Renoir's Dancer: The Secret Life of Suzanne Valadon

Renoir's Dancer: The Secret Life of Suzanne Valadon

by Catherine Hewitt


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250157652
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/27/2018
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 632,628
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.80(d)

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.

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Ne pura pu, bravo novio, rizio dounc! Faras pa maû sechâ to grimaço, rizio dounc! (Do not cry, sweet young bride, laugh; You would not be unwise to dry your eyes, laugh!)

Couplet from a traditional Limousin wedding song

When eighteen-year-old Madeleine Valadon awoke on 13 February 1849, she knew to expect a thick morning fog to have enveloped the town of Bessines, while the frosty air would sting and redden her bare hands once she stepped outside. It was a Tuesday; soon, the deserted place in the town centre would spring to life, as labourers, shopkeepers, artisans, seamstresses and laundresses hurried across the cobbles in all directions to take up their posts. The tap of wooden clogs on stone was a familiar sound as men in blue smocks made their way through the streets. White bonnets bobbed in time with female footsteps, subtle variations in each cap silently declaring its wearer's social standing and origin. The skirts and capes beneath them were sombre, often being worn for mourning.

The festivities of Christmas had now long passed; calls of Boun Anado in the local patois which resounded through the streets on 1 January were just a memory; Easter was late that year and the colour of Mardi Gras would pass all too quickly. February days were short and the nights could be bitter. And in just a few weeks, the truly hard work would begin. The following month, the whole town would be absorbed as the task of preparing the fields and then planting the year's turnip crop commenced.

In one way or another, everyone in Bessines was affected by agriculture and the rearing of livestock. Most households were self-sufficient, and those individuals who did not work the land themselves had a husband, brother or son who surely did. All would need meals prepared and clothing mended. Then there were the associated trades, so vital in the struggle to turn out bountiful yields of crops and herds. Born as she was to the local cartwright, Madeleine belonged to one of the many families whose livelihoods were dependent on the town's dominant commercial activity.

Moneyed, upper-class families were in a minority in the Limousin and countryfolk led a rude existence. Poor soil and a variable climate made it difficult to obtain good crops. Spring frosts could bring tragedy to farms and winters were glacial; hamlets were frequently cut off by snow, and heating the stone-walled cottages was a relentless task. Better off families might boast a home of two or three rooms with adjoining outbuildings, such as a barn, stable and bread oven (for most households had to be able to bake their own; often they would take turns with neighbours to bake for the whole hamlet for the week). There might also be a dryer for chestnuts, that important Limousin staple. Even the poorest peasants owned a shelter for the pig kept in readiness for sacrifice at Christmas. However, the less fortunate among them could be reduced to just one room. For many families, the chief objective was simply to survive.

In such circumstances, the spectre of death cast a shadow over everyday life. The Limousin was a region steeped in folklore and ruled by superstition. All manner of rituals and customs were employed to anticipate and forestall death's arrival. Placing a jar of honey in the stable was reputed to be a good way of protecting a cow, while a nut shell containing a live spider worn round the owner's neck was said to safeguard the wearer from the fever. Rural superstition held that a creaking piece of furniture presaged an imminent death, while a hen that crowed like a cockerel was an equally sinister omen; the creature should be dispatched without further delay and served at table.

But such methods did not always prove reliable deterrents. Indeed, death was an uninvited visitor Madeleine knew only too well. That winter, it had plunged the Valadon household into despair. In early October, just days before his 44th birthday, the young girl's father had died.

Aside from the emotional distress, Mathieu-Alexandre's death had sobering practical implications for Madeleine, her mother and her brother Clément, who at fifteen was still a minor. That Valadon owned several parcels of land gave a deceptive impression of affluence. He was proprietor of some ten plots besides the family's house and garden, which included heathland, grazing and even a small chestnut wood. Yet with some fields located several miles away from the family home, Valadon's property betrayed a patchwork estate of land acquired and reapportioned through inheritance. Such plots were often financially inconsequential; the Valadons were not a wealthy family.

Madeleine had already been put out to work as a linen maid by the time her father died. It was a low-paid, physically gruelling profession, liable to attract sniggers and disdainful looks from the daughters of better-off families. Every channel of income available to the Valadon family was already being exploited, and Madeleine was still unmarried. The loss of the household's head and main breadwinner would have terrifying repercussions.

