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.
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.
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.
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…”
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