Amedeo Modigliani. Part 3. The female nude paintings

I have changed my intended blog for today.  At the end of my last blog, I said that in the next one I would conclude Modigliani’s life story and look at some of the women in his life.  However, after careful consideration, I decided that it would not be right to end Modigliani’s life story without looking at his favourite artistic genre, the painting of female nudes.  In all between 1916 and 1919 he completed no fewer than twenty-six paintings of female nudes, some of whom are seated whilst others are seen lying back languorously.

We know that Amedeo’s love of painting females nude started back in Livorno where, at the age of fourteen, he attended the Villa Baiocchi workshop of the artist Guglielmo Micheli.  Later in 1902, when his mother took him away from their home in Livorno to aid his failing health, they visited Florence and in May 1902, just before his eighteenth birthday, he enrolled at the Scuola Libera di Nudo of the city’s Accademia di Belle Arti which was the beginning of his serious study of life drawing and which cultivated his love of painting female nudes.  In 1903 when he was in Venice he enrolled at the life drawing classes at the Accademia di Belle Arti and three years later, when he arrived in Paris at the end of 1906, he attended the Académie Colarossi where he attended life drawing classes.  The Académie Colarossi was a private institution, founded at the end of the nineteenth century, which offered its students an alternative to the very formalised state Academies.  It was very progressive and it is certain that Modigliani received some alternative approaches on how to depict the female nude.  In the Académie Colarossi life-drawing classes the students were encouraged to decide themselves on how the model should pose.  This was totally contrary to the strict rules and formalisation imposed by the likes of the state Académie des Beaux-Arts.

Without doubt, Modigliani’s most powerful compositions are his female nude paintings.  There is something simplistic and yet graceful about them but such simplicity does not decrease the erotic and sensuous nature of the works.  In many cases one feels that he has drawn upon earlier female nude paintings by other great artists for the resultant poses of his sitters.  The Italian art critic Giovanni Scheiwiller, who wrote a biography of Modigliani, wrote of the artist’s nude paintings and the artist’s relationship with his sitters, saying:

“…[it was] a completely spiritual unity between the artist and the creature he has chosen as his model…”

This bond between Modigliani and his models of course led to many racy stories of his penchant for the fairer sex and his belief that to completely capture  the inner beauty of his female sitter he must first make love to them!  It is maybe this kind of legend that contributes to our desire to see his work. 

Nude on a Blue Cushion by Modigliani (1917) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Nude on a Blue Cushion by Modigliani (1917)
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Let us first look at Amedeo Modigliani’s oil on linen work entitled Nude on a Blue Cushion, which he completed in 1917.  It is part of the Chester Dale Collection at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.  The naked female lies back against a blue cushion and looks out at us with a challenging stare.  There is no hint of her being shy or introverted.  The look she gives us is one that almost suggests that she is tempting us with her body, which she is very proud of.  

Olympia by Edouard Manet (1863)

Olympia by Edouard Manet (1863)

If one looks at the famous 1863 painting, Olympia, by Edouard Manet (see My Daily Art Display Oct 12th 2011) we see in the sitter’s posture the same brazen look as she awaits her next client. 

Sleeping Nude with Arms Open (Red Nude) by Modigliani (1917) Gianni Mattioli Collection, Milan

Sleeping Nude with Arms Open (Red Nude) by Modigliani (1917)
Gianni Mattioli Collection, Milan

In his 1917 work entitled Sleeping Nude with Arms Open (Red Nude) Modigliani has depicted the female laying back on a red blanket.  Her right arm lies at the side of her head whilst her left hand is placed beneath her head.  She is unashamedly offering her body to us.

La Maja Desnuda by Goya (c1800)

La Maja Desnuda by Goya (c1800)

This pose is very like Goya’s female nude painting entitled, La Maja Desnuda (My Daily Art Display Sept 9th 2012), which he painted around 1800.  She too lies naked before us albeit her upper torso is propped up by cushions but she, like Modigliani’s female has her hands behind her head.   Despite her very revealing pose, there is a certain vulnerability about Modigliani’s female in this work.  Her eyes are closed and we have therefore no idea of what she is thinking.  Our eyes are drawn to her red lips which are full and slightly pouted.  In a way it is as if she is giving herself to us.  She is offering us her ultimate gift – her body. 

Nude with Coral Neclace by Modigliani (1917) Allen Memorial Art Museum Oberlin College, Ohio

Nude with Coral Neclace by Modigliani (1917)
Allen Memorial Art Museum Oberlin College, Ohio

In another female nude painting which Modigliani completed in 1917 entitled Nude with a Coral Necklace and which is housed in the Allen Memorial College at Oberlin, Ohio, we can see a similarity between the pose of the Modigliani’s female sitter with the poses of the females in two of the greatest nude paintings of all times, Giorgione’s 1508 painting entitled, Sleeping Venus

Sleeping Venus by Giorgione (c.1508)

Sleeping Venus by Giorgione (c.1508)

and Titian’s 1558 work entitled, Venus of Urbino (My Daily Art Display Feb 15th 2011). 

Venus of Urbino by Titian (1538)

Venus of Urbino by Titian (1538)

In all three cases the models left hand is placed between her thighs in an effort to retain a modicum of modesty.  In the Modigliani’s work our eyes are drawn to her breasts because of his use of red to depict the areolas.  Unlike the other nude works the face of the women in this painting shows a hardness which I believe counteracts any sensuality.  Her facial expression differs from the other female nudes.  Her almond shaped eyes and tight-lipped mouth warn us off.  There is no hint of a “come-hither” look about this woman. 

Red-haired Young Woman in Chemise by Modigliani (1918)

Red-haired Young Woman in Chemise by Modigliani (1918)

His nude painting Red-haired Young Woman in Chemise was completed by Modigliani in 1918 in some ways reminds one of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus

Botticelli's Venus

Botticelli’s Venus

Although in this work she is seated, she, like Botticelli’s nude, inclines her head slightly to one side and her right hand lies across her body, over her heart and touches her breast.  There is a definite sensuality about Modigliani’s painting in the way he has depicted the woman with her head at an angle.  She clutches her white chemise in an attempt to cover herself but she has failed.  The strap of the chemise has slid down her left shoulder.  Her right breast is fully exposed whilst her right hand hides her left breast from our view.   The way Modigliani has depicted her mouth with reddened lips, which are slightly parted, adds to the eroticism of this work.  Her facial expression is one of inquisitiveness as if she is questioning our presence. 

Female Nude by Modigliani (1916)

Female Nude by Modigliani (1916)

Of all his female nude paintings, my favourite is the one which hangs in the Courtaulds Gallery in London.  It is simply entitled Female Nude and was completed by Modigliani in 1916.  The female in this work is seated, which is unlike most of his other female nude works.  Her head rests on her shoulder.  Her eyes are closed.  Her full lips touch the delicate skin of her chest.  Her long black hair cascades down her back, but a few strands lie delicately across her right breast.  The unknown female sitter holds a demure expression.  Hers is an hour-glass figure.  The shading and the skin tone Modigliani has used reveals a slight swelling of her stomach.   She is a veritable beauty.  Once again the figure has an elongated face, a trademark of Modigliani.  Her cheeks are flushed with a rose-coloured tint.  Is this a sign of her embarrassment at posing for Modigliani or is she just being coy?  The painting was completed a year before he set about painting his large series of female nudes and was at a time when he was engaged in painting portraits of his friends and lovers. 

Vénus (Nu debout, nu médicis) by Modigliani (1917)

Vénus (Nu debout, nu médicis) by Modigliani (1917)

Modigliani’s works command very high prices.  The Modigliani Venus which he completed in 1917 when it last came up for sale had an estimated price of between $6 and $9 million but it sold for $14,200,000  and his work Nu assis au collier (Seated Nude with Necklace) had, in 1995, sold for $12.5 million. 

Seated Nude on Divan by Modigliani (1917)

Seated Nude on Divan
Nu assis sur un divan (La Belle Romaine)
by Modigliani (1917)

However the highest price paid for a Modigliani nude came in November 2010 when his painting Nu assis sur un divan (La Belle Romaine), came up at Sotheby’s New York auction.  Its estimated price was $40 million but with five bidders competing for the work its sale price reached $68.9 million, four times the price it realised when it was sold at Sotheby’s in 1999.    

Price Evolution in Modigliani's paintings

Price Evolution in Modigliani’s paintings

I came across an interesting graph (above) on the website (http://secretmodigliani.com/auctions.html) which showed how Modigliani’s paintings have consistently risen in value.   Who says art is a bad investment?   

