and their interactions could be violent, tender, life-enhancing and dangerous.

It is in these moments of troubling humanity that Hewitt brings Valadon to life. The mistress and the model is somehow one-dimensional, flimsy. But Valadon as the concerned mother or betrayed wife is an affecting human being whose erstwhile energy and restlessness seems dissipated by the depredations of time.

In all of this, of course, Valadon was an artist. Her work is powerful and individual. She created it in the most unpromising of circumstances. It is at heart a testimony to survival. Her portraits are bold, honest and unforgiving. It is as if she is looking not only her subject but life in the eye without flinching.

An illegitimate girl, an economic refugee from the countryside, a model at 16, a single mother at 18, Valadon summoned her wits and talent to make a life for herself, her mother, her son and a succession of lovers, some wealthy, others predatory and unscrupulous in financial terms. A succession of beautiful prints in Renoir’s Dancer testify to her greatness. Photographs prove both her beauty and, latterly, the effects of a tempestuous life on even the most resilient of personalities.

This was a woman who succeeded in what was almost an exclusively male world. Talent, even genius, was not enough. Valadon had to jostle furiously for her place in the Café de La Nouvelles Athenes or on the walls of galleries or exhibitions.

She was Renoir’s dancer. She was Degas’ pupil. But, wondrously and irrefutabaly, she was Suzanne Valadon.