Even for Limousin girls who had not lost a father, finding a husband was a primary goal from adolescence. Whereas a single man could work and make a living, a woman, with her sphere accepted as the domestic environment and wages meagre even when they were earned, was dependent on male income. Women enjoyed little status outside marriage. The daughters of artisans and peasants alike felt the same sense of urgency when it came to the question of matrimony. Much was at stake, and for many more people than the young couple directly concerned. The family remained the basic social unit in the 19th century, and the marriages of its younger members was its principal means of shaping its identity. The fortunes and future of the entire family rested on the kind of marriage made by its teenagers. This was because marriage determined the distribution of that scarce resource: land. In selecting (or, as was increasingly common in the 19th century, approving) a partner for their offspring, parents needed to feel confident that the match ensured that their own needs in old age would be met. Then there was the question of status; opportunities for social advancement were limited, so it was vital that a youngster did not marry below his or her station. A mésalliance could shatter reputations and squander resources where they could never be reciprocated. The burden of duty and expectation weighed heavily on young shoulders. Personal pride naturally came into the equation, too. And living in small, isolated communities, the range of marital options was painfully restricted.

For all these reasons, life for the typical Limousin girl became a veritable man hunt once she reached marriageable age. With such limited pickings, competition between village girls could be fierce. And no means were considered too outlandish when it came to ensnaring a husband. Mystical legends, magic and ancient traditions were still a very real part of everyday life in the Limousin. Many villages and towns had their own ritual practices which young girls were advised to adopt if they wanted to be sure of finding a husband. In the village of La Villeneuve near Eymoutiers, gaggles of single girls were to be found dancing wildly in the mud at the January fair, and the more soiled their skirts became, the better; they would undoubtedly secure a husband within twelve months. Meanwhile, seamstresses in the town of Ambazac, a short distance from where Madeleine lived, swore by a different technique. Whenever they were commissioned to make a wedding dress, they would stitch a lock of their own hair into the hem of the garment to guarantee that they too would become a wife before the year was out. Every community defended the unparalleled efficiency of its own method. But the girls of Bessines had the advantage of a very special tool for performing their ritual, an object few other villages could rival. It took the form of a vast monolithic stone basin, which locals had baptised Pierre Belle.

Nobody could explain how the enormous circular stone of 5m diameter and 80cm depth had arrived on the north bank of the Gartempe river. Some believed it was an ancient fountain, others insisted that it was a monument from Druid culture, perhaps some kind of sacrificial stone. It had a curious lean on one side, which one legend attributed to the occasion when six fairies had tried to move it. Only three of them called on the Virgin for assistance, and the other three were crushed under its massive weight as punishment for their impiety. But however conflicting the explanations of Pierre Belle's origin, its talismanic properties were undisputed. The townsfolk maintained that all a single girl needed to do was to visit the stone on the night of the full moon, hoist herself up onto its rim and run round it seven times. With a rim of little more than 15cm in width, simply staying upright was an achievement worthy of requital. But if a girl took the trouble (and kept her balance), she would be rewarded with a husband within twelve months.

But despite the persistence of these traditions, the Limousins were steadfastly practical people. Where divine intervention failed, rural ingenuity often triumphed.

With marriage paramount and chances to form new acquaintances scarce, every opportunity was taken – or engineered – to propagate meetings and nurture potential relationships. There was the veillée, that timeless rural custom, when family and neighbours would gather together and while away the long winter evenings. Huddled around a crackling fire, a whole cross-section of generations could be found laughing, singing, playing cards, passing on traditions and telling stories, tales of ferocious werewolves and gruesome murders and supernatural happenings. The square after Mass was another valuable place to share news and foster connections. With its welcoming heat and constant flow of customers, the blacksmith's was also a hive of social interaction and a breeding ground for gossip. In all instances, family had a key role to play in encouraging auspicious romantic unions. It was in the group's interest. And when a young man had set his sights on a particular girl, he nervously awaited his first meal with her family; if he arrived to find coq au vin cooking, it was a sure sign that he had been approved.

Though the father was the undisputed head of the Limousin family, in cases of this figure's untimely death, his wife would assume this role, and with just as much authority. Hence, when Mathieu-Alexandre died, Madeleine's mother Marie automatically acquired the right to manage the family's money and estate, oversee the distribution of responsibilities, and crucially for Madeleine, to make decisions concerning the choice of spouse of the younger generation. But even if Marie faltered in her new task, the wider family could be counted on to provide vital support.

The extended family was considered deeply important in rural Limousin society, with several generations often living together under the same roof. It was quite usual to find married couples and their offspring living in the paternal home. Children were used to living with grandparents, and while the average household in the 1830s contained five people, at the upper extreme it was not uncommon to find as many as fifteen people packed into the same house. Even when family did not live together, the bonds were typically ferociously strong. Aunts, uncles, and in particular, godparents, played an important role in the lives of the family's younger members. This was especially true in cases where a father had died, when a youngster was advised to far sounar soun peiri (or to 'call one's godfather close'). Madeleine's grandfather, Martial Dony, was also a dependable presence, there for all his granddaughter's important rites of passage. In short, Madeleine was not going to be left without the sound guidance of a mentor or a paternal figure in her father's absence.

