My last blog about Suzanne Valadon ended with the appearance on the scene of André Utter, a handsome young artist. Utter and Suzanne’s son Maurice slowly became friends as they both had a shared love of art and soon they became inseparable. Suzanne was delighted that at long last her son had found a companion. Utter, a son of a plumber was three years younger than Maurice. He had done well at school and his mother had high hopes that he would eventually enter a learned profession or even the priesthood whereas his father was convinced he would follow him into his plumbing business. However Utter ignored their wishes as he was determined to become an artist and live the colourful life that went with the profession and he had strolled around the streets of Montmartre observing the artists sitting with their box of paints and easels and would try to engage them in conversation.
It was 1908 when Utter first caught site of Suzanne, who was then forty-three years old. He had been painting in a street at Montmagny with his friend Edmond Heuzé and as he wrote later:
“…She passed by, ignoring us but I began to dream about her…”
She had blossomed into a true beauty – small in stature, but with a voluptuous figure which exuded sensuality. Later Maurice introduced Utter to Suzanne at his home at Pierrefitte-Montmagny and Utter recalls that first meeting:
“…That evening Maurice told his mother about our meeting. His mother was pleased. Apparently she thought I should be a good influence on him. The next day Maurice introduced me to her. She was a young woman I had been dreaming about! She showed me two of her paintings, some pastels, some drawings and some etchings. I left on a cloud…”
Utter during his late teens would become a leading figure of a group of young men who aspired to become great artists. These self-taught young artists would try to emulate the established painters of Montmartre who they looked upon as their “role models”. The young men, like their “role models” would paint en plein air by day and drink heavily at night. Their favoured drink would be the powerful green spirit, known as “la fée verte” – absinthe. After a number of glasses of absinthe they too, like their elders, experienced the dream-like effect it gave them after which they would fully experiment and sample the pleasures of love and sex! Utter enjoyed copying the mannerisms of the street artists and at the age of thirteen he would often be seen wandering the streets with a pipe clenched between his teeth.
When Utter and Suzanne met in 1908 it was around the time that she had started to become disillusioned with her life at the big house in Montmagny and the bourgeois lifestyle she had thrust upon her by her “husband” Paul Mousis. Mousis began to be aware of her disillusionment and in a desperate attempt to make things better he suggested they moved back to Montmartre and just used the Montmagny house as a weekend retreat. Mousis rented a house at No.12 rue Cortot which had a separate studio attached. The problem was he had made this gesture too late because Suzanne’s passion for the bourgeois lifestyle had waned months earlier and her relationship with Mousis had been in freefall with fierce arguments between them becoming the norm. Another cause of their arguments was their differing views on how best to deal with the mental health issues her son, Maurice, which he was now frequently and more violently displaying. Suzanne was wilting under the intolerable stress of having to pretend to be the happy “housewife” but at the same time she was well aware that her comfortable lifestyle was solely due to the wealth of Mousis. Her dilemma was simple. Was she prepared to forego the luxuries his wealth brought her and if she did leave him what would happen to Maurice?
One day in 1909 whilst standing outside her home on rue Cortot she saw André Utter and she invited him in and from this meeting came her painting entitled Adam and Eve, which now hangs in the Musée National d’Art Moderne, at the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris. She posed as Eve whilst Utter posed as Adam. She is fully naked whilst his genitals are hidden from view by carefully placed leaves. Strangely there is no facial interaction between the two figures and although he has his hand on her wrist to try and stop her pulling the apple from the tree, there seems no relationship between man and woman. The painting was exhibited at that year’s Salon d’Automne and what pleased Suzanne more than just its inclusion at the exhibition was the fact that it was hung next to her son’s painting entitled Pont Notre Dame. Later Utter posed for her two versions of The Joy of Life which Suzanne completed in 1910 and 1911.
It was around this time that Utter and Suzanne’s son Maurice, shared the same lodgings at No.5 Impasse de Guelma and it was here that Suzanne would regularly meet up with Utter and eventually became his lover. One would have thought that Suzanne would want to keep this love affair a secret so that no word of it got back to Mousis but that was not the case as often the pair would sit hand in hand at café tables, staring into each other’s eyes like lovesick teenagers and they seem unconcerned that their intimate relationship was on show to the world. Utter loved, and was totally fascinated, by Suzanne despite the twenty year age difference. The one artistic thing Utter brought to the relationship was his persuasion and her acceptance that she should move away from sketching and concentrate on oil painting.
Although Utter and Suzanne were lovers and didn’t hide the fact from anybody, Suzanne still lived with Mousis and this eventually became intolerable and so, in 1909, she finally decided to leave him, packed up her belongings and along with her two cats, her German Shepherd dog, Pierret, and a goat, left the house at Montmagny and went to live with Utter and her son. Two years later they would move to her former home at No.12 rue Cortot. Soon the apartment and studio became a meeting place for young aspiring artists and poets. Artists such as the Fauvists Raoul Dufy and Georges Braque and the Italian figurative painter Amedeo Modigliani were frequent visitors. Modigliani was twenty-five at the time and had settled into life in Le Bateau Lavoir, a commune for penniless artists.
