NOWADAYS, we wouldn’t think twice if a woman told us she was an artist. There’s a certain glamour to the profession. It can make those with nine-to-five desk jobs green with envy (whatever the lived reality of the work). With art classes and workshops popping up all over the country, creative professions are in vogue. But in the 19th century, things were very different for women. And that’s what makes Suzanne Valadon’s story so remarkable.

Suzanne Valadon was one of the Impressionists' most striking models – and with her golden hair, dramatic eyebrows and intense stare, it’s easy to see why. Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted her as a carefree dancer in his Dance At Bougival (1883) which now hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He also depicted her in a long white satin ball gown in the painting Dance In The City (1883), which can be admired in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Valadon is the morose woman slumped at a table with a glass and a bottle before her in Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s The Hangover (1887-89). And Czech artist Vojt?ch Hynais painted her as a winged figure on the stage curtain he was asked to design for the National Theatre in Prague.

But behind Suzanne Valadon’s captivating façade lay a passionate, tempestuous character with a dramatic past and a closely-guarded secret.

She was born Marie-Clémentine Valadon in 1865 in the heart of rural France, and was the illegitimate daughter of a linen maid. When the family’s poverty obliged them to move to Paris, the young Marie-Clémentine drifted from one unskilled job to the next until, aged 15, she was offered employment in a circus. However, tragedy struck when she fell from a trapeze and suffered a devastating injury. It ended her career as an acrobat, but steered her into the profession that would define the rest of her life: painting.

Marie-Clémentine changed her name to the more Italian-sounding Maria and began working as a model in Montmartre.

By the late 19th century, this part of Paris had become the centre of the avant-garde art scene. Rent, entertainment and drinks were cheap, so the area attracted swarms of the capital’s young artists. It was in Montmartre that a new generation of painters huddled around café tables and shared their grievances and ideas. Just a few streets away from the Cimetière de Montmartre, Édouard Manet had secured a regular table in the Café Guerbois, where he was invariably surrounded by artist friends such as Claude Monet. It was an exciting time of artistic revolution.

Maria Valadon’s beauty quickly won her admirers in Montmartre, and she became an artists' model. But the work wasn’t easy. A model could expect to work an eight hour day, and was seldom given more than 10 minutes rest from a pose every hour. She had to be able to hold her position for long periods, and she daren’t complain if she were too cold or too hot. Maria excelled in her new role.

The blossoming teen posed for – and had affairs with – some of the most renowned painters of the day, including Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec. Lautrec is said to have given her the name Suzanne as a joke after the Bible story Susanna And The Elders (Suzanne often posed for older men). The young girl didn’t rise to the bait, but rather took the name Suzanne as her own. Meanwhile, Montmartre gossip recounted that Renoir’s lover, the plump countrywoman Aline Charigot, became furious when she saw Dance In The Country showing Suzanne Valadon and smudged out her younger competitor’s face. People whispered that when she caught Renoir and Valadon locked in a passionate embrace, she seized a broom and attempted to beat Valadon to the door of the studio. Renoir had reportedly repainted the smeared canvas using the victorious Aline as the model.

Still, Valadon loved drama and basked in the attention. But then one day, Renoir caught her indulging in a passion she’d been trying to conceal: she was drawing. Her secret was discovered: Renoir’s model was herself a talented artist.

Privately, Valadon had been drawing since she was eight. Her family were too poor to afford art materials, so she used stubs of charcoal and scraps of paper, whatever came to hand, to make her pictures. A matter-of-fact countrywoman, her mother thought drawing a waste of time, so Valadon had grown used to keeping her hobby to herself.

Now, in the late 19th century, the Paris art scene was still a steadfastly male environment. Respectable, middle-class girls didn’t work, and if a woman had to earn a wage, painting was hardly a reasonable or lucrative employment option. It was acceptable for a well-bred lady to practise art as a hobby, but many considered painting as a scandalous profession for a woman.

It wasn’t altogether impossible for a woman to make a successful career out of painting though. Being accepted to exhibit at the prestigious Paris Salon was considered the ultimate testimony of painterly success, and by this stage of the 19th century, the conservative Salon jury was growing more receptive to women artists, and even went so far as to award 14 women first-class medals in 1879. But a skilled woman artist struggled to gain even a fraction of the recognition that a man of similar talent might enjoy.

The work of Impressionist painters Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt was considered acceptable because they produced delicate pictures in pastel colours –"feminine" pictures. But even they were criticised, often by their immediate circle. And besides, a woman who valued her reputation couldn’t decently go unaccompanied to cafés, bars, restaurants, theatres or walk in the streets – all the venues that the leading Impressionists took as subject matter. Morisot and Cassatt gained acceptance by drawing inspiration from domestic scenes.

Valadon’s situation was different. For once, her low class was an advantage; coupled with her modelling career, it enabled her to enter the profession without immediately provoking controversy. And when she began painting, she astounded viewers, producing vibrant still lifes and portraits which showed the human form in a frank, matter-of-fact style. Valadon’s pictures of children flew in the face of idealised images of social harmony. Her youngsters were not posed, but shown in clumsy, natural postures – un-aesthetic but more true to life. Other artists showed what viewers wanted to see. Valadon showed them the truth. She rejected the notion of the "woman artist" – she wished to be seen simply as an artist.

