The Secret Life of Suzanne Valadon

by Catherine Hewitt

In the 1880s, Suzanne Valadon was considered the Impressionists’ most beautiful model. But behind her captivating façade lay a closely-guarded secret. Suzanne was born into poverty in rural France, before her mother fled the provinces, taking her to Montmartre. There, as a teenager, Suzanne began posing for—and having affairs with—some of the age’s most renowned painters. Then Renoir caught her indulging in a passion she had been trying to conceal: the model was herself a talented artist.

Some found her vibrant still lifes and frank portraits as shocking as her bohemian lifestyle. At eighteen, she gave birth to an illegitimate child, future painter Maurice Utrillo. But her friends Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas could see her skill. Rebellious and opinionated, she refused to be confined by tradition or gender, and in 1894, her work was accepted to the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, an extraordinary achievement for a working-class woman with no formal art training.

Renoir’s Dancer tells the remarkable tale of an ambitious, headstrong woman fighting to find a professional voice in a male-dominated world. Keep reading for an excerpt of Catherin Hewitt’s richly told biography of Suzanne Valadon.

L’un ne po pa tropà lo luno en là den.
(You can’t catch the moon with your teeth.)

OLD LIMOUSIN PROVERB

Photo of Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938), painter and model. Image is in the public domain via Wikipedia.

‘A woman’s greatest error is to attempt to be a man,’ proclaimed the late 18th- to early 19th-century moralist and Christian philosopher M. de Maistre, ‘and wanting to be a man is wanting to be wise. A woman should not pursue any knowledge which interferes with her duties; a woman’s merit is to make her husband happy, to raise her children and to make men […] as soon as she seeks to emulate man, she is no more than a monkey; women have never produced any great works in any genre […] there are few things more dangerous for a woman than science […] It is far easier to marry off a tart than it is a wise woman.’

While de Maistre’s opinion was not universally held in such an undiluted form in the 19th century, his principle was widely accepted: women were physiologically, intellectually and emotionally different from men, and for many, that meant inferior. In the 1870s, French society was underpinned by a deep-seated gender bias. Conservative social discourse maintained that female brains were smaller (ergo substandard), more prone to emotion and sentiment, and that women were therefore best suited to bearing and raising children, no more. To develop a woman’s intellectual faculties was to jeopardize her breeding capacity – a school of thought which found keen endorsement in the fields of science and history.

In such a climate, few issues caused blood to boil more fervently than that of female education. Even those considered more liberal thinkers were inclined to agree that a woman’s place was in the home, that her proper role was that of wife and mother, and that academic and serious artistic pursuits were neither her priority nor her strength. ‘What is a man’s vocation?’ asked philosophical writers Jules and Gustave Simon, before answering: ‘to be a good citizen. And a woman’s? To be a good wife and a good mother. One is called into the outside world; the other is retained inside.’ Few disputed social theorist Paul Janet’s view that: ‘in the life of men, instruction plays an important role’ but that ‘for girls, learning is far less important. […] besides, let us not forget, where is a woman’s place? In the domestic interior. […] A young girl is raised for the family. Does it not follow that she should be taught at home?’

It had not been until the 17th century that concern had started to be raised about girls’ education, and then only because it was decided that it might be practical for a woman to have a basic grasp of arithmetic if she were expected to run a household and keep accounts. Schools for girls had not been at all common until the 19th century. The Guizot law of 1833 relating to primary education failed to deal with girls. Eventually, it was decided in 1850 that communes of more than 800 people should provide a school for girls, and in 1867, the criterion to qualify for that facility was reduced to communes of more than 500. But it was still a paltry gesture.

However, as the 19th century unfolded, the case for women’s education gathered momentum. It was conceded that the ability to add and subtract and make intelligent conversation might assist a woman in her primary role as wife and mother. But the real question remained: just what should she know, and more importantly, how much was safe for her to know?

