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Suzanne Valadon: Returning the Gaze in a Male Oriented World

(Revised)

by

Sherie Welsford

Assignment: History of Modern Art Essay

Art 180

April 13, 2007


Suzanne Valadon 2

In today’s patriarchal society, representations of women in the visual media

continue to be influenced by male sexuality. The stereotyping of female sexuality is one

of endless exhibit for male spectators and has had its influence in nearly every aspect of

culture. Representations of the female body all seem to draw upon the same visual codes,

and reinstate the same relationship of voyeurism and exploitation, of sexual power and

subordination. This has become a crucial area of concern for feminists over the past few

years. Yet Suzanne Valadon, a female artist in the 19th century, challenged the dominant

tradition of the female nude in art as a mere sexual spectacle for the male viewer in a time

when it was taboo for females to even speak of it let alone a female artist working in the

genre. Her overall body of work was based on the female nude, which at that particular

time, was a subject matter held exclusively for male artists. By focusing upon women’s

sense of relationship between their state of mind and the experience of their own bodies,

Valadon’s work showed a different version of the female nude in comparison to that of

her male counterparts. Her work returned the gaze back to the male spectator in a much

different way than before (Betterton, 1985).1 Although her journey to become an artist

wasn’t easy, Suzanne Valadon was a pioneer in her own time that would provide the way

for other female artists to travel in her footsteps.

Suzanne Valadon led a lonely childhood in Montmartre, Paris. She was born in

1865 to an unmarried seamstress. She taught herself to draw at the age of nine as a way

of refuge from her bleak life (Giraudon, n.d.).2 Before becoming an artist, Valadon

learned dressmaking and worked as a circus acrobat (Schubet, n.d.).3 Valadon’s own

1
Rosemary Betterton, “How Do Women Look? The Female Nude in the Work of Suzanne Valadon”.
Feminist Review 19 (1985): 3-5.
2
Collette Giraudon, “Valadon, Suzanne”. Grove Art Online, Oxford University Press, 2007.
3
Gudrun Schubert, “Valadon, Suzanne [from OCWAT]”. Grove Art Online (n.d.). Oxford University
Press, 2007.
Suzanne Valadon 3

memoirs indicate that she was a “femme-serpent” in a travelling circus and an

“acrobate-ècuyère” at Paris’ prestigious amateur circus, the Cirque Molier (Haxell,

2000).4 According to Haxell (2000) though, it is more likely that she was “figurante”

and/or apprentice acrobat at the local Cirque Fernanado in her hometown of Montmartre

(Haxell, 2000).5 Regardless of what account is accurate, her career as a circus performer

ended by accident and “she was forced to give up acrobatics for the insecure and badly

paid work of artist’s model (Betterton, 1985)”.6

Valadon worked for about ten years as a professional artist’s model. Her role as

an artist’s model had a great impact on her own work as an artist (Betterton, 1985). She

first modelled for artists such as Renior and Toulouse-Lautrec (Schubert, n.d.). Some of

the other artists that she modelled for were Pierre puvis de Chavannes, Luirgi

Zandomenghe and Thèophile Steinlein (Giraudon, n.d.). By her own account, Valadon

was a very good model and she became very successful at it. Modelling became her ticket

into the art world. According to Betterton (1985) Valadon found herself “situated

between the harsh world of exploitation of women’s work in low paid jobs, with

prostitution as an alternative, and the Bohemian world of the artist (Betterton, 1985)”.7

The parallels between artist’s model and prostitution were very similar. Both professions

involved the selling of ones body. Artist’s models were usually of lower class statue and

the rates of pay were very low. Even if a model led a blameless life, she was still classed

outside the norms of respectable femininity (Betterton, 1985). When Valadon no longer

tolerated the role as model, she became a full-time painter. Her exposure as a model to
4
Nichola A Haxell. “Ces Dames du Cirque”: A Taxonomy of Male Desire in Nineteenth-Century
French Literature and Art”. The John Hopkins University Press 115 (2000):783.
5
Haxell. “Ces Dames du Cirque”: A Taxonomy of Male Desire in Nineteenth-Century French Literature
and Art,” 783.
6
Betterton, “How Do Women Look? The Female Nude in the Work of Suzanne Valadon,” 13.
7
Betterton, “How Do Women Look? The Female Nude in the Work of Suzanne Valadon,” 14.
Suzanne Valadon 4

artists such as Renior and Toulouse-Lautrec gave her much insight into the working

methods they employed. This transition from artist’s model to artist was a hard process

because of the acquisition of technical form and ability required along with the struggle

to form a new identity as a professional artist (Betterton, 1985). Her determination was

renewed after her successful showing in the Salon de la Nationale in 1894. Not only was

she the first women artist to be accepted, but was granted a huge complement when

Degas purchased all of her drawings from the show. That level of achievement and

respect liberated Valadon. She stepped from being an artist’s model to being an artist

(Giraudon, n.d.).