The public often found her work shocking, but artists Toulouse-Lautrec and Edgar Degas, who became her great friends, could see her skill. Degas, the revered painter of ballerinas, had a reputation for being blunt and opinionated. But when he saw Valadon’s drawing, he was amazed by her skill. He encouraged her painting and affectionately called her his "Terrible Maria".

In the 19th century, women were meant to be seen and not heard. Valadon, on the other hand, was rebellious and opinionated. She refused to be confined by tradition or gender stereotypes; in 1894 when she was just 28, her work was accepted to the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, an extraordinary achievement for a working-class woman with no formal art training.

However, once her talent was acknowledged, Valadon’s outrageous, bohemian lifestyle caused a scandal. She gave birth to an illegitimate son, the future painter Maurice Utrillo, when she was just 18. From the outset, Maurice was a difficult child and he discovered alcohol before puberty, some say as young as nine.

But becoming a parent didn’t alter Valadon’s impetuous nature. While she struggled as a working single mother, she enjoyed affairs with countless painters and the eccentric composer Erik Satie before marrying businessman Paul Mousis. But after 12 years, Valadon began an affair with a man half her age, her son’s friend, the painter André Utter. She divorced her husband and moved into an apartment in the Rue Cortot in Montmartre with Utter and Maurice. The building still stands and now houses the Musée de Montmartre. With their passionate natures and explosive rows, the trio became branded the Unholy Trinity.

Valadon’s outrageous behaviour made her the talk of Montmartre. One night, she slid down the banisters at the Moulin de la Galette dance hall wearing nothing but a mask. Another time, she was reported to have been seen dressed in a coat adorned with carrots and carrying a bouquet of lettuce leaves trimmed with snails. Then, on Armistice day, people recalled seeing her in the Place du Tertre wearing only a flag. Neighbours complained of loud, raucous parties being thrown at the Rue Cortot at all hours. Still living it up in her 60s, Valadon was one of Montmartre’s timeless eccentrics.

Suzanne Valadon had been poor for most of her life, but by the mid-1920s she was earning well, while her son's nostalgic paintings of Montmartre street scenes were making a small fortune. Valadon was determined to reap the rewards. She bought a château in Saint-Bernard in the east of France in 1924, and added a plush chauffeur-driven car to her list of assets. Whenever the car was being serviced, Valadon simply took a taxi the 440 odd kilometres from Paris to Saint-Bernard. More than once, she told the taxi driver to wait, and then forgot all about him – and the mounting cab fare.

Fashion had never interested Valadon, but now that she had money, she purchased expensive hats and fur coats in all colours and shades from Paris’s top designers, which she knew she would never wear. One Astrakhan coat she’d just bought herself immediately became her dogs’ bed. Those cosseted creatures dined on juicy sirloin steak, while her cats enjoyed the fine taste of beluga caviare.

The stories of Valadon’s excessive living proliferated; she’d treated 50 unknown children to an evening at the circus; she’d seen a young artist working in the street on a cheap canvas and bought him one made of linen; she replaced a friend’s damaged sofa. She remembered important personal dates, and was sure to give the postman a card on his wedding anniversary, or a local laundress a bunch of flowers on her birthday. Taxi and train drivers were given eye-watering tips, while tramps found themselves able to dine like kings. Often, Valadon left a tip anonymously and then denied any involvement in the random act of kindness.

However, throughout her life, professional glory was obscured by personal shame. Maurice’s alcoholism was a constant shadow. If Valadon wasn’t cleaning up the aftermath of one of his drunken binges, she was visiting him in psychiatric units and attempting to convince the authorities that she could look after him better than anyone else.

Montmartre remained Valadon’s home for the rest of her life. She lived alone once Maurice married in 1935 and Utter moved out to live with a mistress. And appropriately, she died where she was most content: at her easel. She was 72. Valadon’s funeral was attended by the former prime minister, Édouard Herriot, and the artists André Derain, Marc Chagall and Raoul Dufy.

Suzanne Valadon’s creative oeuvre includes some 478 paintings, 273 drawings and 31 etchings, and her work can now be seen in permanent collections around the world. If she has failed to fix herself as prominently in our minds as, say, a painter like Monet or Renoir, it is perhaps because she espoused no theory, adhered to no school and rejected the label "woman artist". She simply painted what she saw with honesty. Valadon employed bold outlines, strong colours and pared subjects down to their bare essentials. "Her great merit is that she never makes a single concession," Valadon’s friend, the gallery owner Berthe Weill once explained. Valadon tells the truth – and truth is not always pretty. "None of those sweet, syrupy embellishments which women adore," the artist scoffed. "The uglier they are, the more I enjoy painting them." There is nothing half-hearted about Suzanne Valadon’s work.

Valadon’s story offers an inspiring illustration of female achievement against the odds. Her life was a series of setbacks and challenges. But she stood strong in the face of adversity, both personal and professional. And in many ways, her story finds an echo in the difficulties still faced by women today trying to juggle a career and family commitments. Yet Valadon didn’t have the same opportunities at her disposal, making her fight to pursue her dream even more admirable. She was a mother working in a creative profession long before the modern icon of femininity – simultaneously ambitious career woman and devoted mother – came into being. As such, she not only carved herself a niche; she dramatically altered women’s place in Western art.

Catherine Hewitt is the author of Renoir's Dancer: The Secret Life Of Suzanne Valadon, published by Icon books, £25 (hardback)