The “secret life” referred to in the subtitle of Catherine Hewitt’s new biography of the postimpressionist artist Suzanne Valadon is a misnomer. Valadon had no secret life: She was always out front and as advertised. Born the daughter of a provincial laundrymaid in 1865, Valadon was a terror as a child growing up in Paris. By the time she was 10, the nuns in charge of her education had had enough, and her mother sent her for employment in the usual occupations open to adolescents at the time — seamstress, dishwasher, hatmaker and so on — with deplorable results. At the age of 15, it looked as if Valadon might have a career as a circus acrobat, but a trapeze injury put an end to that path.
Shortly afterward, though, she found a calling that could support her: artist’s model.
Considered by respectable society to be little better than a prostitute, a good model could still earn far more than a maid like Valadon’s mother. Valadon had the face and figure to attract attention and the physical stamina to hold poses by the hour. She was soon posing for Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, an eminent painter of murals, and by 17 she was a favored model — and the mistress — of Renoir. She appears in two of his most famous canvases, “Dance in the City” and “Dance at Bougival.”
Valadon was always up for a party, and her bohemian lifestyle inspired gossip linking her with many men. By 18 she was pregnant. Valadon never named the father of her son, if indeed she knew which of her lovers it was, but a minor artist and sometime boyfriend named Miguel Utrillo later formally claimed paternity. A story that made the rounds had him declare that he would be honored to sign his name to a work by Puvis or Renoir.
Many women modeled in Montmartre, and some undoubtedly became pregnant by their employers. But as “Renoir’s Dancer” points out, what made Valadon special was the talent and the resolve that enabled her to move from posing in front of an easel to standing behind one. She had demonstrated a knack for drawing since childhood, and watching the artists as they worked gave her an education in the process of oil painting. She showed her drawings to Toulouse-Lautrec, another of her employers, who in turn introduced her to Degas. Degas became a champion of her work. By the age of 28, Valadon was exhibiting at the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. She would exhibit her work in prestigious venues for the rest of her life.
Hewitt makes her subject’s life an armature on which to hang a history of the Belle Époque, and she includes erudite digressions into the major events of the time — the Franco-Prussian War, for example, or the Exposition Universelle of 1889, whose opening was crowned by the newly erected Eiffel Tower. There are copious footnotes and a bibliography that runs to several pages.
It is all the more surprising therefore that Hewitt, perhaps aiming at as large an audience as possible, emphasizes the subject’s emotional rather than artistic life, occasionally delivered in prose that sounds needlessly melodramatic. Here is Renoir, depicted at the time he began to use Valadon as a model: “Women adored him. And with that intense gaze, magnetism and almost Mediterranean allure, Renoir possessed all the qualities for which [Valadon] had already demonstrated her weakness.”
Valadon eventually married a businessman and lived a life of suburban comfort with him; her son, Maurice; and her mother for about a decade. Maurice had been shy and unhappy since childhood and by adolescence was taking refuge in alcohol from school bullying. A move back to Montmartre did not remedy the situation, and Valadon’s attempts to place Maurice in gainful employment were no more successful than those of her mother with her, 30 years earlier. He soon began the alcoholic binges that would land him in sanitariums on and off for the rest of his life. But Maurice also began to paint, and by his mid-20s those works were beginning to sell.
At 45, Valadon threw her husband over for an artist younger than her son. André Utter settled into the established ménage of Suzanne, her mother and her alcoholic son. Though never successful as an artist, Utter soon became a business manager of sorts to Valadon and especially to Maurice, whose popular scenes of Paris provided the bulk of the family’s income for the rest of Valadon’s life, though there was a falling-out between mother and son in the mid-1930s, when Maurice finally found a wife who was willing to be a full-time caretaker. Valadon died in 1938, continuing to exhibit till the end.
What this admittedly entertaining book lacks is a sustained and informative discussion of the aesthetic achievement that makes Valadon worthy of consideration as anything but one of the colorful characters who inhabited Montmartre at the turn of the 20th century. Look at the title again: “Renoir’s Dancer,” the name of a famous male artist, followed by an anonymous noun. Valadon still awaits the contemporary biographer who can give her top billing in her own show.
Reagan Upshaw is an art dealer and critic in Beacon, N.Y.
By Catherine Hewitt
St. Martin’s. 480 pp. $27.99