Helena Tarn Art

A Life Less Ordinary: Suzanne Valadon

The Blue Room (La chambre bleue), Suzanne Valadon, 1923

I paint with the stubbornness I need for living, and I’ve found that all painters who love their art do the same.

Suzanne Valadon

It’s rare (ok, not that rare) that a painting stops me in my steps. But occasionally a painting really does STOP me. Many years ago, a trip to Paris, wandering the corridors of the sublime Musée National d’Art Moderne at the Centre Pompidou, I stumbled across a fantastic painting.

As I’ve written previously, I wanted to write about some of the paintings that inspire me. Again, to emphasise, I am not an art historian, just an art lover. The views here are my own and I’m simply relating why I love a painting and how it relates to my own work and experiences. Hopefully it will help you get to know me a bit better and see how these artworks have impacted me over the years.

So back to Paris… Mesmerised by this striking painting, strangely familiar, yet like nothing I had ever seen. The first thing that grabbed my attention was the gorgeously rich, kaleidoscopic blue tone of the painting. Such a potent, satisfying colour. As you know, I love a good blue painting (so I’m very happy several painters had ‘blue periods’ over the course of their careers…). But upon closer look, I was not expecting what I saw. Here was this Renaissance-esque babe, leisurely reclining on the couch, a traditional pose, in an anything but traditional manner. Sat in her green stripy pyjamas, cigarette delicately balanced between her lips, her nonchalant, couldn’t care less expression, letting it all hang out, quite literally.

Then I looked at the little picture description… Suzanne Valadon, 1923. ‘I don’t know her, not familiar with her work. Hang on, SUZANNE…. A WOMAN!! ‘Forgive my shock, but after a couple of hours walking around one of the greatest art museums in the world, meandering from Matisse to Mondrian, Picasso to Pollock… here was a painting, a masterpiece, by a female artist… from 1923!!! I was not used to seeing a female name on the plaques of my favourite art haunt corridors. Women did paint professionally at this time, but they were few and far between. Painting was a nice hobby for a well brought up young lady, but it wasn’t a career. And if it did become a career, well, they should paint refined and demure portraits full of sensibility. This was anything but. I was surprised, pleasantly, to say the least.

The Blue Room was painted in 1923 by the brilliant Suzanne Valadon. There is debate as to whether this is a self-portrait and there is passing resemblance, however, we don’t know. Valadon was a master of the female form, and so she painted many female portraits over the years. If it is a self-portrait (and I kind of hope it is), I just think it is an utterly brave, compelling and almost satirical take on the typical female portrait of 1923.

The pose itself is traditional but the image is anything but. The painting is so unusual for a portrait of a woman of this time. This model is not just to be either admired, or eroticized, as so many of the portraits were. Instead, she has interests, her own independent viewpoints. When she feels like it, she reads, as shown by the books strewn on her daybed. Is she waiting for someone or has someone just left? Or is she simply relaxing on a Sunday afternoon. She gazes into the distance, deep in thought. She is in complete control of her surroundings. She is confident, composed, independent. And those striped green lounge trousers contrasting with the colours of the blue background and her pale skin, just fantastic. The portrait is dignified, the model shows strength in her femininity. A celebration of actual womanhood, not one that is clouded by expectation.

Born in France in 1865, Valadon painted at the height of the Paris avant-garde. She was a contemporary of Renoir, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec and started out her career as a model for painters. I didn’t know much about Valadon’s personal life, so I was thrilled to listen recently to the Great Women Artist podcast with the delightful and ever enthusiastic Katie Hessel. Hessel interviewed art expert and novelist Jennifer Higgie about her recent book The Mirror and the Palette, in which Higgie explores the unorthodox and often scandalous life of Valadon. I would highly recommend listening to this episode to discover more about this truly trailblazing artist.

Contrasting many female artists of her generation, Valadon did not have a privileged background or come from a family of artists, as was usually the case for a woman to have a professional career in art. Instead, Valadon was the impoverished, illegitimate daughter of a washer woman. She started working at the age of ten doing anything she could; selling fruit, sewing, washing dishes, waitressing. While living on the streets of Montmartre, performing as an acrobat, she became an artists’ model and muse. Completely self taught, she learned to paint through observing and studying the artists that were painting her, many of whom supported and encouraged her in her artistic endeavours. Her extraordinary, unconventional and pretty wild life story makes compelling reading.

The Hangover, Toulouse-Lautrec, 1889 (using his friend Valadon as his model for the painting)

Surrounded by artistic genius at the height of the avant-garde, Valadon learned from the best. A versatile subject, she features in many famous artworks such as ‘The Hangover’ painted by her good friend Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Unable to attend the Académie, she honed her craft on her own, determinedly observant and self-reliant, her undoubtable talent shining through. Perhaps it is this non-traditional trajectory that gives so much life to her work. Possibly her paintings are so compelling, precisely because her life was so extraordinary. The Blue Room is unusual, unconventional, and it is this reason I love it so much. As a young woman, Valadon had to stand on her own two feet, to survive and pull herself out of the depths of poverty. I see this independence, this strength of spirit in The Blue Room.

Suzanne Valadon in her studio

I’ll sign off this post with a quote from Valadon herself,

I had the great masters. I took the best of them of their teachings, of their examples. I found myself, I made myself, and I said what I had to say.

Suzanne Valadon

Decades after her death, I think Valadon is still saying what she has to say. She truly was self-made and her extraordinary lust for life, determination and hard work has been immortalised in this beautiful painting. I hope you enjoyed my thoughts on this artwork and please do let me know what you think below. I’d love to know what you think of it.

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