When Valadon became an artist, she fully immersed herself in the lifestyles and

characteristics of the male Bohemian stereotypical lifestyle. She had a succession of

lovers which produced an illegitimate son, Maurice Utrillo, a lack of respect for money

and a wild lifestyle. This role was not without its contradictions and scorn. This was

evident with her complicated and difficult relationships especially between her mother

and her son. This affected her work in relation to the nude in which she based her own

experiences of modeling and the way her body was used as subject matter for the male

spectator (Betterton, 1985). According to Betterton (1985), she saw “herself in an

uncompromising and independent way”. Her self-portraits reveal her as both “subject and

object, viewer and viewed”, in a way that redefines the relationship between artist and

model, spectator and image (Betterton, 1985).8 (Fig. 1).

The genre of the female nude has existed since antiquity. But rendering it as a

passively seductive body laid across the canvas was popularized beginning with Titian’s

8
Betterton, “How Do Women Look? The Female Nude in the Work of Suzanne Valadon,” 14.
Suzanne Valadon 5

Venus of Urbino 9 which was painted in the early sixteenth century (see fig. 2). From then

on, the standard of the female nude as it was portrayed by male artists remained

unchanged in its objectification of women. The female nude has been fashioned

according to male desires and fantasies, without regard for what women experience of

their own bodies (Mattews, 1991). According to Mathews (1991), “it is that act of the

male gaze with its objectification of women and all that it implies of social, cultural, and

psychological attitudes toward them, that historically has framed representations of the

female body and female sexuality (Mathews, 1991)”.10 Along with this, there is the long

held stereotypical view of artist-model relationship. The male artist was seen as both the

lover and creator. The female model was both his mistress and his muse (Betterton,

1985). According to Betterton (1985), “some male painters explicitly connected their

artistic powers with sexual potency. Renoir was supposedly quoted as saying, ‘I paint

with my prick’ (Betterton, 1985)”. 11 According to art historian T. J. Clark, female nude

paintings are “‘pictures for men to look at, in which Woman is constructed as an object of

somebody else’s desire (Mathews, 1991)’”.12

During the time when Valadon was making the transition from artist’s model to

artist, an extremely aggressive and hostile manifestation of the female nude genre was

prevalent (Mathews, 1991). This genre was being lead by the Parisian avant-garde where

the theme of male explicit dominance and female passivity was being reproduced in an

even more explicit and violent way. This was evident in the work of Picasso and

9
Vecellio Tiziano (Titian). “The Venus of Urbino”, (1538).
10
Patricia Mathews. “Returning the Gaze: Diverse Representations of the Nude in the Art of Suzanne
Valadon”. The Art Bulletin 73 (1991):417
11
Betterton, “How Do Women Look? The Female Nude in the Work of Suzanne Valadon,” 11.
12
Patricia Mathews. “Returning the Gaze: Diverse Representations of the Nude in the Art of Suzanne
Valadon”, 417.
Suzanne Valadon 6

Kirchner. Valadon’s work was situated between this male-oriented genre and

traditionally accepted ideologies of gender relations (Betterton, 1985).

Since working with the nude in paintings was considered the privilege of male

artists only, female artists were socially restricted to subject matter involving nurturing or

maternal ideologies. Even though the ‘Union des Femmes Peintres et Sculptreurs” was

founded in 1881 in France to promote the interests of women artists, very few women

choose to work in the genre of nude painting. The social implications towards women

artists working with the nude called into question the definition of femininity versus

masculinity (Betterton, 1985). For a woman to paint a nude body was seen as a form of

transgression. Since the implications were great for women, very few women artists

ventured into the area. However, Valadon made the female nude part of her main work

(Mathews, 1991). In doing so, she portrayed a women’s version in response to the male

gaze. Mathews (1991) suggests that perhaps her interest in the genre was influenced by

her role as artist’s model. She may have felt that the “female body is what she knew the

best (Mathews, 1991)”. 13

In Reclining Nude14, 1928, the main theme Valadon portrays is the return of the

gaze (Fig 3). The woman is seen lying on a couch or loveseat that is too small for her

whole body. Her legs are crossed covering her genitals, one arm crosses her breasts, and

her hand grasps some type of white drapery. The space of the picture is cramped and

shallow and confronts the viewer who cannot escape notice of her body. Valadon closes

her body from the viewer suggesting that the subject is resisting the viewer’s gaze upon

her. The subject’s very ‘self’ is presented to us through her language and gaze. According

13
Patricia Mathews. “Returning the Gaze: Diverse Representations of the Nude in the Art of Suzanne
Valadon”, 418.
14
Suzanne Valadon. “Reclining Nude”, 1928.
Suzanne Valadon 7

to Mathew’s (1991) analysis of the painting, “hers is a gaze returned (Mathews, 1991)”.15

The gaze is neither seductive nor passive. It is a gaze of awareness and response for

which the viewer is made to feel like an intruder rather than a welcome guest. Valadon

reconstructed the male gaze and then defied it (Mathews, 1991).

Valadon’s version of the gaze challenged art history. For her to continue working

in the genre also challenged society’s tight held concept on what was considered

acceptable social behaviour between men and women. For Valadon to remain working

with the female nude during a period of time when women were only viewed merely as

something to be dominated and controlled by men took great courage and dedication on

her part. Valadon broke the accepted rules of the establish art world as well as society’s

rules and then took control and set her own rules. Valadon forces the viewer to see the

beyond mere sexual attraction. Valadon’s returned gaze screams for attention from the

spectator to see the subject as Women instead of just a sexual object.