Poster for Berthe Weill's 1917 exhibition of Modigliani's works

Poster for Berthe Weill’s 1917 exhibition of Modigliani’s works

I could not end this blog about Modigliani’s nude paintings without recounting the well known tale of Modigliani’s first and only, one-man show which his patron and friend, Leopold Zborovski had managed to cajole the art dealer Berthe Weill to hold at her Paris gallery, Galerie B. Weill.  Weill had first opened her gallery in 1901 and in 1917 moved to a more spacious one at 50 rue Taitbout in Paris’ 9th arrondissement, close to the Paris Opera.  Weill was dedicated to the cause of giving young up-and-coming artists, like Modigliani a chance to become recognised.  Over almost forty years, until the gallery closed in 1939, works by all the modern greats such as Raoul Dufy, Kees van Dongen, André Derain, Georges Braque,Vlaminck, Diego Rivera and mother and son Suzanne Valadon and Maurice Utrillo had their works exhibited at her gallery. 

Modigliani’s one man show was set for December 3rd 1917 and being exhibited at it were thirty drawings and paintings including a number of his female nude paintings, one of which was in the window of the gallery and attracted a lot of public attention.   Unfortunately for Weill and Modigliani, across from the gallery was a police station and the police, to their horror, soon noticed the crowds gathering to look through the window of the gallery at the nude figures.  The police commissioner ordered Weill to close the exhibition describing the paintings as being “filth”.  So why this strange decision and this prudish statement?  Female nudes had been painted for many years and life classes were part of the artistic syllabus at the formal Academies?   However that was the nub of the matter as the Academies taught that the female nude should be depicted only in certain poses and Modigliani’s nudes did not conform to that dictate but even more horrifying to the police commissioner was that Modigliani had depicted his female nudes as having pubic hair…shocking!!!!!   Modigliani had gone back to the pre-Academy days when strict rules regarding the posture of female nudes did not exist.   Goodness knows what the police commissioner would have made of the works of Egon Schiele !!!!!  Despite Weill’s argument that it was art, the commissioner of police would not change his mind and the exhibition closed before it began !

My final look at the life of Modigliani in my next blog will take in his final years and look at some of the women with whom he developed a close relationship.

                                                                                ……to be continued.

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Amedeo Modigliani. Part 2 – Sculpture and a disappointed commission

I ended my last blog about Amedeo Modigliani with him having arrived in Paris in January 1906, thanks to financial help from his mother.  For that first year in Paris, Modigliani, who still had some of his mother’s money left over, was seen as a well dressed, gentle man who got on with his art in a quiet way, one who socialised little, drank wine in moderation and even looked askance at the excesses of some of the artists, such as Picasso, who frequented the lodgings, bars and studios of Montmartre, but all this would change twelve months later. 

L'Amazone by Modigliani (1909)

L’Amazone by Modigliani (1909)

At the end of the following year, 1907, he met and became great friends with Doctor Paul Alexandre who loved his artistic work.  The doctor bought more than twenty-five of his paintings and numerous sketches.  One painting the doctor ended up with was L’Amazone, which was finally completed by Modigliani in 1909.  It was not one the doctor had intended to buy but was one which, on his recommendation, was commissioned by Baroness Marguerite de Hasse de Villers.  The baroness was a beautiful socialite and also the lover of the doctor’s younger brother, Jean.  She posed for this painting by Modigliani dressed in a riding habit.  There is a sophisticated beauty about the bone structure of her face and her exaggerated and elongated jaw line.  She glances out at us in an imperious manner, with her black-gloved hand on her hip.  The commission was a nightmare for Modigliani.  His sitter was a nightmare and was ever demanding for the commission to be completed and at one point, when she had completely lost patience with him, threatened to cancel the commission if the work was not completed within the next seven days.  Modigliani had worked slowly on the work and had made a number of preliminary sketches for it.  On being presented with the portrait the Baroness was horrified by the way she had been depicted and refused to take ownership of it.  In the end Doctor Alexandre bought it. 

Étude pour L'Amazone by Modigliani

Étude pour L’Amazone by Modigliani

Although the sitter was not impressed with the finished work others have loved it and it was only this May that the painting, and three of the preliminary studies for the work, came up at auction at Sotheby’s, New York.  The painting was sold for $23 million and the three studies fetched a total of just over $1.3 million !  Paul Alexandre actively sought out commissions for Modigliani and the friendship between the two lasted until 1914 when the doctor was called-up by the military to take part in the World War I.  Doctor Alexandre had been instrumental in who persuading Modigliani to exhibit some of his works at the Salon des Independants, which had been formed in 1884 as an alternative to the Paris Salon. 

It was also through Paul Alexandre that Modigliani met the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi in the early part of 1909, shortly after moving to his new studio at 14 Cité Falquière in Montparnasse, and it was Brancusi who persuaded Modigliani to work, like himself, on stone sculptures.  During their time together Brancusi introduced Modigliani to the world of African sculpture and art.   Although we associate Modigliani with painting and drawing, his true love is thought to have been sculpture.  Between 1910 and 1914, Amedeo Modigliani almost abandoned painting and concentrated his time on sculpture and the related drawings which were used as preliminary sketches to the finished sculpted figures.

Caryatid by Modigliani (1914) MOMA New York

Caryatid by Modigliani (1914) MOMA New York

One such preliminary sketch, which is now at The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, was entitled CaryatidA caryatid is a column, used to support an entablature, and is in the form of a draped female figure.  The sketched figure of the woman in Modigliani’s work is balanced on a pedestal, her arms reach behind her head which is tucked into her shoulder.   Modigliani was fascinated by the theme of the caryatid.  One day he said that he hoped to be able to sculpt a series of them in stone and they would then be positioned around a temple which would be dedicated to the glory of mankind. 

Caryatid sculpture by Modigliani  (The Museum of Modern Arts, New York)

Caryatid sculpture by Modigliani
(The Museum of Modern Arts, New York)

However Modigliani only ever completed one such sculpture which is now housed in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Tête by Modigliani (1909)

Tête by Modigliani (1909)

Probably the best known of Modigliani’s sculptures was the limestone sculpture entitled Tête which, along with six others, Modigliani exhibited at the 1912 Salon d’Automne.   It is just 65cms tall and is a depiction of the elongated head of a woman who is wearing a tribal mask with her flowing hair swept back.  The characteristics of Modigliani’s sculptured heads with their long oval faces, elongated necks and noses, almond-shaped eyes, became typical of his portraiture works.  The head of Tête is very vertical in form but the hair extends back in a strongly horizontal manner.  It is said that for a true appreciation of the work it should be viewed all around.  On one side, it looks like the flowing locks of hair seem to be blowing in the wind.   The neck of the figure is slender.   When it came up at Christie’s Paris auction in June 2010, it was described as possessing:

“…the paradoxical combination of structural clarity and emotional inscrutability that is character of the artist’s finest work. Pared-down to a series of simple geometric forms, rigidly frontal and rigorously symmetrical, Tête emanates a feeling of haunting mystery. Behind the stylized semi-circles for eyes, one senses the presence of a fragile, numinous core…” 

Tête by Modigliani (1909)

Tête by Modigliani (1909)

Modigliani’s Tête was almost certainly influenced by his friend and mentor, the sculptor Constantin Brancusi but maybe more so by examples of tribal art which he had seen in the Paris gallery of the Hungarian-born art dealer, Joseph Brummer.  Being a friend of Picasso, Modigliani would also have seen African and Oceanic art work which the Spanish painter had accumulated.  Tête had been purchased by Gaston Lévy, an avid art collector and who would later become co-founder of the French supermarket chain, Monoprix, at a sale at the Hotel Drouot in June 1927 and it remained in the family for eighty-three years.  The sculpture is often referred to as The Lévy Head.   Lévy died in 1977 but it was not until 2010 that the sculpture came up for sale at Christies in Paris.  When the bidding for the sculpture ended the estimated price of between $3 and $4 million seemed derisory as the hammer went down at a price of $52,620,923.  This was a world record for a work by Modigliani and in fact it was the highest price ever paid for a work sold in France.  In my final blog about Modigliani I will look at his love affairs, his death at such a young age and the tragic consequence of his passing.

                                                    ……………………………………. to be continued.