The year was 1912 and, even as early as then, there was rumblings of a possible war in Europe. Two years later in June 1914 it all came to a head when the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, were shot dead by Gavril Princip on the streets of Sarajevo whilst making an inspection of the town. A month later the French Socialist leader and pacifist, Jean Jaures, who had been an advocate of rapprochement with the Germans was gunned down as he sat in a café by a twenty-nine year old French Nationalist, Raoul Villain, who was an advocate of France going to war with Germany. Three days later Germany declared war on France. A feeling of patriotism swept through Montmartre as it did in the rest of France and as was the case in England, young Frenchmen rushed to army recruiting offices and celebrated what they believed would be a short and joyous war against the loathsome Imperial German forces but sadly, like the young Englishmen who marched to war, their euphoria was short lived.
André Utter was one of the first to enlist. He attended the army recruiting centre in February 1915 and was accepted and sent to the training centre at Argentan. He eventually joined the 158th Infantry Regiment at Fontainebleau. Before he left for the front he and Suzanne were married which ensured that she would receive an allowance from the military as a soldier’s wife. She had been desperate to stop him enlisting but struggled to find a way. Years earlier her body would have been enough to persuade a lover to be attentive and never to want to leave her side but she was now forty-nine years of age and Utter was just twenty-eight. Suzanne was more and more conscious that her body was fighting a losing battle against the relentless march of time, and this despite her frequent changing of her date of birth!
The year 1915 was Suzanne’s annus horribilis. In June that year, her mother Madeleine died aged 84. In August her son Maurice was placed in an asylum at Villejuif where he remained for three months and of course her husband was fighting a war. Suzanne struggled to keep painting whilst her husband was away. In 1917, however, the Bernheim Jeune Gallery in Paris, staged by their artistic director, Felix Fénéon, a long time admirer of Suzanne’s work, put on a joint exhibition of the works by Suzanne and her son, along with some paintings by her husband André Utter. It was not only the works of the three that drew in the crowds but the extravagant and titillating tales that surrounded the trio. Sales of the work were unfortunately poor but this was probably due to the war. However a nude painting by Suzanne and the painting entitled Moulin de la Galette by Utrillo were purchased by the eminent French fashion designer Paul Poiret. Later, Poiret would tell his clients how chic it would be if they, like him, owned an original work by Suzanne Valadon or her son Maurice Utrillo and of course this led to a chain-reaction of feverish buying by the likes of the prestigious art dealers in the Rue du Faubourg St Honoré.
In that same year, 1917, Utter was wounded in the shoulder at the battle in the Champagne region of France and in January 1918 he was dispatched to an army recuperation centre at Belleville-sur-Saône. Suzanne immediately rushed to his side eager to tell him about the increasing sales of her paintings, drawings and etchings. It was a joyous reunion. She dedicated her time to him, looking after his every need and for three months they lived in their newly-discovered idyll. Utter was released from the army in January 1920 and returned to Paris to be with his wife and her son Maurice. Suzanne was now fifty-four years old and even she had to admit that her looks, which once stirred the loins of most men, were beginning to fade. She craved admiration. She craved attention and would dress and act in the most strange fashion so as to achieve her aims. She was desperate for Utter to admire and desire her as he once did when they first met. She was hyper-sensitive to his comments and she would be angered and sulk if his words were not the ones she was hoping for. Utter, in turn, was disappointed that those idyllic days at Belleville had not carried on in Paris. Their arguments, which became more frequent, were more intense, more acidic and more vociferous.
Following the cessation of the First World War money became freer once again and people began to cash in on their war savings and head for Paris to buy art. The wealthy descended on the French capital and the raised prices this buying spree had caused did not daunt them. Many bargain hunters headed to Montmartre in search of a bargain buy and it was around this time that a wealthy Belgian banker, Monsieur Pawels and his wife, Lucie, a former actress called on Suzanne. Lucie wanted to be great friends with Suzanne but she was not wholeheartedly sold on reciprocating this friendship. Sales of Suzanne, Maurice and Utter’s works continued to grow. Whether she became slightly jealous of her husband and son’s sales we may never know but she was always adamant that her work was the best and she of the three was the most accomplished painter. She was quite outspoken about this, once saying:
“…I do not seek to be known but to be renowned. For I shall go to the Louvre. That will be my glory…”
In 1920, with help from friends, she was elected as an associate of the Société des Artistes Indépendents. As time went buy she became vainer, more arrogant, and more egotistical. The person who suffered most from this attitude was her husband, Utter. She demanded of him his admiration of her as a great artist and almost a recognition that she was a superior being. She demanded his subservience. One can only wonder what Utter thought of his situation living with a wife and her son, both of whom were suffering from mental issues.
In 1921 Utter arranged a joint exhibition of Suzanne and Maurice’s work at Berthe Weill’s gallery. It was an outstanding success and soon works by Suzanne Valadon and Maurice Utrillo were commanding high prices. This sudden surge of demand for their work caused the Gallerie Bernheim-Jeune in the summer of 1923 to offer Suzanne and Maurice a contract guaranteeing them a minimum annual payment of a million francs (the equivalent of $60,000 at the time) for all their future works. This was a turning point in the lives of Suzanne, her husband and her son. It was today’s equivalent of us winning the lottery. Their life was about to change.