Any standard art history course is going to introduce the fresh and wide-eyed pupil to movements in the evolution of art. Something that will become clear quickly through the course material is that each movement seems consistently dominated by men: Gaugin, Cezanne, Degas, van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Renoir, to name a few. What this course may not cover was an equally talented painter who was a contemporary of these artists (and friend to some) by the name of Suzane Valadon.

Born into poverty in 1865, Valadon took many odd jobs growing up to support herself and her family (including circus performer). It was not until her later teenage years that she began to work as model. She spent a lot of time modeling for certain (renowned today) painters, such as Toulouse-Lautrec and Renoir themselves, and observing how they painted. She then carefully took that knowledge and applied her own technique and feelings, with stunning results. Perhaps Valadon was even of a higher caliber than some of her more celebrated, male counterparts, considering the fact that she was self-taught. Degas to her was a friend and a mentor, and was so impressed by her natural command of high art that he bought several of her paintings.

The Blue Room (La chambre bleue) 1923
The Blue Room (La chambre bleue) 1923

Although she was in the thick of the eccentric and vibrant bohemian community of Montmartre at the turn of the 20th century, she still painted in her own style and attitude, even going so far as to transcend gender norms of the culture and times. Some of her most famous paintings are female nudes, which were unconventional in the fact that they portrayed women of lower classes in an unidealized form. Yet despite pushing the envelope in her art, she still managed to support herself and her family after she began painting full time just a decade into the 1900’s.

So much behind art is about telling a story. The successes of male artists should not consistently overshadow that of their fellow female artists. Valadon’s nearly 500 paintings certainly do tell a story of a life which overcame odds stacked against women who chose to do what was not traditionally accepted or considered feasible by society. So, when hearing a story like Valadon’s, always demand that the most compelling aspects are not left out.

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