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Amedeo Modigliani. Part 1 – The birth of an artist

Amedeo Modigliani (1884 - 1920)

Amedeo Modigliani (1884 – 1920)

The artist I am featuring today has a connection with my last few blogs as, whilst he was living in Paris, he befriended Suzanne Valadon’s son, Maurice Utrillo, and became one of his drinking companions.  Today and in my next blog I want to look at the life of the Italian figurative painter and sculptor, Amedeo Modigliani.

Amedeo Clemente Modigliani was born into a Jewish family in the Italian sea port of Livorno, on the Ligurian Sea on the western coast of Tuscany.  Livorno at the time had a thriving Jewish community, as like many others, Modigliani’s Jewish forefathers had settled in the Italian city to escape religious persecution.  In the early 17th century Ferdinando I de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, had enacted an edict of tolerance for Jews and their right to practice their religion and the Tuscan seaport became a safe haven for the Spanish Jews who had suffered persecution at the hands of the Catholic Spanish rulers.  In return the Jewish community played a major part in creating the mercantile wealth of the city. 

Eugene Garsin and Flaminio Modigliani parents of Amedeo Modigliani in a picture taken c.1884 a few months before the birth of Amedeo

Eugene Garsin and Flaminio Modigliani parents of Amedeo Modigliani in a picture taken c.1884 a few months before the birth of Amedeo

Amedeo Modigliani’s mother was Eugénie Garsin whose family came from Marseille.  Her parents were elite and wealthy Sephardic Jews whose ancestors had established themselves along the Mediterranean coast.  The Garsins belonged to the great tradition of Jewish scholars.  Her parents had been involved in finance and real estate.  Eugénie was well educated and a highly intelligent and resourceful woman.   Amedeo’s father was Flaminio Modigliani, whose family came from Rome and the Roman Campagna region and who had descended from a family of business people, bankers and entrepreneurs.  Flaminio Modigliani moved from Rome to Livorno in 1849.  

Villa Modigliani, Grugura, Sardinia

Villa Modigliani, Grugura, Sardinia

Flaminio’s father, Emanuele and his grandfather, Abramvita had purchased an estate on the outskirts of Cagliari, Sardinia and owned swathes of Sardinian land, about thirty thousand acres in all, around Grugua were they built a beautiful and opulent residence.  Their wealth came from the fertile farmland, timber from their forests and, around the end of 1863, zinc ore and coal deposits were discovered on their land close to the small town of Iglesia. 

Flaminio Modigliani was a talented mining engineer and forestry manager, who, along with his brothers, Abramo and Alberto, had become wealthy with their involvement in their mineral mining venture and forestry work on their estate in Sardinia.    Flaminio and Eugénie Garsin married in Livorno in 1872.  Amedeo was their fourth child, having two elder brothers, Giuseppe Emmanuel (Mene), who became a senior union leader and Socialist Deputy, Umberto, who would become a mining engineer, and an elder sister, Margherita, who became a primary school teacher.  The family lived in a two storey mansion at No.38 Via Roma in Livorno.  They had an opulent lifestyle with a household full of servants. 

Amedeo, who was affectionately known as “Dedo”, was born on July 12th 1884 at their Via Roma home in Livorno.  It was a very traumatic time for the Modigliani family for their fortunes had suddenly changed for the worse.  There had been an economic decline in Europe and with it came a sudden drop in the price of metals which resulted in Flaminio Modigliani’s business empire crashing and he was made bankrupt.  The only thing which prevented the family losing all their wealth was an ancient Italian statute which stated that creditors could not seize the bed of a pregnant woman or as in the case of Eugénie, a mother about to give birth and so, the story goes, that on the day of Amedeo’s birth, the family quickly collected all the household and family valuables and put them on the bed in which Eugénie lay, giving birth to her son.   When the bailiffs arrived to take away all the family possessions they found that the most valuable of them had been piled high on top of Eugénie as she lay in bed and therefore they could not be confiscated!   Modigliani is quoted as saying later in life that he was born under the auspices of the ruin. 

Amedeo with his nurse

Amedeo with his nurse

In 1886, the family move to a smaller less luxurious home.  Amedeo’s father was away from home for long periods of time searching for business opportunities and so Amedeo lived with and was brought up by his mother Eugénie, her two sisters Eve Laure and Gabrielle, his maternal grandmother and his maternal grandfather, Isaac Garsin.  In her diary Eugénie wrote about her two year old son Amedeo, describing him as being: 

“…a little spoiled, a bit temperamental but as pretty as a heart…” 

With his father absent for long periods Amedeo formed a close bond with his grandfather, Isaac, an extremely learned man.  During his early childhood Isaac, who was now the only adult male in the household, would spend hours talking to his grandson about art, travel and Jewish history.   Amedeo’s mother, Eugénie, an ever practical and capable person, realised that the family needed an inflow of income and with the help of family friends set up a school in their house on via delle Ville, where she and her sister Laure taught local children. She also received paid work translating the poetry of the Italian poet, Gabriele D’Annunzio and was a book reviewer.

Amedeo was schooled at home up to the age of ten by his mother but throughout his early childhood he had many health problems.  In 1895, aged just eleven, he was struck down with pleurisy.   His mother recalled the time in her diary:

“… Dedo had a very severe pleurisy and I did yet recovered from the terrible fear that made ​​me . The character of the child is not yet formed enough that I can say my opinion here . His manners are those of a spoiled child who does not lack intelligence. We will see later what’s in this chrysalis. Perhaps an artist ?… “.


At the age of ten Amedeo was devastated by the death of his grandfather, Isaac, who had spent so much time with him.  It was also the year in which his elder brothers had left home to study at the University of Pisa.    Amadeo’ health deteriorated further in his teenage years and he contracted typhoid fever when he was thirteen years old but most serious of all when he was sixteen years of age he developed tuberculosis, which twenty years later would kill him.  In August 1898, when he was fourteen years old and still attending his local school, Amedeo had his first artistic tuition when, as the youngest pupil, he attended drawing lessons at the workshop of the Livorno-born artist, Guglielmo Micheli, who had, on the ground floor of Villa Baiocchi, set up and directed a school of design, which many local students attended.  The following year he finished attending the local school for health reasons and all his efforts were now concentrated on art and the tuition given to him by Micheli.  At the school he studied all genres of art – landscape painting, portraiture, still life but his favourite was the painting of the nude and he attended a life-drawing class in Gino Romiti’s Livorno studio.  It was at Micheli’s art school that he was befriended by a fellow student and aspiring artist Oscar Ghilia who would become one of Modigliani’s closest friends.  Unfortunately his artistic studies were cut short in September 1900 when he developed pleurisy and tuberculosis.   In December, his mother decided to take him away from the cold damp climate of Livorno and move to the warmer climate of southern Italy and the two of them travelled to Naples, Capri, and Amalfi and spent the winter of 1901 in Rome.  It was here that he also first developed a love for sculpture.  During his travels he visited the major museums making copies of the paintings by the Italian Masters.   Modigliani fell in love with Rome and in one of his many letters to his friend Oscar Ghiglia he wrote:

“…As I speak to you, Rome is not outside but inside me, like a terriblejewel set upon its seven hills as upon seven imperious ideas.  Rome is the orchestration which girds me, the circumscribed arena in which I isolate myself and concentrate my thoughts.  Her feverish sweetness, her tragic countryside , her own beauty and harmony, all these are mine, for my thought and my work…”

On May 7th 1902, having arrived in Florence, Amedeo enrolled at the Scuola Libera del Nudo of the city’s Accademia di Belle Arti which would be the beginning of life drawing and his love of painting nudes.  His friend Oscar Ghilia was already studying in Florence and he and Amedeo shared the same lodgings. 

The Jewess by Modigliani (1908)

The Jewess by Modigliani (1908)

The Jewess was the first painting Modigliani sold after settling in Paris in 1906. It was purchased by his friend and patron, Paul Alexandre, who was so taken with the work that he had Modigliani paint it into the background of three additional commissioned portraits. Although wearing a composed expression, the stark whiteness of the sitter’s face contrasts harshly with her dark apparel, giving the composition and inner tension and suggesting strong emotions lying beneath the surface. The painting’s melancholic overtones have invited comparison with the work of Picasso’s Blue Period. The painting is also one of the few Jewish-themed works by Modigliani, who was of Sephardic Jewish descent and publically embraced his Jewish identity. – See more at: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-modigliani-amedeo.htm#sthash.3ddvm6uN.dpuf

The Jewess was the first painting Modigliani sold after he moved to in Paris in 1906. It was bought by his friend and patron, Paul Alexandre, who was so taken with the work that he had Modigliani paint it into the background of three additional commissioned portraits. Contrasting her calm and self-possessed expression, is the stark whiteness of the her face against her dark clothes which in some ways gives the picture a strong emotional feel. The painting’s melancholic overtones have often been compared to Picasso’s works during his Blue Period.   Although Modigliani was Jewish by birth, this was on of the few Jewish-themed works by him.

