‘Look and Learn’ was a finger-wagging catchphrase directed at many children in the 1960s as a spur to self-improvement. This determined drive to intellectual betterment even spawned a long-running children’s educational magazine of the same name. But around a century earlier, the technique was important in producing one of the most impressive of all French female artists, Suzanne Valadon.
Valadon’s looking and learning – and later, achieving – emerged from her years as a model for some of the greatest French artists, including Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec. You might not know it, but you’ve almost certainly already seen Valadon. The female dancer in the arms of her partner in Renoir’s famous La Dance á Bougivral and in Danse á la Ville is none other than Suzanne Valadon herself.
A born artist
Born in 1865, Valadon came from a poor provincial background in south-western France. Her mother was an unmarried laundress who moved to Montmartre, which was then a gritty and low-rent working-class area of Paris that also attracted artists. Life was grindingly poor and young Suzanne’s schooling was scant. By the age of 11, she was out of school and employed in menial tasks. But she was possessed by a desire to draw on any surface using any material available. At the age of 15 in 1880, a local opportunity opened to become part of the art world: she became an artists’ model. In doing so, she also became fully engaged in the wildly hedonistic lifestyle of the Montmartre demi-monde.
But the artists’ model had a smouldering ambition to be an artist herself. As she posed for Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and others, she observed them just as acutely as they observed her. Noting their artistic techniques, Valadon would then pursue a mashed-up version of those techniques herself – secretly, as she thought, although discovered and gently teased by a bemused Renoir.
Valadon, with little education and no formal art training, drew and painted what she saw around her in a starkly unsentimental way – particularly the movements, contortions and gestures of local people and their relationship to objects around them. Her early work was seen and encouraged by another French painter of physical form and movement, Edgar Degas. While Valadon was held in distaste by the stuffy French art authorities because of her social origins, sex and absence of any training, her undeniable natural talent eventually broke through: in 1894 she became the first female artist to exhibit at the prestigious Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
The art of curves
A painting from later in her career, Woman in White Stockings, expresses much of what makes Valadon distinctively Valadon. The female form is presented unsentimentally and without any reference to a conventional ideal of beauty. What we have instead is a rather jaded woman, who is presumably relaxing after a social evening. We may read as a time refence her dishevelled outfit – including those loose white stockings – and the discarded bouquet under her chair.
We can see that Valadon is typically interested in the spatial relationship between the woman and the chair upon which she sits. That is to say, there are pairs of curves that repeat and reflect each other: the woman’s left thigh and the front edge of the chair; the woman’s back and the back of the chair; and the woman’s left arm and the arm of the chair. So, while the woman might appear to be a jumble of contorted limbs, she inhabits and reflects her physical context. Even the red colour of the woman’s dress and shoes reflect the red upholstery of the chair. Typical of Valadon, the woman’s form is delineated in strong black key lines, emphasizing the interplay of flat surfaces in the absence of background, layering or perspective.
A looker, a learner and then a high achiever in her own right: Suzanne Valadon took it all in, but then created her own distinctive style that ventured way beyond mere regurgitation of the great paintings in which she appeared as a model.
Valadon’s Woman in White Stockings can be viewed at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nancy, France.
By Brad Allan, writer and wine tasting host in Melbourne, Australia and frequent visitor to France…