‘I do not ask that women be wise,’ clarified Archbishop Félix Dupanloup, ‘but rather intelligent, judicious, attentive, well-informed in everything that it is useful for them to know, as mothers, mistresses of households and women of the world.’ ‘I am quite in agreement that a woman should not know too much,’ seconded Janet, ‘I do not think that it is necessary for a young girl to learn a lot, the important thing is to learn it well.’ But while such vagaries circulated, there was still no such thing as compulsory secondary education for girls, and where girls’ primary schools were established, the emphasis remained firmly on homemaking skills such as needlework, music and cooking. For among champions of female learning, one view remained virtually uncontested: ‘the basis of women’s education should be domestic economy’.

Madeleine was no stranger to society’s inherent gender bias. ‘A woman who knows Latin will never make a good end,’ one Limousin proverb declared. ‘The written word is for men, the spoken word, for women,’ maintained another. But Madeleine had seen the admiration literate women received in rural society. She had felt that frisson of pride whenever she had the chance to demonstrate that she could sign her name; women who could not never quite fostered the same degree of respect. There was no school for girls in Bessines when Madeleine was young. Any teaching girls received was issued on a casual basis by a knowledgeable relative, a family friend or a sympathetic elder. How different things might have been for Madeleine had it been otherwise. But there was another reason Marie-Clémentine’s education was important now: language.

Until the 19th century, it was accepted that rural communities would communicate in their local dialect or patois. However, from the Revolution, schools were made to encourage the use of French, and from the 1870s, patois speakers would become the quarry in a veritable linguistic witch-hunt. Nonetheless, Limousin had remained the main form of social communication in Madeleine’s region in the mid-19th century, and 105 defiant communes in the Haute-Vienne still functioned primarily in patois. But in Paris, speaking in patois was the ultimate betrayer of rural archaicism and social inferiority. ‘We tried to transform our pronunciation,’ recalled migrant Martin Nadaud; ‘to speak coarsely, without our natural accent, seemed the height of distinction.’

If Marie-Clémentine were to fit in in Paris – and ultimately be independent – she must have a sound grasp of French.

In 1857, the sisters of Saint Vincent de Paul had established themselves in Montmartre and with support from the legacy of a Russian noblewoman, the late Mme Sophie Swetchine, had begun running classes for poor and orphaned little girls in the area. As the pupil intake swelled, the sisters were obliged to move premises several times. Finally, in 1876, the year Marie-Clémentine turned eleven, construction commenced on the sisters’ ultimate location, and soon, their new school, orphanage and sewing room opened in the Rue Caulaincourt, just a few minutes’ walk from the Valadons’ apartment.

Enrolling Marie-Clémentine in the new establishment would lift any concern that played on Madeleine’s mind about the youngster’s antics when she was not there to supervise her. And while Madeleine was not an especially devout woman, the rigour and discipline of the nuns’ approach would surely have a desirable impact on her daughter. Even if Marie-Clémentine did not emerge from the experience a confirmed Catholic, she would undoubtedly learn good manners, along with a host of practical skills such as needlework. If she applied herself, she might even master some scholarly expertise. Madeleine began to arrange the formalities.

Charitable religious primary schools or petites écoles had begun to appear in the 17th century in Paris when priests started founding free schools for the children of the poor. To begin with, these catered mainly for boys, but before long religious orders such as the Ursulines were also founding schools to meet female education needs. These welcomed day girls as well as boarders and were free or cost very little to attend. A wave of social discourse and novels like Adolphe Belot’s Mlle Giraud, Ma Femme (1870) criticised convent education, holding the claustrophobic environment in which the girls were taught responsible for all manner of female ills, not least lesbianism. Nonetheless, with the Virgin Mary held up as the exemplary model of femininity, and religious teaching widely seen as an essential part of every respectable girl’s education, in 1870, 60 percent of girls attending school were still being taught by sisters. And to the founders’ surprise, these charitable organisations attracted not just the poor and destitute, but the middle classes as well, whose confidence in clerical education – and enthusiasm that it should be free – unwittingly turned these schools into great social levellers.

So it was that one morning, Marie-Clémentine found her bare feet forced into suffocating stockings and imprisoned in tight-fitting boots. Once made as presentable as possible, she was ushered outside, not to bound through the streets unchecked as usual, but to begin the solemn walk towards a new life, one governed by timetables and rigorous discipline. From that moment, her freedom of expression was curtailed, her private world invaded.