In 1903 after another bout of illness Amedeo moved to Venice where that May, he enrolled at the Instituto di Belle Arti di Venezia and lived in lodgings in Campielle Centopiere. All this travelling and studying costs money but fortunately for Amedeo he was being financed by his maternal uncle, Amadeus Garsin.  It is whilst in Venice that Amedeo develops a taste for the seedier side of life.  Bouts of heavy drinking, taking of the drug hashish and his association with prostitutes were to him all part of an exciting and stimulating bohemian lifestyle.  He now began to make plans to move to Paris, which was the centre of avant-garde art and where he believed his favoured bohemian lifestyle would fit in well with the artists of Montmartre.  However his high-spending lifestyle and plans to move the French capital came to an abrupt end in 1905 when his uncle, Amadeus, died and the source of his income dried up.  His mother comes to his rescue in December, whether because she was worried about his health or whether it was because she wanted to separate her son from the excesses of Venice, one will never know, but she gave him the money to make the journey to Paris and in January 1906 Amedeo Modigliani descended upon Montmartre. 

After a number of short stays in various hotels, Modigliani went to live in Le Bateau-Lavoir, in Montmartre, a dark and dingy building which was home to many impoverished artists.  Unlike some of the bedraggled and tramp-like characters who lived there, Modigliani, still having some of the money left that his mother had given him, strutted the streets in a quite well-dressed manner and hired himself a studio for himself in Rue Caulaincourt.  It was during those early days that he met artists such as Picasso, Andre Derrain and Diego Rivera and it was then that he concentrated his art work on small-scale portraiture and at the end of 1906 he had three of his works exhibited at the Paris Art gallery of Laura Wylde’s Paris art gallery on the corner of the Boulevard Saint-Germain.   He enrolled in the life drawing classes at the Académie Colarossi.  An artist by day and despite his poor health a reveler by night, during which time he and his fellow artists would drink copious amounts of alcohol in the form of cheap wine or absinthe, take drugs and spend their nights in various women’s beds.   His was a debauched lifestyle which could have done little for his health. He was soon accepted by all the Montmartre artists, who nicknamed him “Modi”.    Ludwig Meidner, the German artist, summed up Modigliani when he said of him:

“…Our Modi was a character and, at the same time, highly talented representative of Bohemian Montmartre; he was probably even its last true Bohemian…”.

Portrait of Doctor Paul Alexandre by Modigliani (1909)

Portrait of Doctor Paul Alexandre by Modigliani (1909)

It was around about this time that Amedeo Modigliani first met Suzanne’s son, Maurice Utrillo and her husband André Utter.  However more importantly he became acquainted with a young doctor, about his own age, Paul Alexandre, who loved Modigliani’s work and bought some of his paintings and sketches and soon became his first patron arranging portraiture commissions for him. 

Doctor Paul Alexandre

Doctor Paul Alexandre

Paul and his brother Jean were so pleased to be part of the Montmartre art scene that they set up a free house in Rue Delta for the artists to work in and stay.   The house was then known as “Delta”.  In a book entitled The Unknown Modigliani by Paul Alexandre’s son Noel, he recounts the tale of how his father and Amedeo first met:

“…It was not entirely by chance that I met Modigliani. From the time I first had a little independence after leaving college I began to associate with artists. It was Doucet who first brought him to the Delta. I think it was in November or December 1907. Doucet had met him in the rue Saint Vincent at Frédéric’s ‘Lapin Agile’ which in those days was only frequented by poor people, poets and artists. Modigliani told Doucet that he had been thrown out of the small studio he had occupied in Place Jean-Baptiste Clement and that he did not know where to go. This was shortly after his arrival in Paris. He was earning nothing, he had exhausted the few resources he had brought from Italy and found himself penniless. Doucet offered to bring him to the Delta where he could stay, if he wanted, and where he could keep his belongings. This was how my friendship with Modigliani began. I was twenty-six years old, Modigliani was twenty three…”

                                                             ……………………….to be continued

 

 

Posted in Amedeo Modigliani, Art, Art Blog, Art History, Italian artists | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Suzanne Valadon. Part 7 – The final years

Portrait of His Mother Suzanne Valadon by Maurice Utrillo

Portrait of His Mother Suzanne Valadon by Maurice Utrillo

With their newly found wealth the acrimonious arguments ceased, long-standing bills were paid and new clothes were bought for Suzanne, her husband and her son.  There was also a change in the fortunes of the trio for before they were all artists and all exhibited their works but now the Bernheim Jeune gallery just wanted paintings done by Suzanne and Maurice.  Utter was now reduced to the role as their manager.  He was the one who negotiated deals and organised exhibitions at home and in Europe.   The new wealth brought happiness to their friends and neighbours as Suzanne was a generous soul.  It was said that tiny street urchins would along the narrow streets of Montmartre clutching onto 100 franc notes which Suzanne had thrown to them from her top floor window in rue Cortot.  Suzanne did not forget her mother in this exciting time and arranged to have a splendid granite tomb placed above her grave.  She must have been thinking of the future for she the tomb inscribed in gold letters:

Valadon – Utter – Utrillo

Suzanne also remembered those idyllic months she spent with André in Belleville when he was recuperating and so she decided that she and André should return there for a visit.   Sadly, as we all know, it is foolish to try and re-live old memories and their return was not as idyllic as she had imagined it would be as the couple lapsed into numerous arguments.  

Chateau de St Bernard

Chateau de St Bernard

The one thing which did lift their spirits was an impulse buy on the day they were to return to Paris.  They bought themselves a chateau which lay close to the River Saône, just 25 kilometres north of Lyon.  They bought Le Chateau de St Bernard from the owner Antoine Goujot.  The purchase lifted their spirits and they immediately sent out invites to all their friends back in Paris along with money to pay for their travel.  Money was no object when it came to supplying food and drink to the chateau parties. 

Finally André and Suzanne had to return to Paris and once again relations between the couple began to deteriorate.  Their marriage was under extreme pressure and during their vociferous arguments André Utter struggled to remember the good days they had shared together when Suzanne was the one true love of his life.  In those days he was mesmerized by both her outer and inner beauty and could not understand what had changed.  The problem with Suzanne, although he could not see it, probably emanated from her mental and physical failure to grow old gracefully coupled with the effect her son’s mental issue were having on her.   Maurice’s behaviour was also affecting Utter but he was less sympathetic as he himself had been an alcoholic and had weaned himself off drink and therefore he could not accept Maurice’s behaviour.  Sadly Utter was overlooking Maurice’s mental issues which had little to do with drink.  For Suzanne and André there were still times of unfettered sexual activity but these bouts became less frequent.  The new wealth of the couple could not compensate for their troubles and could not fix them. 

Suzanne, Maurice and André in their studio

Suzanne, Maurice and André in their studio

André Utter began to have love affairs and Suzanne was aware of his infidelity and strove to stop them but probably knew the situation was beyond redemption.  She believed the reason for her husband’s infidelity was her fading looks whereas in reality it was probably due to her fragile mental state that had killed their relationship.   Utter’s amorous trysts did not make him happy for very long as the women, aware of his wealth, were ever demanding.  Soon he could not differentiate between their love for him and their love for his money.  When one of his affairs ended disastrously, as they all did, he would return to Suzanne and beg her forgiveness.  The locals were well aware of the situation between Suzanne and André and Suzanne being aware of this, ensured that everybody should be aware of her selfless magnanimity in forgiving her errant husband.  As his sensual liaisons were not giving him the pleasure any more he turned back to drink as being drunk allowed him to escape reality and distance himself from his many lovers and the acerbic tongue of his wife.  He would constantly bemoan his lot in life.  Nobody loved him or his paintings any more.  During his drunken outbursts he would become vile and malicious and Suzanne suddenly saw a different André.  This was not the man she fell so deeply in love with back in 1908. 

Still Life by  Suzanne Valadon (1918)

Still Life by Suzanne Valadon (1918)

Suzanne tried to console herself by throwing herself back into her art which was still commanding a high price and the fact that her son’s works realised four or five times more that hers did not bother her; in fact she was proud of Maurice’s achievements.  The subjects in her paintings changed.  Gone were the nude studies to be replaced by still life depictions often featuring flowers which were painted in somewhat crude colours which she always liked using.  She still went back alone to her chateau and host luncheons and dinner parties.  Her extravagant lifestyle carried on.  She would feed her dogs with only the best faux-filets and her cats feasted on caviar.  People looked her as being a foolish old woman but she continued undaunted. 

