PHILADELPHIA — It’s hard to believe that “Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel” at the Barnes Foundation is the first American museum show for this sensational French painter.
Born in Bessines-sur-Gartempe and raised in Paris by a single mother, Valadon (1865-1938) began drawing at the age of 9. After a few unsuccessful career attempts, which she later claimed included a circus act, Valadon began modeling for artists in her teens. Gustav Wertheimer made her a siren, floating naked from the wave to entrap sailors with a kiss. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who painted her hung over, nicknamed her “Suzanna” — a reference to a biblical parable about voyeurism and lust that she liked so much she dropped her actual birth name, Marie-Clémentine.
At 18 she gave birth to a son, whom her friend Miguel Utrillo later endowed with a surname, though he may not have been the father. (The child, Maurice Utrillo, also became a successful painter, though he struggled with alcohol and mental illness.) Valadon sold drawings and etchings, befriended Edgar Degas, and carefully studied the painters who painted her, learning from the way they worked. Just shy of 30, she made an advantageous marriage that let her give up modeling and devote her time to drawing. But she didn’t pick up a paintbrush herself till 1909, at 44, when she left her businessman husband for the painter André Utter, a friend and contemporary of her son’s.
Once she did start painting, Valadon exhibited widely, and sold enough to support her unconventional family. But in the longer term her art was overshadowed by her son’s career, diminished by the usual misogyny and obscured by prurient interest in her lifestyle. The show at the Barnes, curated by Nancy Ireson, is a thrilling tour of her portraits, nudes, still lifes and drawings.
At the Barnes, temporary shows appear in a sequestered space adjoining the permanent collection, which cannot be altered. (As it happens, the Museum founder, Alfred Barnes, overlooked Valadon completely, though he did collect Utrillo.) But with 36 paintings, many of them large, and 14 works on paper, the Valadon show feels like a small museum in itself.
We first meet the artist as a model for Renoir, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and others in color reproductions as well as in four actual canvases, including “The Kiss of the Siren” and she comes through as charming, passionate and uncommonly self-aware. Only when you enter the exhibit’s second room and encounter her own work do you see how uncompromising she was.
Her bohemian lifestyle, with its artist lovers and second marriage to a man two decades her junior, could have resulted as much from circumstance as from inclination. As Martha Lucy, an art historian, put it in her catalog essay, speaking of Valadon’s modeling, “working-class status meant that there were fewer moral impediments to pursuing such disreputable employment.”
But Valadon’s art was certainly rebellious. Her 1909 “Adam and Eve,” a moody, greenish-gray self portrait with Utter that shows them plucking fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, may have been the first full male nude ever painted by a European woman; 11 years later, to show it at the Salon des Indépendants, Valadon had to add a leafy loincloth. Her frank and unsexy treatment of other nudes, her candid self portraits, the defiantly bored and irritated expressions she often gave her models, even the trousers on the cigarette-smoking woman lounging across “The Blue Room,” all do count as brazen steps forward for their time.
Still, the real revelation is the shocking visual splendor of Valadon’s work. And that all starts with her precise but powerful line, as the exhibit makes clear in a tantalizing handful of drawings and prints.
Utrillo steps naked out of a washtub in “Maurice and His Grandmother,” a black crayon drawing from around 1890. His arms extend forward but bend back again to hold a towel behind his shoulders, and his head tilts down in concentration. Behind him, Valadon’s mother, his caretaker, squats on the floor half-drawn, an apparition.
Though Valadon contours her son beautifully, capturing the tautness of his belly and the turn of his foot, even conveying the childish smoothness of his skin, the line itself is slow and thick. The boy stands out like a paper doll come to life, but only so far — the smoldering line that cuts him out of the scene also welds him back in.
When Valadon finally began painting, she carried on this sublimated conflict, the mesmerizing mix of alienation and claustrophobia that she plumbed in her drawings. She and Utter look happy enough in “Adam and Eve” — at least “Eve” does — even if their naked bodies are a bit wan and underfed. And though Valadon’s color choices rely on Cézanne-like contrasts, with sickly green undertones for her lover and splotchy faces for both of them, they do add up to an inviting surface. But the picture’s crisp outlines still give it a tense, glassy feeling, like a tightly set mosaic.
In a 1912 “Family Portrait,” it’s the content that’s unnerving. Valadon’s son slumps over disconsolately; her elderly mother stares passively; her tall young lover earnestly occupies his corner; while Valadon herself looks out warily, her mind somewhere else. (She looks, naturally enough, like a woman gazing into a mirror.) Behind them hangs a mustard-colored curtain that emphasizes the waxy stiffness of their faces. They seem about as familiar as strangers in an elevator.
In “Marie Coca and Her Daughter Gilberte,” the artist simply twists her subjects in opposite directions. Mother sits in an armchair facing left; daughter sits on a cushion on the floor, her head against her mother’s knees; and a doll sits on the daughter’s lap, staring straight down the middle. The greenish shadow of the daughter’s red velvet cushion is echoed in the papered wall, which recedes at another sharp angle, and her flaring cheeks are the brightest spot in a room of black clothing and brown upholstery. At first sight, the surface is as placid as any bourgeois drawing room — but it roils, on any closer inspection, with hostility and violence.
In later paintings, Valadon juxtaposes clashing patterns of vibrant color to create a different, less specifically anchored sort of tension. She even lets her wiry outlines evaporate occasionally in gorgeous still lifes of flower arrangements. But the same low hum of discord continues. And nearly all these elements — the patterns, the vivid characterization of women, the self-aware discontent — come together in “The Blue Room.”
A young woman in a pink camisole and striped pants, her black hair pulled back, stretches at full length on a bed covered with an ivy-patterned blue blanket. Matching drapes hang down like theater curtains on either side, and an unlit cigarette sticks straight out of her lips, brazen as a cigar. At the center of a maelstrom of color, on display but in command, she’s perfectly at ease.
Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel
Through Jan. 9., Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia; 215.278.7000, barnesfoundation.org.