Religious schools lived by strict rules and regulations, and were staunch advocates of traditional methods of discipline and punishment when their policies were not complied with. From the middle of the 19th century, they had become even stricter. The nuns taught modest comportment and self-restraint. Discretion and industry were rewarded, spontaneity and natural impulses suppressed; from the outset, Marie-Clémentine’s relationship with the sisters of Saint Vincent de Paul was ill-fated.

Once a girl stepped through the school gates, every minute of her day was structured, each activity monitored with the utmost scrutiny. It was considered unwise to leave a child unsupervised for long periods, and liberty – the kind Marie-Clémentine had been used to – was systematically eradicated. Nothing passed unnoticed. The slightest movement was watched, judged, assessed, the theory being that constant surveillance would negate entirely the need for punishment. ‘In the seminary,’ complained the 19th-century writer Stendhal, ‘there is a way of eating a boiled egg that reveals the progress made in the devout life.’ Henceforward, Marie-Clémentine’s day was framed by morning Mass and evening prayer, and the time in between was heavily regimented and closely observed.

Though convents claimed not to groom girls in readiness to join their order, in practice, religious education formed a large part of the convent syllabus. French, history, geography, music and botany were all subjects highly regarded by convent administrations. However, at primary level, the main objective was simply to ensure that the girls could read, write and count. Even so, the time allotted to these academic pursuits was usually minimal. A good portion of the school day was given to fashioning socially respectable young ladies. This meant cultivating the important arts of sewing and embroidery. Girls were taught to stitch, knit, make stockings and gloves, and word is for men, the spoken word, for women,’ maintained another. But Madeleine had seen the admiration literate women received in rural society. She had felt that frisson of pride whenever she had the chance to demonstrate that she could sign her name; women who could not never quite fostered the same degree of respect. There was no school for girls in Bessines when Madeleine was young. Any teaching girls received was issued on a casual basis by a knowledgeable relative, a family friend or a sympathetic elder. How different things might have been for Madeleine had it been otherwise. But there was another reason Marie-Clémentine’s education was important now: language.

Until the 19th century, it was accepted that rural communities would communicate in their local dialect or patois. However, from the Revolution, schools were made to encourage the use of French, and from the 1870s, patois speakers would become the quarry in a veritable linguistic witch-hunt. Nonetheless, Limousin had remained the main form of social communication in Madeleine’s region in the mid-19th century, and 105 defiant communes in the Haute-Vienne still functioned primarily in patois. But in Paris, speaking in patois was the ultimate betrayer of rural archaicism and social inferiority. ‘We tried to transform our pronunciation,’ recalled migrant Martin Nadaud; ‘to speak coarsely, without our natural accent, seemed the height of distinction.’

If Marie-Clémentine were to fit in in Paris – and ultimately be independent – she must have a sound grasp of French.

In 1857, the sisters of Saint Vincent de Paul had established themselves in Montmartre and with support from the legacy of a Russian noblewoman, the late Mme Sophie Swetchine, had begun running classes for poor and orphaned little girls in the area. As the pupil intake swelled, the sisters were obliged to move premises several times. Finally, in 1876, the year Marie-Clémentine turned eleven, construction commenced on the sisters’ ultimate location, and soon, their new school, orphanage and sewing room opened in the Rue Caulaincourt, just a few minutes’ walk from the Valadons’ apartment.

Enrolling Marie-Clémentine in the new establishment would lift any concern that played on Madeleine’s mind about the youngster’s antics when she was not there to supervise her. And while Madeleine was not an especially devout woman, the rigor and discipline of the nuns’ approach would surely have a desirable impact on her daughter. Even if Marie-Clémentine did not emerge from the experience a confirmed Catholic, she would undoubtedly learn good manners, along with a host of practical skills such as needlework. If she applied herself, she might even master some scholarly expertise. Madeleine began to arrange the formalities.