Bouquet de fleurs devant une fenêtre à Saint-Bernard by Suzanne Valadon (1926)

Bouquet de fleurs devant une fenêtre à Saint-Bernard by Suzanne Valadon (1926)

In 1924 Maurice voluntarily placed himself in a Paris sanatorium which was close by at Ivry.   Maurice was still unable to accept that he had mental issues and put down his problems solely to his alcohol addiction.  Suzanne was heartbroken that at the time of her son’s greatest artistic triumphs he was hell-bent on destroying himself.  It could be that for the first time in her life she realised that the symptoms Maurice displayed as a very young child was the onset of his mental issues and could not forgive herself for not doing more then to try and cure what was ailing her son.  Once Maurice left the sanatorium Suzanne took him off to the chateau and employed a male nurse to look after him.  She tended to all his needs.  She fed him.  She dressed him and would go for long walks with him and at night she would sit in a chair next to his be until he fell asleep.  André made a number of visits to the chateau but the romance and the love he had for the place had gone and the tantrums and behaviour of Maurice now simply annoyed him.  Later he reflected on this saying: 

“…This Eden was transformed into a real hell.  I thought we had bought the place for peace.  But Maurice was able to scream and shout about to his heart’s content.  Suzanne replied in kind.  And only the walls and the fish in the Saône listened to them…”

Officials at the Bernheim Jeuene gallery were beginning to worry about Suzanne’s profligacy and so as to protect the interests of their co-client, Maurice Utrillo, purchased a house for him in the Avenue Junot and put it in his name.   It was a modern building with a studio and a small garden which Suzanne enjoyed tending.  Gardening and flowers were the one and only thing Suzanne loved about life.  Utter remained in their house at No. 12 rue Cortot as it still had memories for him of the beautiful woman he had once loved and the pictures he had once painted.  Years later, after Suzanne had died, Utter wrote to a friend:

“…Always I dream of the rue Cortot and the beloved Suzanne.  When we first moved there, how beautiful everything was – except for the gossips!   And I knew then that it was the place I should always keep in my heart.  Every man has a home.  He is lost if he does not treasure it…”

Suzanne Valadon at work in her studio (1926)

Suzanne Valadon at work in her studio (1926)

Suzanne’s art was still appreciated and in 1929 she was invited to show in the Exhibition of Contemporary Art – Women and Flowers and in the same year she exhibited work in the Painters, Self-Portraits exhibition.  It was at this exhibition that she showed her extraordinary nude self-portrait which featured her as an aging woman gazing into a mirror.   In 1932 Suzanne, Maurice and André had a joint exhibition of their work at Gallerie Moos in Geneva and they were all delighted with sales figures.  That year Suzanne had a one woman exhibition of her paintings, drawings and etchings at the Galleries Georges Petit in Paris.  It was an outstanding success.  One of the visitors to the exhibition was Suzanne’s friend from her chateau days, the then Mayor of Lyons Édouard Marie Herriot who also served three times as Prime Minister and for many years as President of the Chamber of Deputies.  Of the exhibition he wrote:

“…Alive as Springtime itself and, like Spring, clear and ordered without interpretation, Suzanne Valadon pursues her magnificent and silent work of painting……. I think of the words of Théopile Gautier  ‘Summer is a colourist, winter a draftsman’.  To us who admire and love her art, Suzanne Valadon is springtime – a creature in whose sharp, incisive forms we find fountains of life, the spontaneity of renewed day-to-day living.   And those matters of the nineteenth century whose names we revere, I marvel that so scrupulous a respect for truth of form is able to achieve such a fete of colour and movement…”

Suzanne Valadon Self Portrait (1931)

Suzanne Valadon Self Portrait (1931)

Suzanne also had another troubling matter to deal with.  What was to become of Maurice when she died?  Her answer to that was that he should marry.  Suzanne did not want to lose “control” of her son but believed a kind and dedicated woman would be the ideal wife for her troubled son.  One candidate Suzanne had in mind was André Utter’s sister Gabrielle.  Gabrielle, now in her thirties, had like André come from a humble background.  She was a very caring person, deeply religious and not at all unattractive.  In some ways she pitied Maurice which was a kind of love but in a maternal or sisterly sense.  She and Maurice would talk together for hours and did all things close friends would do but this was not a physical relationship.  After four years of this “courtship”, Suzanne, tired of waiting, forced the issue of marriage with Maurice but he was horrified with the suggestion and replied vitriolic ally:

“…I’ve had enough tragedy in my family with one of that family…”

An official delegation of the government descended on Chateau de Bernard to formally present Maurice with the Cross of the Legion de Honor  in 1927 for his services to Art, for by this time he was an internationally acclaimed artist.  I have to admit that whilst researching this blog I read that the award was in 1928 and other sources said 1929!

Portrait of her son Maurice Utrillo by Suzanne Valadon

Portrait of her son Maurice Utrillo by Suzanne Valadon

In January 1935, now in her sixty-ninth year, Suzanne was taken seriously ill  and rushed to the American Hospital at Neuilly where she was diagnosed with uremic poisoning.   One of her visitors was Lucie Valore, who had reverted to her maiden name and who many years ago was Lucie Pauwels, who visited Suzanne with her banker husband to buy some of her paintings.  Her husband had died two years earlier.  What happened and what was said at Suzanne’s bedside depends on the version of the story you wish to believe.   According to Suzanne, Lucie had simply come to visit her and during the visit had said that as Suzanne was unable to look after Maurice she would take on the role as carer.  However Lucie remembered the visit differently as she simply remembered Suzanne’s anguished questions as to who would look after her son and on hearing those tormented pleas had volunteered to take up the burden that Suzanne had borne for such a long time.  Who knows what the true version of events was, but for sure it was easy to realise that it was the start of a contest for who should bear the responsibility for looking after Maurice Utrillo.  When Suzanne had planned a wife for Maurice she always believed she could still control him and his life.  She wanted a compliant wife for Maurice one whom she could manipulate.   However she realised right from the start that Lucie Valore was not a person she could control or manipulate and so she desperately tried to end the relationship.  It did not work for Maurice made the decision to rid himself of the Montmartre life and replace it with a life with the banker’s widow.  Maurice Utrillo and Lucie Valore were married in a civil ceremony at the Montmartre mairie and later in a religious ceremony at Angoulème.  Although Suzanne was present at the civil ceremony she refused to attend the religious one.

Suzanne Valadon by Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen

Suzanne Valadon by Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen

The newlyweds remained in Angoulème for twelve months and Lucie took on both the role as Carer for Maurice but also as his business manager which had once been looked after by André Utter.  Lucie in a way controlled Maurice by carefully rationing his alcohol consumption so that it would not affect his artistic output.  Lucie was an astute business manager as she controlled the output of his work to the art dealers so as to artificially raise the value of his paintings.  His paintings grew in value and with this increased income the couple bought a large house with extensive grounds  in the fashionable town of Le Vésinet, to the north west of Paris.  Despite Lucie’s attempts to win over the support of Suzanne, her attempts failed and slowly Suzanne’s contact with her son lessened.  Although she was aware that Lucie had controlled Maurice’s outbursts it could be that she resented the fact that Lucie had succeeded where she had failed.  Suzanne had lost her mother, her husband and now her son what was left in her life?   The answer came in the form of another young aspiring artist, Gazi.  He was a young man with a swarthy collection and rumour had it that he was the son of a mogul emperor.  Locals referred to him as Gazi the Tartar but for Suzanne he was simply a young artist from Provence whom she befriended.  He eventually lived with her and looked after her like a devoted son with his mother.  He would sit with her in the evenings and listen to her tales of the past, about Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Renoir and the little Master, Degas.

In May 1937 Suzanne was invited to attend the Women Painters Exhibition at the Petit Palais in Paris.  She had several of her latest paintings on show as well as some of her earlier work.  It was a celebration of French female artists and along with her works were paintings by  Vigée le Brun, Berthe Morisot, Eva Gonzalèz and Sonia Turk.  She spent hours critically viewing all the works of art and that evening she spoke to a friend who had accompanied her to the exhibition:

“…You know, chérie, I often boasted about my art because I thought that was what people expected – for an artist to boast.  I’m very humble after what we have seen this afternoon.  The women of France can paint too.  But do you know, chérie, I think God made me France’s greatest woman painter…”

The grave of Suzanne Valadon at the Cimetière parisien, St. Ouen.