In The Blue Room 16, 1923, Valadon goes further to launch a more direct

challenge towards male conventions of the genre of the reclining nude (Fig 4). Valadon

handles the subject matter in a form reminiscent to odalisque paintings of Matisse and

Ingres by using a conventional format style of the female nude. She uses specific clues as

to her class and status but then adds conflicting signs in order to keep the viewer

guessing. Valadon employs traditional frameworks but then subverts the conventional

signs used in that system. However, this nude is fully clothed, her body is relaxed, and

she is facing the viewer. She is leaning on a pillow, in a luxurious setting but she lacks

the seductive qualities of the Venus of Urbino17(Fig 2) or the eroticism of Ingres’s The
15
Patricia Mathews. “Returning the Gaze: Diverse Representations of the Nude in the Art of Suzanne
Valadon”, 424.
16
Suzanne Valadon. “The Blue Room”, 1923.
17
Vecellio Tiziano (Titan), “The Venus of Urbino”, 1538.
Suzanne Valadon 8

Grande Odalisque18 (Fig 5). Valadon is presenting the subject without the classical signs

of sexual allure. She both participates in and contradicts the traditional objectification of

the female body. By doing so, she challenges the masculine view of beauty (Mathews,

1991).

Like so many other female artists in art history, there is very little information

and acknowledgement of Valadon’s work and its significance on advancing women’s

rights. Valadon’s work offered the world a way of looking at the female body which is

not entirely bound in the implicit idea that all such images are addressed only to a male

spectator. She broke traditional norms of the male dominated art world and the

patriarchal society that developed and manifested such rules. She developed her own set

of rules and remained steadfast to them in a time when women faced great oppression.

Valadon opened up different possibilities within painting the nude that allowed for the

expression of women’s experience of their own bodies and she paved the way for other

female artists to follow. Even though her work was within the given forms of her own

period, she challenged the boundaries in order to represent and engage a woman’s

perspective. She returned the gaze portraying her subjects with a sense of self-awareness

that was not present in female nudes by male artists of the time. Her works show that it

was possible for women to intercede within a genre that was heavily dominated by male

artists and spectators alike thereby giving a different perspective from the viewpoint of

the nude (Betterton, 1985). Valadon’s returned gaze solidifies her place as one or the

great female artists in art history.

18
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, “The Grand Odalisque”, 1814.
Suzanne Valadon 9

Figure 1

Suzanne Valadon, Self Portrait, 1932.


Suzanne Valadon 10

Figure 2

Vecellio Tiziano (Titian), The Venus of Urbino, 1538.


Suzanne Valadon 11

Figure 3

Suzanne Valadon, Reclining Nude, 1928.


Suzanne Valadon 12

Figure 4

Suzanne Valadon, The Blue Room, 1923


Suzanne Valadon 13

Figure 5

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, The Grand Odalisque, 1814.


Suzanne Valadon 14

Bibliography:

Betterton, Rosemary. “How Do Women Look? The Female Nude in the Work of

Suzanne Valadon”. Feminist Review 19 (1985): 3-24. [accessed March 5, 2007].

Available from JSTOR database: (http://www.jstor.org).

Giraudon, Collette. “Valadon, Suzanne”. Grove Art Online (n.d.). Oxford University

Press, 2007. [accessed March 3, 2007]. Available from Grove Art Online website:

(http://www.groveart.com/).

Haxell, Nichola A. “Ces Dames du Cirque”: A Taxonomy of Male Desire in Nineteenth-

Century French Literature and Art”. The John Hopkins University Press 115

(2000): 783-800. [accessed March 5, 2007]. Available from JSTOR database:

(http://www.jstor.org).

Mathews, Patricia. “Returning the Gaze: Diverse Representations of the Nude in the Art

of Suzanne Valadon”. The Art Bulletin 73 (1991), 415-430. [accessed March 5,

2007]. Available from JSTOR database: (http://www.jstor.org).

Schubert, Gudrun. “Valadon, Suzanne [from OCWAT]”. Grove Art Online (n.d.). Oxford

University Press, 2007. [accessed March 3, 2007]. Available from Grove Art

Online website: (http://www.groveart.com/).


Suzanne Valadon 15

List of Illustrations

Figure 1 S. Valadon Self Portrait, 1932, (Betterton, 1985:21)

Figure 2 Vecellio Tiziano (Titian) The Venus of Urbino, 1538, (Galleria degli

Uffizi, Florence) [accessed March 18,

2007]. Available from Web Gallery of

Art. Online Website:http://www.wga.hu/

frames-e.html?/html/t/tiziano/mytholo1/

u_venus.html

Figure 3 S. Valadon Reclining Nude, 1928, (Mathews, 1991

:424).

Figure 4 S. Valadon The Blue Room, 1923, (Mathews, 1991

:424).

Figure 5 J. A. D. Ingres The Great Odalisque, 1814, (Betterton,

1985:6).