|Suzanne Valadon "Self-Portrait" 1927 private collection|
French painter Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938) may be one of the few artists ever to begin her working life as a circus acrobat. A serious fall from a trapeze ended her performing career at the age of fifteen, and after she recovered she found work as an artist's model. An intelligent as well as an attractive young woman, she took an interest in the work the artists were producing, and soon began drawing and painting on her own. Recognizing her talent and drive some of the artists she'd befriended such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec gave her lessons and encouragement. Edgar Degas was also supportive of the young artist, buying her work and giving her advice and introductions. She was the first woman painter admitted to the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts (in 1894.)
Valadon was a free spirit, and in 1898 she gave birth to a baby boy, later known as the artist Maurice Utrillo whom she tutored and assisted with his career. She did such a good job that eventually her son's fame outshone her own, but she was still a very successful artist in her own right, respected by her peers and financially successful in part through her skillful management of Utrillo's career. Her oeuvre included all manner of genres including still life and portrait and she became especially well-known for her portraits of nude women, a highly unusual choice of subject matter for 19th century female painters. Her female nudes still intrigue viewers today possibly because of their bold execution and idiosyncratic emotional content...the women may be nude but they are strong and in control of their nudity. They are not merely pin-up girls or shadow servants of "the male gaze" but real people, with definite personalities, and seem to have agendas of their own. (In a way, Valadon's work prefigures the work of 20th century artist Alice Neel.) In this later-life self-portrait at age 62 we see her unflinching measuring stare, and glimpse the curve of her palette, as she dispassionately considers herself as both a woman and an artist.
Over the years she had many affairs and later in life she married twice, each union ending in divorce, but never had any more children. She was extremely fond of animals, and kept a pet goat and a succession of beloved cats, some of whom have made their way into her paintings. She died at age 72, still successful and respected. Fittingly, for such an unusual person, she now has an asteroid and a crater of Venus named after her in addition to the usual handful of streets, public squares and etc. Her work hangs in major museums world-wide.