Charitable religious primary schools or petites écoles had begun to appear in the 17th century in Paris when priests started founding free schools for the children of the poor. To begin with, these catered mainly for boys, but before long religious orders such as the Ursulines were also founding schools to meet female education needs. These welcomed day girls as well as boarders and were free or cost very little to attend. A wave of social discourse and novels like Adolphe Belot’s Mlle Giraud, Ma Femme (1870) criticised convent education, holding the claustrophobic environment in which the girls were taught responsible for all manner of female ills, not least lesbianism. Nonetheless, with the Virgin Mary held up as the exemplary model of femininity, and religious teaching widely seen as an essential part of every respectable girl’s education, in 1870, 60 percent of girls attending school were still being taught by sisters. And to the founders’ surprise, these charitable organizations attracted not just the poor and destitute, but the middle classes as well, whose confidence in clerical education – and enthusiasm that it should be free – unwittingly turned these schools into great social levelers.

So it was that one morning, Marie-Clémentine found her bare feet forced into suffocating stockings and imprisoned in tight-fitting boots. Once made as presentable as possible, she was ushered outside, not to bound through the streets unchecked as usual, but to begin the solemn walk towards a new life, one governed by timetables and rigorous discipline. From that moment, her freedom of expression was curtailed, her private world invaded.

Religious schools lived by strict rules and regulations, and were staunch advocates of traditional methods of discipline and punishment when their policies were not complied with. From the middle of the 19th century, they had become even stricter. The nuns taught modest comportment and self-restraint. Discretion and industry were rewarded, spontaneity and natural impulses suppressed; from the outset, Marie-Clémentine’s relationship with the sisters of Saint Vincent de Paul was ill-fated.

Once a girl stepped through the school gates, every minute of her day was structured, each activity monitored with the utmost scrutiny. It was considered unwise to leave a child unsupervised for long periods, and liberty – the kind Marie-Clémentine had been used to – was systematically eradicated. Nothing passed unnoticed. The slightest movement was watched, judged, assessed, the theory being that constant surveillance would negate entirely the need for punishment. ‘In the seminary,’ complained the 19th-century writer Stendhal, ‘there is a way of eating a boiled egg that reveals the progress made in the devout life.’ Henceforward, Marie-Clémentine’s day was framed by morning Mass and evening prayer, and the time in between was heavily regimented and closely observed.

Though convents claimed not to groom girls in readiness to join their order, in practice, religious education formed a large part of the convent syllabus. French, history, geography, music and botany were all subjects highly regarded by convent administrations. However, at primary level, the main objective was simply to ensure that the girls could read, write and count. Even so, the time allotted to these academic pursuits was usually minimal. A good portion of the school day was given to fashioning socially respectable young ladies. This meant cultivating the important arts of sewing and embroidery. Girls were taught to stitch, knit, make stockings and gloves, and launder, for manual tasks were revered. ‘You would do well to employ your leisure time undertaking manual work,’ stipulated a student handbook in 1865. ‘It is the occupation most fitting to your sex: your health, your character, your heart and your spirituality will be all the better for it.’ For if the sisters could not transform their charges into nuns, they were determined to turn out good wives and mothers.

Teaching included instruction in good conduct, self-presentation, politeness, and how to make intelligent conversation. Girls were told to adopt moderation in all things. Dress should be simple, food plain and sufficient. Classic works of literature were accepted, but ‘frivolous’ novels, much poetry, songs with doubtful lyrics and anything that excited the emotions, was banned. Excessive movement without purpose was condemned and in many convents dancing was prohibited; a girl’s very walk should be slow and considered. Passion and sensitivity were repressed, curiosity calmed. In the convent, perfect obedience and docility were the order of the day.

Marie-Clémentine’s ebullient nature was in direct conflict with the sisters’ ethos. From the moment she set foot in the school, the young girl proved herself a social deviant.

Not that all the nuns inspired animosity. Few could dislike the cheerful Sister Geneviève, whose happy disposition and sheer delight in language was contagious. But a sister was still a figure of authority, and though Marie-Clémentine enjoyed words and language, she was always too distracted to apply herself to the repetitive exercises used to instil linguistic competence. Her writing was wild and impassioned. Text and writing lacked the immediacy she craved. Ideas caught her imagination more than text. Jean de La Fontaine only secured her attention because his vivid fables appealed to her love of the fantastic. Similarly, when Marie-Clémentine was introduced to the renegade 15th-century poet François Villon, it was as much his dramatic life story as his verse that earned her admiration. She understood confrontation with authority figures and appreciated rebellious measures taken to outsmart them. She fancied what it might be like to know such a man, and with utter disregard for temporal continuity, solemnly told people that she was his daughter, insisting that they address her as Mlle Villon, and adopting the walk and gestures she imagined such a character might have used.

Marie-Clémentine lived entirely in her mind. ‘I was haunted,’ she explained years later. ‘As a child, I thought far too much.’ Moreover, she had the physique and agility to support her mental acrobatics and live out her daydreams. Marie-Clémentine was petite, shorter than most of her classmates, and physically fearless. As a result, the sisters of Saint Vincent de Paul soon found they had no wall high enough, nor gate secure enough to contain her. ‘I am a monkey. I am a cat,’ she would call down from the top of a wall or fence, before springing nimbly to the ground and speeding off. Institutional repression propagated brazen rebellion. She became one of the most artful truants the school had ever known.

“Joy of Life” by Suzanne Valadon. This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons by as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

When she was in class, there was one matter on which the sisters were particularly firm: hygiene. Marie-Clémentine’s contemporary, Anne-Marie Chassaigne, who would grow up to become the famous courtesan Liane de Pougy, recalled arriving for her first day at a convent, ‘at the age of nine, with filthy fingernails and head lice.’ The youngster was instantly rejected by her classmates and she returned ‘clean, washed, gleaming and worthy of association, not dangerous […] Naturally, I was teased for the rest of the term.’ For Liane, ‘the lesson was hard, but it served me well for the rest of my life’. Marie-Clémentine was less responsive to such uninvited teaching. ‘Water is for washing pigs!’ she hurled back when one of the more biddable students criticised her cleanliness. Her appearance bothered her not at all; she was unmoved by social exclusion. ‘Solitude suited me,’ she explained, years later.

Despite Madeleine’s and the Mother Superior’s best efforts, Marie-Clémentine was definitively a child of the streets. Her Montmartre was a marvelous playground. Where there were bars, she saw apparatus to climb; handrails were not aids, but irresistible poles to slide down. She went jumping, leaping, tumbling just where her mind took her, talking to people she encountered on the way, and picking up coarse expressions and vulgar songs, of which she was fond of giving raucous performances. ‘I was a devil,’ she conceded. ‘I behaved like a boy.’

Once, she was seen swinging from an upstairs window and passers-by stared up aghast and hollered as she called down assurances that they need not worry, the fire brigade were on their way. On another occasion, a horse broke loose in the Place Blanche, causing terrified pedestrians to dive this way and that for cover; people were amazed when Marie-Clémentine succeeded in catching and then gently calming the wild creature. The pomp, ceremony and emotion which could be observed at funerals fascinated the youngster, and she took to attending the burials of complete unknowns at Père Lachaise. One day, she gave such a convincing impression of a tearful mourner that the deceased’s widow came to comfort her and slipped her some money, concluding that the child must be a consequence of one of her late husband’s extramarital dalliances. She bantered and chatted with anyone she came across who happened to interest her, though never seemed to demand closeness from any of these contacts. ‘I had just one friend, an old girl of 78 who could speak seven languages,’ she recounted. Some years later, she recalled one particular encounter she made in the Rue Lepic when she stopped to watch an artist working at his easel. After observing his industry for a little while, she approached him, convinced that her advice would be pertinent. He should not feel discouraged, she assured him. Why, she could see real potential in his work; he certainly had a future in it. As it turned out, her prophecy proved accurate: the artist was Pierre-Auguste Renoir.


CATHERINE HEWITT studied French Literature and Art History at Royal Holloway, University of London and the Courtauld Institute of Art. Her proposal for her first book, The Mistress of Paris, was awarded the runner-up’s prize in the 2012 Biographers’ Club Tony Lothian Competition for the best proposal by an uncommissioned, first-time biographer. She lives in a village in Surrey.

Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Modern History

The History Reader Newsletter