I ended my last blog about Suzanne Valadon with her relationship with Pierre Puvis de Chavannes ended and she had moved back in with her mother. That summer she had become pregnant and in December 1883 had given birth to a baby boy whom she named Maurice. The following year, after she had got herself back in shape and had employed a nanny to look after her son, she went back to her old life of modelling for artists by day and revelling in café-bar life at night…..
In 1883, before she became pregnant Suzanne was employed as a model by Pierre-August Renoir. Besides being an artist an artist’s model they had something else in common – they both originated from Limoges. Renoir had returned to Paris after extensively travelling around Europe and North Africa. Despite being moderately well-off due to the sale of his paintings he chose to live in the less salubrious area of Montmartre. Suzanne and Renoir would stroll along the streets of Montmartre arm in arm and nobody was in any doubt that they had become lovers. They would go dancing at the Moulin de la Gatte on Sundays and picnic at Argenteuil and Chatou on sunny summer days.
However, I want to turn the clock back two years to 1881 to look at what Renoir was doing at the time and, by doing so, look at the interaction between Suzanne and him a couple of years later. Renoir had completed his famous painting Les Déjeuner des Canotiers (Luncheon of the Boating Party) in 1881 (see My Daily Art Display August 2nd 2011), which had been a group portrait of his friends dining on the upstairs terrace of Restaurant Fournaise which was in the small village of Bougival on the bank of the River Seine. It was here that his friends would gather to eat and dance and watch the oarsmen row their boats up and down the river. One of the people depicted in the painting was Aline Charigot who Renoir would eventually marry in 1890 albeit Aline had already given birth to their son, Pierre, in 1885.
In 1882, a year after completing the Déjeuner des Canotiers painting he was commissioned by Paul Durand-Ruel to complete three paintings, which became known as the Dance Series. The series consisted of Dance à Bougival, Dance in the City and Dance in the Country. These were life-sized works measuring about 180 x 90 cms. In all three paintings there are two main characters, a male and a female dancing. In the first two paintings, the model for the female was Suzanne Valadon and in the third one, the model was Aline Charigot.
The setting for Renoir’s painting Dance in the City is a high class Parisian establishment, for this is a “white ball”, which was favoured by the upper classes. Although the painting once again depicts a couple dancing, this work is all about the woman as the man is almost hidden from our view. There is a shimmering opulence about this work. Renoir has depicted the woman, modelled by Suzanne Valadon, wearing a two-piece white silk gown, – her toilette de bal (dance dress). The cut of her dress reveals her back and shoulders. Her partner, was thought to be modelled by Renoir’s close friend, Paul Lhôte, a journalist and writer of short fiction. He is wearing formal evening wear and the tails of his long coat swish with the movement of the dance. Both the man and woman wear white gloves which in a way makes the dance a more formal event ensuring that the bare hands of the man do not touch the delicate skin of the woman. Their hands are clasped as in the Dance à Bougival but in this painting it is just the lightest coupling of hands.
Suzanne Valadon always maintained that the Dancing à Bougival work featuring her was painted in-situ at Bougival thus implying that she was part of the Bougival “in-crowd”. In later life she talked about her relationship with Renoir and the Dance à Bougival painting saying:
“…He fell in love with me and at Bougival he painted me in his famous picture…”
However Renoir stated quite categorically that he simply made a few sketches of Suzanne and the paintings was completed at his studio. The painting Dance à Bougival is housed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston which acquired the work in 1937. In this painting we see Suzanne Valadon dancing with Eugene Pierre Lestringuez, another of Renoir’s friends, who was an official at the Ministry of the Interior and who featured in a number of Renoir’s works including Les Déjeuner des Canotiers. In this outdoor dance scene there is not the formality that we saw in the painting Dancing in the City. Gone is the woman’s formal toilette de bal, replaced by a light pink dress with red piping. The hands of the dancers are not gloved. Gone is the man’s formal attire, replaced by a loose fitting blue jacket and wool sweater and atop his head he wears a yellow straw hat which hides part of his face and his eyes. Gone are the lightly touching hands and in its place we see the left hand of the man gripping the lady’s hand tightly while his right hand snakes around her waist pulling her body into his. Suzanne wears a large bright red hat, the colour of which draws your eyes to it and, by doing so, we focus on the faces of the dancers. Look at the faces closely. The woman pulls her face away from that of her partner and looks downwards avoiding any eye contact with the man whilst he stares at his partner with an unnerving intensity. What is going on between the pair? There is a strange uneasiness, tenseness, between the couple. There is no sense of intimacy between the dancers.
As the artist, Renoir, was the one to decide on how he would depict the pair’s facial expressions and body language, what made Renoir portray the couple in this way? Was Renoir in some way transferring Suzanne’s character into the painting? This was supposed to be a joyful event in which couples twirl in the open air so why this pensiveness? It is almost as if the man has said something inappropriate to the woman and she is slightly offended or could it be that the averting of her eyes is simply her way of teasing her dancing partner?
Another question posed by Renoir’s Dancing series paintings that although Suzanne Valadon modelled for Dancing à Bougival and Dancing in the City why did the artist decide to switch to Aline Charigot for Dancing in the Country, who we see depicted partnering Paul Lhôte. When I look at and compare the faces of the two females depicted in the paintings I have to say that Suzanne’ thinner and more delicate face is the more attractive and sophisticated and it could be that for a country dance scene Renoir decided that the fuller face with the rosy cheeks of Aline were more suited when it came to the ambience of the country. Or could it be that Aline Charigot’s insisted that she, and not Suzanne, featured in the third work.
The one aspect that the Bougival and City paintings have in common is the distracted expression on the face of Suzanne Valadon. In both paintings she pays little attention to her partner and lacks the smile which Aline Charigot has on her face in Dancing in the Country. Is this just coincidental? Could it be that Renoir’s depictions of Aline and Suzanne give us a better feeling as to how he viewed his two lovers.
Suzanne travelled to Guernsey with Renoir in order for him to paint some pictures including a nude portrait of her. Although he later destroyed the painting it is thought that he used the face for the central character in his painting The Bathers which he completed in 1887. Amusingly, Suzanne was adament that it was not just her face that was used for the painting, but her whole body !! Their painting trip to Guernsey was rudely interrupted with the news that Aline Charigot was coming to visit Renoir and one can only imagine Suzanne’s anger when Renoir arranged for her to return to Paris immediately so that the women would not meet. There was obviously no love lost between Aline and Suzanne both vying to be Renoir’s one true love. As I said earlier, Aline won that battle as she and Renoir eventually married.
Suzanne’s position as Renoir’s lover ended almost as soon as it had begun but she still modelled for him and in 1885 he completed a head and shoulder portrait of her. At our first glance of this portrait we are aware of her facial expression. It is not one of happiness but is one of despondency but it is still a charming depiction of his one time lover.
In 1886 he completed another portrait of her which is sometimes referred to as The Braid (Susan Valadon) or The Ponytail (Susan Valadon) and which is housed in Museum Langmatt, Baden. This is a far more sensuous portrait of Suzanne and her downward gaze adds to her innate sensuality. There is no doubt that she was an extremely beautiful woman and one can see why artists like Renoir were drawn to this amazing young lady. Renoir, besides employing her as a model and becoming her lover, did something else which was to change the course of her life. He took an interest in her desire to draw and paint and nurtured the idea that she, one day, would become a great artist.
………………………….. to be continued.
If you would like to have a more in-depth view of Suzanne Valadon’s lifestory then I would recommend that you read a book entitled The Valadon Drama, The Life of Suzanne Valadon, written by John Storm in 1923.