The grave of Suzanne Valadon at the Cimetière parisien, St. Ouen.

In April, 1938, Suzanne Valadon was sat before her easel painting a floral still life when she was struck down by a stroke.  Neighbours heard her cry out and rushed inside to help her and found her lying motionless on the studio floor.  She was rushed to hospital but the next day, the 7th April1938, she passed away, aged 73.  Her daughter in law, Lucie, took care of the funeral arrangements as her husband, Suzanne’s son, Maurice, was in a state of collapse at home in Le Vésinet.  A funeral service was held at the Church of Saint Peter of Montmartre on April 9th.  The church was crowded to see the old lady, the great painter, begin her last journey.  Her husband André Utter was there and inconsolable.  His once greatest love had finally achieved peace.  She was buried in Cimetière  parisien de St Ouen.

Suzanne Valadon (Marie-Clémentine Valadon) 23 Sept 1865 - 7 Apr 1938

Suzanne Valadon
(Marie-Clémentine Valadon)
23 Sept 1865 – 7 Apr 1938

André Utter became the owner of the castle to the death of Suzanne Valadon in 1938. He sold it in 1945 and died in Paris a few years later in 1948.   Suzanne’s son Maurice Utrillo died on 5 November 1955, and was buried in the Cimitière Saint-Vincent in Montmartre and not in the family grave as Suzanne had planned.  In 1963, eight years after the death of her husband, Utrillo’s wife Lucie, founded the Association Maurice Utrillo, which housed a collection of documents and photographs recording the history of the lives of her and her husband as well as Suzanne Valadon and André Utter.   Lucy Utrillo died in 1965.  

When I started writing about the life and works of Suzanne Valadon I had no idea that it would stretch over seven separate blogs.  The more I wrote the more fascinated I became and the more I read about her life.  In the end I could not bear to leave out little bits of information I had just gleaned.   At one point I had decided not to go into too much detail about her son, Maurice Utrillo, but I soon realised that as he played such a key role in Suzanne’s life, it was important that I examined his relationship with his mother and grandmother and later his relationship with Suzanne’s lover Paul Mousis and her husband André Utter. 

What did you make of Suzanne’s life?   Were you less sympathetic with her lot in life believing she brought all her problems upon herself?   How did you feel about her relationship with her son Maurice?  Did you blame her for paying too little attention to him when he was a young child and by doing so, allowed his mental issues to worsen irrevocably or do you think that once she had been told by the doctors that Maurice “would grow out of it”, it was all she had to go on?  So can you empathise with her?  

For me, I felt sadness for her when she realised she was losing her greatest asset, an asset that in so many ways shaped her life.  The asset was her beauty but as we all know, one cannot hold on to it forever.

—————————————-

Most of my information came from a book I read on the life of Suzanne Valadon entitled The Valadon Drama, The Life of Suzanne Valadon, written by John Storm in 1923.

Other sites I visited to find some pictures were:

http://lapouyette-unddiedingedeslebens.blogspot.co.uk/

http://youngbohemia.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/suzanne-valadon_8445.html

http://www.messynessychic.com

The Blog:  It’s about time :  http://bjws.blogspot.co.uk

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, Female artists, Female painters, Maurice Utrillo, Suzanne Valadon | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Suzanne Valadon. Part 6 – André Utter, the War and a change in circumstances

Self Portrait with Family (André Utter, Madeleine Valadon and Maurice Utrillo) by Suzanne Valadon (c.1910)

Self Portrait with Family
(André Utter, Madeleine Valadon and Maurice Utrillo)
by Suzanne Valadon (c.1910)

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? 

Adam and Eve by Suzanne Valadon (1909)

Adam and Eve by Suzanne Valadon (1909)

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. 

Portrait of her Son Maurice Utrillo, his Grandmother Madeleine and the Dog, by Suzanne Valadon (1910)

Portrait of her Son Maurice Utrillo, his Grandmother Madeleine and the Dog, by Suzanne Valadon (1910)

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 Moulin la Galette (c.1918) by Maurice Utrillo

The Moulin la Galette (c.1918) by Maurice Utrillo

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. 

Suzanne Valadon, Her Son Maurice Utrillo (seated, right) and André Utter, (1920)

Suzanne Valadon, Her Son Maurice Utrillo (seated, right) and André Utter, (1920)

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.

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Suzanne Valadon Part 5. Her son Maurice Utrillo, her husband Paul Mousis and her lover Erik Satie

Suzanne Valadon and her son Maurice (c.1889)

Suzanne Valadon and her son Maurice (c.1889)

My look at the life of Suzanne Valadon would not be complete if I didn’t spend some time looking at the early years of her son Maurice and how he had such an effect on her life.  In my earlier blogs I told you that Suzanne, who was eighteen years at the time, gave birth to her son on December 26th 1883.  She was unmarried at the time and would never reveal the identity of the father.   She decided on the name Maurice for her son, reasoning that as none of her previous or present lovers had that Christian name it would therefore not give a hint as to who actually was Maurice’s father.  However in January 1891 she persuaded one of her former lovers, Miguel Utrillo to agree to sign the Act of Recognition naming himself as Maurice’s father.  The document was signed on February 27th 1891and it stated:

“…27 February 1891.  Act of Recognition of Maurice, Masculine Sex.  Born 26 December 1883 and inscribed on the 29th following at the mairie 18th arondissement as son of Marie Valadon and unnamed father.  Set up by us Charles-Paul-Auguste Bernard, assistant to the mayor, officer of the civil state 9th arondissement, on the declaration made by Michael (Miguel) Utrillo, 28 years of age, journalist of 50 Boulevard de Clichy, who has recognised as his son the aforementioned Maurice.  In the presence of Charles Mahut, 44 years of age, employed, residing in Paris, 5b Impasse Rodier, and of Félix Dunion, 44 years of age, waiter, residing in Paris, 3 rue Saint Rustique, who have signed with the petitioner and ourselves after reading.    Paris. 8 April 1891…”

One should note that the document refers to Suzanne by her original Christian name Marie (Marie-Clémentine) and not Suzanne, the name she changed it to on the advice of Toulouse-Lautrec.  So was Miguel really Maurice’s father, if not, why would he sign such a document?  It was not as if it was a “spur of the moment” decision as one can see by the dates at the start and the end of the document the process took almost six weeks to complete which would have given Miguel time to consider what he had been asked to sign and time to back out of the agreement.  Whether Miguel was the father we will probably never know.   She had many lovers as a teenager including Pierre-Puvis de Chavannes, the French artist.  There was also Adrian Boissy, the drunken accountant from an insurance company she met at the Moulin de Galette one night, and who according to Suzanne, took her to his home, plied her with drink and raped her. 

There is probably no greater love than that which a  mother gives to her children and although I am sure there was a maternal love between Suzanne and Maurice her maternal instinct must have been sorely tested as Maurice was not a normal child.  During his very early days Maurice was looked after solely by Suzanne’s mother, Madeleine, and their Breton maid, Catherine, whilst Suzanne pursued her career as an artist’s model.  To say that Maurice was not a typical child would be something of an understatement.  At times he would lie peacefully on his grandmother’s lap and then suddenly his body would become stiff and he would shudder violently, biting his lip until it bled and hold his breath until his whole face turned purple.  In later childhood this small waif-like little boy would throw himself on the floor in fits of rage.  Suzanne’s grandmother’s only solution was to give him some watered down wine to try and calm him down.  It was not Suzanne that spent the most time with him but his grandmother.  It was she who comforted him during his fits and rages.  It was she who fed and clothed him.  It was she who shared her bed at night with him.  It was she who gave him the nickname Mamau which stayed with him all his life.  Madeleine had spent little time or had shown much love towards her daughter Suzanne and she was now probably trying not to make the same mistake with her grandson.  In turn, Maurice loved his grandmother and revelled in her company.  Suzanne was not jealous of this grandmother/grandson close relationship, in fact as she had tried, without success, to please her mother all her life she was pleased that she had “given” her son to her mother as this had evoked so much pleasure.

