Renoir’s Dancer: The Secret Life of Suzanne Valadon by Catherine Hewitt. February 27, 2018. St. Martin’s Press, 480 p. ISBN: 9781250157652. Int Lvl: AD; Rdg Lvl: AD; Lexile: 1170.
Catherine Hewitt’s richly told biography of Suzanne Valadon, the illegitimate daughter of a provincial linen maid who became famous as a model for the Impressionists and later as a painter in her own right.
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.
Potentially Sensitive Areas: Strong sexual themes, Alcohol
Booklist starred (January 1, 2018 (Vol. 114, No. 9))
Hewitt (The Mistress of Paris: The 19th-Century Courtesan Who Built an Empire on a Secret, 2017) continues her mission to tell the stories of covertly powerful, yet overlooked French women in this step-by-step, swerve-by-swerve biography of the artist’s model and muse, “revolutionary” artist, and mother of an artist, Suzanne Valadon (1865–1938). A wildly impulsive country girl who loved to draw, she was raised by her determined single mother, a hotel maid who boldly brought them to Paris, where beautiful and talented Valadon modeled for prominent artists and became one of few women artists whose work was shown in prestigious exhibitions. Valadon, who “danced to no one’s tune but her own” and reveled in Montmartre café life, provides Hewitt with a glorious cast, including Renoir, van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Degas—ardent champions of Valadon’s work—and André Utter, Valadon’s much younger husband. Valadon lived a life of ceaseless tumult and trauma as her son (father unknown), a prodigy burdened with afflictions exacerbated by alcoholism, lurched from crisis to crisis, even as he attained fame and wealth as Maurice Utrillo, the great painter of Parisian street scenes. Hewitt’s straight-ahead telling of Valadon’s dramatic, many-faceted story captures this artist of “honesty and passion,” this “matriarch of creative rebellion and gutsy expressivity,” with precision, narrative drive, and low-key awe.
Kirkus Reviews starred (November 15, 2017)
Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938) may not be a name most people mention when they discuss great artists. This biography should change that.One might wonder how Valadon, whom Hewitt (The Mistress of Paris: The 19th-Century Courtesan Who Built an Empire on a Secret, 2015) describes in this excellent biography as having “revolutionized the art world and irreversibly altered the place of women within that world,” hasn’t received more widespread recognition. One reason is that Valadon adhered to no school of painting; another is that she was “a victim of the company she kept.” Some may think of her only as the mother of cityscape painter Maurice Utrillo or the model who inspired Renoir’s Dance at Bougival and The Large Bathers or the muse of Toulouse-Lautrec. Born in rural France to a linen maid and a father she never knew, Valadon moved to Montmartre with her mother and sister after her father died. When she was older, she frequented clubs like Le Chat Noir, where young artists discussed their desire to depict “contemporary life, the sweat and odour of real men and women.” A self-taught artist, she started as a nude model. But when Edgar Degas saw her secret drawings, he said, “you are one of us,” and helped her become the first woman painter to have works accepted into the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Hewitt chronicles Valadon’s romances and her difficulties in raising Maurice, whose childhood fits led to his lifelong battle with alcoholism. More importantly, the author demonstrates that Valadon’s works were revolutionary not just because of her style—“sharp, almost crude contours,” with the use of single lines for profiles—but because of the subject matter, such as children who, far from looking like the cosseted offspring of impressionist works, were naked, awkward, and “lonely, so incredibly lonely.” Hewitt sums up Valadon’s achievement perfectly: “Other artists showed what viewers wanted to see. Suzanne showed them what was true.” A well-researched tribute to and resurrection of a master of fin de siècle art.
About the Author
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. Her website is www.catherinehewitt.co.uk
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