So it was that despite the early morning chill and the bleakness of a season made even more melancholy by the still recent loss of her father, the young girl had every reason to feel full of hope and expectation that February morning. It was no ordinary Tuesday; that day, she was to be married to one of the most eligible young men in the village.

Léger Coulaud was a man many a girl would be proud to call her husband. A local lad from a respectable family, he plied one of the most highly prized trades in the town: he was a blacksmith. In an agricultural town like Bessines, lu faure (as he was known in the local dialect), commanded universal respect. Not only did he repair the shoes of both horse and rider; he fixed broken machinery, mended farm equipment and could turn his hand to any task where welding was required. It was a valuable skill – a potentially lucrative skill. Without lu faure, the very heart of the town would stop beating.

For Madeleine, that mattered. Urgent though securing a match might have been, her family were not the kind of people to accept any man for their latest marriageable member.

While they were not rich, Mathieu-Alexandre Valadon and Marie Dony were a good, honest couple with estimable ancestral heritage. Mathieu-Alexandre's father was a military man, and his grandfather had enjoyed the honour of being one of the town's first municipal officers. Marie Dony's family tree boasted all manner of figures considered 'notable' in rural society, such as master masons, millers and notaires. Though they were by no means bourgeois, the Valadons came from good stock.

Nor would Madeleine make an undesirable wife. She had high cheekbones, and though she was plain and her face rather angular, and she was hardly the prettiest girl in Bessines, her features were at least even. Furthermore, she could read and write, and being trained as a linen maid, she could boast a skill. Etiquette manuals stipulated that linen maids should be quick, strong, neat and above all, keen to please – attributes which rendered a woman equally appealing as a spouse.

However, in Léger Coulaud, Madeleine could feel confident that she would be taking a husband whom her family considered worthy. Strength and physical stamina were a professional requisite in Léger's trade, important considerations when selecting a spouse on whose income a female would come to depend; no right-minded young girl wanted a husband who was incapable of work. And besides his profession, Léger too benefited from favourable family connections; the names of two Coulauds appeared on the list of teachers approved by the local council in the 19th century. One of them was also called Léger, a name passed down the male line in the Coulaud family, so undoubtedly a relative. To possess even the rudiments of education was considered impressive at the time, particularly in a rural community like Bessines. 'Public instruction,' wrote the new sous-préfet or sub-prefect to the mayor in 1816, 'wisely directed, is the seed of social virtues; the sowing of pure morality, the tie that binds together all citizens, the guarantee of happiness and the glory of nations.' Educated men and their associates were looked on with respect. And as if those attributes did not suffice, Léger shared his name with the town's patron saint and was born in the nearby hillside commune of Le Mas Barbu, where Madeleine's family hailed from. Those facts alone surely boded well. What did it matter if the young girl's fiancé was thirteen years her senior, and the civil ceremony, the legally binding part of the marriage contract, was to be performed on the 13th of the month? Superstition was surely immaterial when set against such auspicious circumstances. Besides, the presence of a white hen throughout the proceedings and a pinch of salt in the pocket, both traditional amulets said to bring marital harmony, would allay the concerns of the most paranoid of wedding guests. The match was decided.

Following the Revolution of 1789, marriage had been secularised, and couples were obliged to officialise their union at the mairie as well as having a religious ceremony. Sometimes the two ceremonies took place on the same day, but more usually there was a day or two between them. According to custom, Léger Coulaud and Madeleine Valadon's banns had been read twice outside the mairie, first on 28 January and then on 4 February at ten in the morning. None of the locals had made any objection, and so on 12 February, a small ceremony had been conducted in the local church. Then at 11 o'clock on 13 February, Madeleine officially became the wife of Léger Coulaud. Two of the couple's mutual friends stood as witnesses along with one of Madeleine's cousins, while the bride's mother and grandfather also signed the register. So did Léger's father, Léger senior, but his mother, Thérèse Thoumassonet, did not; like so many women in rural society, she could neither read nor write.


Excerpted from "Renoir's Dancer"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Catherine Hewitt.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents

List of illustrations vii

Prologue 1

1 Life-cycles 7

2 Places to Call Home 29

3 Testing the Line 51

4 Inspiring Painters 71

5 Dancing in the City 85

6 Not Just a Pretty Face 109

7 Talent Laid Bare 131

8 Flavours of Happiness 151

9 Picture Perfect 175

10 Deviants or Delinquents 199

11 The Name of the Father 219

12 New Horizons 241

13 Till Death Do Us Part 261

14 What Money Can Buy 279

15 In and Out 305

16 Behind Closed Doors 319

17 Empty Chairs and Empty Tables 341

18 Flickering Shades 357

Epilogue 379

Appendix 383

Afterword 385

Acknowledgements 391

Selected Bibliography 395

Notes 413

Index 465

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