Nu assis se coiffant by Suzanne Valadon (1896)

Nu assis se coiffant by Suzanne Valadon (1896)

At the age of five Suzanne enrolled Maurice at a nursery school, Pension La Flaiselle, in the rue Labat.  Her son hated the school, in fact he was terrified by it and yet although knowing his fear, Suzanne never walked the long distance up the hill to reach the place which, by doing so, would have afforded her son a modicum of comfort.  This terror Maurice felt began to have an effect on life at home as the older he got the more he would lapse into spells of depression often followed by bouts of extreme violence which manifested itself into the smashing of the household china and ripping down the curtains.  Despite the doctor’s prognosis that he would “grow out of it”, the violent episodes continued but at no time could Suzanne see the correlation between his mood swings and his unhappiness at the school.   Suzanne saw his terror of school life as a form of cowardice and whimpishness for one has to remember that as a child of Maurice’s age, Suzanne was completely fearless.  Suzanne showed Maurice little sympathy; on the contrary, she was embarrassed by his antics. When things got out of hand at home Suzanne would just leave the house to party or be with a lover and leave Maurice for her mother to handle.

Maurice playing with slingshot by Suzanne Valadon (1895)

Maurice playing with slingshot by Suzanne Valadon (1895)

It was in 1888 that a new lover for Suzanne came on to the scene in the form of a young wealthy banker, Paul Mousis, whom she had seen around the café-cabaret establishments, Auberge du Clou and the Chat Noir.  Mousis would mingle with the artists who were at the Auberge du Clou and because he was a generous man, he would keep them supplied with drinks, and by this gesture, he was accepted as “one of their own”.  The Auberge was just a short distance from Toulouse-Lautrec’s home and Mousis along with his new friends would often visit the painter’s home and join one of Lautrec’s frequent soirées and it was here that he met Suzanne, who was acting as Lautrec’s unofficial hostess.  Mousis was immediately besotted with this beautiful young French woman and within a few weeks of their first meeting he had proposed marriage.  She refused him but said that she would readily become his lover.  Her reasoning was quite simple.  Being Mousis’ lover meant that she was on equal terms with him, whereas marrying Mousis would make her his property and in some way subservient. 

During her late teens and early twenties Suzanne had a number of lovers and would often tire of them very quickly.  Mousis offered her not only his companionship and love-making but financial stability and yet Suzanne, three months into their relationship, strayed, this time towards the strange enigmatic musician and composer, Erik Satie whom she met whilst he was playing the piano at Le Chat Noir café.  Twenty-one year old Satie was a dropout from the Paris Conservatoire, who had given up the bourgeois lifestyle he had whilst living with his parents, and moved to the bohemian lifestyle of the Montmartrois.   One would have thought that Paul Mousis would have been horrified at this turn of events but he wasn’t, maybe because he too was having a liaison with another woman!   Satie was besotted with Suzanne.  He even proposed marriage to her on their first meeting.  He lavished upon her numerous gifts, took her for walks in the Luxembourg Gardens and strange as it may seem, he would often go out in the evening with Suzanne and Mousis.  This was indeed a ménage à trois.  However the leading role in this love triangle was always Suzanne.  She choreographed the love triangle.  She constantly fussed around Satie looking after all his needs, such as feeding him, darning his socks and cleaning for him.   In Ornella Volta’s 1989 book, Satie seen through his letters, the depth of his love for Suzanne can be clearly seen.  He wrote to his brother in 1893:

“…I shall have great difficulty in regaining possession of myself, loving this little person as I have loved her …she was able to take all of me. Time will do what at this moment I cannot do…”

Mousis was not deterred by the presence of Satie as he felt that Suzanne was the only woman who could satisfy him sexually.  However all good things had to come to an end and Mousis became tired of the love triangle and told Suzanne it must end.  She refused to give up Satie and so Mousis went off for six months.  He did return and once again took up with Suzanne but now it was the turn of Satie to complain and tell Suzanne to end her relationship with Mousis.  Once again and highlighting her control of the love triangle she refused and Satie ended the ménage à trois being unable to share her with Mousis.

Portrait of Erik Satie  by Suzanne Valadon (c.1892)

Portrait of Erik Satie by Suzanne Valadon (c.1892)

In 1894 Suzanne and Mousis set up house at No. 2 rue Cortot, just two doors away from the house belonging to Satie.  After a short while, neighbours would refer to Suzanne as Madame Mousis.  She did visit Satie and it was in 1892 in his one-room house, two doors away, at No. 6 rue Cortot, that she had painted the twenty-six year old musician’s  portrait.  It is entitled Portrait of Erik Satie and it can now be found in the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.  It was Suzanne’s first attempt at portraiture in oil.  It measures just 22 x 41 cms and because the height of the portrait is double that of its width there is an elongated look to it.  Satie almost fills the canvas.  His facial expression in this painting is one of dourness.  His red lips are partly hidden by his waxed moustache and the pince-nez glasses give him an intellectual air. 

In the summer of 1886 Suzanne and Satie parted company in acrimonious circumstances.  It is not clear what happened to initiate this final breakdown of their relationship, but final it was.  It is alleged that Satie was devastated, hurling himself on the floor weeping bitter tears and bitterly declaring that he was left with “nothing but an icy loneliness that fills the head with emptiness and the heart with sadness”.  In 1889 Satie left Montmartre and his one and only true love, Suzanne Valadon. It was also 1896 that Mousis and Suzanne were said to have married, but did they ever officially marry?  Although Mousis was often referred to as “Suzanne’s first husband” there is no official record of their marriage or divorce in either the mairies of Montmartre or Pierrefitte-Montmagny and maybe when her friends talk of  her marriage to Mousis it was just a figurative expression rather than a literal one.

Nu à la toilette by Suzanne Valadon (1892)

Nu à la toilette by Suzanne Valadon (1892)

If we go back four years to 1892 there was a change in Suzanne Valadon’s lifestyle.  Her wealthy lover, Paul Mousis had tired of the bohemian lifestyle of Montmartre and wanted to return to his former bourgeois lifestyle which he believed befitted a successful banker and so he decided to lease a house in the village of Pierrefitte, situated in the Seine valley, and which lay twenty kilometres north of Paris.  This was to be a weekend retreat for himself, Suzanne and her family.  Suzanne’s grandmother, Madeleine, was delighted to move back to a quiet rural village similar to the one she had been brought up in.   She was now in her late sixties, a somewhat wizened old woman who suffered badly from rheumatism and who was still addicted to alcohol and spent much of her time in a semi-drunken haze.  Her one love, her one great pleasure in life was her grandson Maurice.  He still suffered from swiftly changing moods and his grandmother could only control his uncontrollable rages by plying him with glasses of wine.   However the alcohol did not always have the desired effect and instead of calming him down it lead to him demanding more glasses of it until he virtually passed out. He had become an alcoholic.

In 1894 Mousis, who loved living in the area decided to build the family a new house atop the Butte Pinson which was between the village of Pierrefitte and the village of Montmagny.  Suzanne was still uncertain about the move away from Montmartre so Mousis told her that the building of the new house was simply a business investment.  He also tried to persuade Suzanne that to achieve a great artistic standing she needed to move away from the chaos of Montmartre life.  As a compromise he agreed that Suzanne should keep her Montmartre studio in the rue Cortot.  Suzanne would commute back and forth between their home at Montmagny and her studio in Montmartre by her own pony and trap which Mousis had given her.  Soon she began to appreciate life at Montmagny and developed a passion for flowers and the enjoyment of gardening. 

Notwithstanding her new lifestyle and her love of nature, she was not able to ignore the ever-increasing problem she had in her life – her son Maurice and his worsening mental behaviour.  By his teenage years he like his grandmother had become addicted to alcohol but now it was not just wine, it was now the “green devil” itself, absinthe.  In his late teens he had also become much more violent during his uncontrollable rages and Mousis and Suzanne consulted many doctors and psychiatrists.  It culminated in 1901, just before his nineteenth birthday, when during a particularly nasty rage a doctor was called to forcibly sedate him and he was committed to the asylum of Saint-Anne where he remained for three months.   This was a terrible time for Suzanne as it was during her son’s confinement she also learnt of the death of her good friend and mentor, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, who had died in a sanatorium at the age of thirty-seven.  The cause of death was partly put down to complications arising from his alcoholism and Suzanne must have wondered what her son’s fate would be.

