Breathing new life into rebellious early 20th century art

Groundbreaking French artist Suzanne Valadon debuts in Philly

3 minute read
An illustration of a woman in a chair, her daughter at her feet holding a doll, in what appears to be a living room.
'Marie Coca and Her Daughter Gilberte,' 1913. (Image courtesy of Artist Rights Society.)

In the early 20th century, French painter Suzanne Valadon overcame a lack of resources and opportunities to make a living as an artist, a feat that remains challenging today. The new exhibition at the Barnes Foundation brings attention to an artist little known outside of France, characterizing Valadon and her art as bold, even rebellious. Curated by Barnes chief curator Nancy Ireson, Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel explores themes of femininity, subjectivity, and interdependence.

It’s all in the name

The artist born Marie-Clémentine Valadon became a sought-after model in her teens, posing for Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and others. Lacking the means to study art, she instead studied the artists for whom she modeled and began teaching herself. Edgar Degas praised and encouraged her early drawings. So did Toulouse-Lautrec, who nicknamed Valadon “Suzanna” after the biblical woman whose beauty older men attempted to blame for their creepy behavior. Valadon became Suzanne when she began to paint, trading the name of her birth and her modeling career, Marie, for a new identity.

Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel traces the artist’s development from model to successful painter, and it includes pieces on loan from other museums as well as from private collections. Viewers will see works she modeled for, such as Jean Eugène Clary’s portrait of Valadon at age 20 and Gustav Wertheimer’s The Kiss of the Siren (1882), which portrays her as a dangerously alluring mythical creature. In the next section, Valadon moves to the other side of the canvas. A distinctive style emerges in her etchings and drawings of friends, family members, and domestic workers. According to Ireson, these works demonstrate Valadon’s “incredibly sharp observation for the way people move, the way people interact.” Ireson adds that while many describe Valadon as sympathetic to her female models, she made them work as hard as she once did.

Body of work

Subsequent sections focus on paintings that demonstrate compelling vision and skill. Highlights include Family Portrait (1912), which shows Valadon in her 40s as the head of an unconventional household composed of her elderly mother, her son Maurice, and André Utter, a friend of Maurice’s who became Valadon’s lover. Adam and Eve (1909) depicts Valadon and the decades-younger Utter as the biblical figures. Black Venus (1919), which features an unidentified Black model, offers an opportunity to consider representations of Black women and women of color since the early 20th century. Two paintings from 1909, Nude with a Mirror and Young Girl with Mirror, offer still-relevant meditations on power, autonomy, and female sexuality. Other pieces make similarly daring moves, from rethinking women as passive subjects to painting their body hair, an unconventional choice at the time.

The Blue Room (1923) combines the courageous forthrightness of the mirror paintings with painterly and aesthetic virtuosity into a piece Ireson identifies as Valadon’s tour-de-force. Full of bright colors and eye-catching contrasts, it also reinvents the nude as a clothed woman in realistic repose instead of a contrived posture or prescribed role. The Blue Room seems to build on Marie Coca and Her Daughter Gilberte (1913), a portrait Valadon imagined as a visual representation of Madame Bovary, the 1856 novel by Gustave Flaubert that treats middle-class life and female sexuality in ways that stirred controversy. Ireson drew comparisons between Emma Bovary and the depiction of Marie Coca and her child, whose poses and facial expressions convey resignation, even entrapment.

Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel portrays the artist’s singular determination and unique aesthetic and places her work in conversation with the Barnes collection, which includes many paintings by her male contemporaries. When the exhibition closes, it will travel to the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen.

What, When, Where

Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel. Presented by the Barnes Foundation. $25. September 26, 2021-January 9, 2022 at the Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia. (215) 278-7000 or

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