Whilst Maurice remained in the asylum, Suzanne filled her life by concentrating on her art and spent nearly all the time at her studio in rue Cortot where she completed a series of nude drawings for which she served as her own model.  Maurice was finally released from the asylum and according to his mother, “he looked better than he has for years – and so beautiful”.  He was off drink but was very listless, avoided everybody and sat reading his books.  A turning point came when Suzanne persuaded him to take up art as a hobby.  Reluctant at first, he soon took a liking to it and within two years, would spend most of his time in his mother’s studio in Montmartre.  In that time, he had completed no fewer than 150 works. By the age of twenty-three he was living in her studio.  The only think he disliked about life in Montmartre was the people.  People everywhere and he just wanted to shut himself away from them all.  They annoyed him and soon the rages returned and to cope with the rages he turned back to drink and would, during the day, paint with excruciating hangovers.  Despite his abhorrence of people he would still go out and wander around Montmartre painting en plein air.  When buoyed by alcohol he would engage in conversation with others in the drinking establishments he frequented.  He always introduced himself as Maurice Valadon, adamantly shunning the name “Utrillo”.  The drinking resulted in his old habits returning – the violent outbursts of rage often culminating in fights with the locals. 

One day in 1909, which was to have an effect on his life and the life of his mother Suzanne, he was sitting outside painting when he was approached by a young man who introduced himself as a fellow artist.  He was André Utter.

                                               …………………………. to be continued.

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Suzanne Valdon. Part 4 – Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas

Self portrait by Suzanne Valadon (1883)

Self portrait by Suzanne Valadon (1883)

In my last blog, Part 3 of the life story of Suzanne Valadon, I talked about her relationship with the French painter Pierre-August Renoir and looked at his 1883 Dance Series of painting, two of which featured Suzanne.  At the end of the blog I stated that Renoir had nurtured Suzanne’s interest in art.  I suppose nurturing was the wrong word to use as although Renoir’s art influenced Suzanne it was more his dismissive attitude to her early attempts to paint and sketch that had an effect on her.  Renoir had a somewhat condescending attitude towards her attempts at drawing and painting and this along with his preference for Aline Charigot over her rankled Suzanne all her life.  However Renoir’s indifference regarding her artistic attempts galvanised the young woman in her mission to prove him wrong and at the same time it fostered in her a desire to become a great artist in her own right, for if nothing else, Suzanne was a very headstrong and determined character and one who would never accept failure lightly. 

Suzanne Valadon did however receive valuable help and support with her quest to become an artist.  This help came from two completely different sources.   Her initial help came from a young French artist who had just come on to the Parisian art scene and it was through his good auspices that she was introduced to an elderly artist who, at the time, was viewed as The Master of all the French artists.   The young artist was Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the Master was none other than Edgar Degas.

My Utrillo at the Age of Nine by Suzanne Valadon (1892)

My Utrillo at the Age of Nine by Suzanne Valadon (1892)

Unabashed by Renoir’s attitude Suzanne set about sketching with pencil and charcoal.  She sketched avidly.  Any free time she had from her modelling engagements were spent sketching.  It was in the Spring of 1887 that she first met the twenty-two year old, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, who had a top floor studio at No.7 rue Tourlaque, the same building in which Suzanne, her mother Madeleine and her son Maurice were living.  Toulouse Lautrec was once described as having a grotesque appearance.  At the age of fourteen, he slipped on a floor and broke his left thigh bone.  The following year, while out walking, he fell and broke his right thigh bone.  Neither leg healed properly.  It is now believed that this was due to a genetic disorder.  After these breaks, his legs never grew any longer which resulted in him attaining a height, as an adult, of just 1.54 m (5 ft 1 in) despite have a full sized torso.  His walk was just an embarrassing shuffle.  Add to this physical deformity his oversized nose, his dark and greasy skin and full black beard which masked his face, one can envisage the physical and mental torment he must have suffered.  However, despite this, he was quite a gregarious person and had a buoyant character and soon after setting up his studio it took on a new role as a meeting place for local artists and members of the literary set.  Lautrec would often provide food and drink at these meetings and conversation would often centre on art, artists and artistic trends.  Suzanne Valadon often helped Lautrec with these get-togethers and soon she was considered the unofficial hostess of Lautrec’s soirées.  One should remember that Suzanne was quite short in stature and so standing next to the diminutive Lautrec they made for an “ideal couple”.  Suzanne had always been a very good looking woman and so, when standing next to him her physical beauty meant eyes were immediately focused upon her and not her little companion. 

Suzanne was not “backward in coming forward” at these events and would unreservedly give her opinion on current artistic trends.  As ever, her wit and the acidity of her tongue came to the fore ensuring that the evening would never be dull and of course, her physical beauty was always admired by all the male guests.   As Suzanne helped Lautrec to run his parties and add her own brand of verbal entertainment at them Toulouse-Lautrec expressed his gratitude by taking an interest in her early art. He was also the first person to buy a couple of her sketches.   He hung them on the wall of his lodgings and was often amused when visitors attributed them to artists such as Degas and Théopile Steinlen, the painter and printmaker, but all viewers of these works were in agreement that they had been done by an accomplished artist. 

The Hangover; Portrait of Suzanne Valadon by Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (c. 1888)

The Hangover; Portrait of Suzanne Valadon by Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (c. 1888)

Suzanne and Toulouse-Lautrec would often wile away their time together sketching.  He completed a number of portraits of her but would never pose for her.  One of the best portraits Toulouse Lautrec did of Suzanne was his 1888 painting entitled Gueule de Bois (The Hangover) in which we see her sprawled across a café table.  She received no payment from Lautrec for modelling for this picture.  It would have been unthinkable considering all the help he had given her.  Soon Toulouse-Lautrec began to advise Suzanne, not just on things artistic, but everyday things such as how she should dress what hats she should wear and would often accompany her on shopping trips. 

Portrait of the Artist Suzanne Valadon  by Toulouse Lautrec (1885)

Portrait of the Artist Suzanne Valadon by Toulouse Lautrec (1885)

It was Toulouse-Lautrec who persuaded her to change her name from that which she was baptised, Marie-Clémentine, to Suzanne as he believed her birth name was just too mundane for an up-and-coming artist.  Suzanne agreed to the change of name and she gave Lautrec the very first painting she completed, which had been signed “Suzanne Valadon”. 

It was on the insistence of Toulouse-Lautrec that in 1887, Suzanne went to see Edgar Degas and took along some of her sketches.  She recalled the time:

“…Lautrec’s great brown eyes laughed behind his thick glasses and his mouth was solemn and grave as a priest’s when he told me I must go to M. Degas with my drawings…” 

When she arrived at Degas’ house for the first time,  Suzanne always recalled that day stating on a number of occasions that it was “the wonderful moment of my life”.  She arrived at the house in rue Victor Massé clutching her portfolio of sketches.  She was extremely nervous in his presence.  She recalled the time vividly.  Degas took her sketches, moved to the window to see them better and slowly thumbed through them mumbling comments to himself, occasionally looking up at her.  On completing his examination of her work he turned to Suzanne, who was sitting straight-backed in a chair, and uttered the words that she would never forget:

“…Yes it is true.  You are indeed one of us…”

Nude getting into the Bath besides the Seated Grandmother by Suzanne Valadon (1903)

Nude getting into the Bath besides the Seated Grandmother by Suzanne Valadon (1903)

Degas, who had once described himself as simply a colourist with line, could see the merit in Suzanne’s work despite her work was in a pure and savage state and the sketches were totally without refinement, and yet there was a sense of grace about them.  Suzanne and Degas became good and long-lasting friends.  It was a friendship which would have, in some ways, seemed strange as Degas and Suzanne came from different backgrounds and different social classes but it could be the fact that Degas was uneasy in the company of women of his own social strata and that made Suzanne and ideal companion.  During their many meetings she would show him her latest work which he would assess and give advice and she in return would tell him all the gossip and news from Montmartre, for he rarely set foot outside stating he was too ill and it was also around this time that his eyesight began to fail. 

Although Suzanne Valadon was a self taught artist it is generally accepted that she owed a lot to Edgar Degas.  It was he that supervised her first engravings and it was he who ensured that Ambroise Vollard, one of the most important art dealers of the time, presented an exhibition of Suzanne’s engravings at his gallery in 1895.  As far as Suzanne was concerned, Edgar Degas was “The Master”, an artistic genius.  Of all the artists she came across, he was the one she respected the most.  She hung on his every word, basked in his praise for her work and although he had lost a number of friends due to his petulance and grumpiness, she looked on his irascibility as part of his charm and charisma.  Degas could do no wrong in her eyes.  Degas too loved her companionship and Suzanne Valadon was one of the few people who could call herself a friend of the great man and she was immensely proud of this mutual friendship.

                                                           ……………………………………….. to be continued

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, Degas, Female artists, Female painters, French painters, Suzanne Valadon, Toulouse-Lautrec, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments