Suzanne Valadon exhibition on view at Barnes Foundation

The Barnes Foundation (Philadelphia) presents “Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel,” the first exhibition dedicated to the French artist and model Suzanne Valadon at a major US arts institution. The first self-taught woman to exhibit at the Salon de la Sociéte Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Valadon challenged behavioral codes with her art and lifestyle, breaking new ground with her unapologetic portraits and nudes. On view in the Barnes’s Roberts Gallery through January 9, 2022, this exhibition considers Valadon’s rich contribution to the early 20th-century art world and features representative works from all stages of her career.

From a childhood marked by poverty and neglect to a career as a popular artist’s model, Suzanne Valadon (born Marie-Clémentine Valadon, 1865–1938) defied the odds to become a successful painter. Passionate about art from an early age, she modeled in her teens for artists including Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Edgar Degas encouraged her earliest artistic efforts, praising the use of line in her drawings and introducing her to printmaking techniques.

Later, when she turned to painting, she exhibited her work regularly at the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d’Automne.

Valadon made a living from her art at a time when women faced countless obstacles to professional success, but despite these accomplishments, her work has received scant attention outside of France.

“Placing Suzanne Valadon’s work in dialogue with the late 19th- and early 20th-century French paintings in the Barnes collection—created primarily by her male counterparts— raises questions of representation and access throughout art history,” Thom Collins, Neubauer Family Executive Director and President of the Barnes Foundation, said. “Through this exhibition, we aim to draw attention to the ways in which many artists of merit are unjustly neglected because of biases surrounding gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and class.”

Curated by Nancy Ireson, Deputy Director for Collections and Exhibitions & Gund Family Chief Curator, the exhibition features 54 works, including paintings, drawings, and prints created between 1890 and 1937. The exhibition is structured around a series of themes, including the artist’s representations of her family and her exploration of the female body. Refusing to follow artistic trends and continuously faithful to figurative representation, Valadon developed a distinctive pictorial language characterized by decisive lines and bold coloration.

Exhibition highlights include:

Adam and Eve, 1909 (Centre Pompidou – Musée National d’Art Moderne/CCI, Paris, Gift of the State, Purchase, 1937)

In the early stages of her passionate relationship with André Utter—a man more than 20 years her junior—Valadon made this self-portrait in which she depicts herself as Eve to Utter’s Adam. When the work was first exhibited, it did not include the fig leaves, which she added at a later stage.

Self-Portrait, 1927 (Collection of the City of Sannois, Val d’Oise, France, on temporary loan to the Musée de Montmartre, Paris.)

Valadon painted frequent self-portraits and, as she aged, did not shy away from changes in her appearance. Here, as a middle-aged woman, she addresses the viewer unapologetically.

The Blue Room, 1923 (Centre Pompidou – Musée National d’Art Moderne/CCI, Paris, on deposit to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Limoges, State Purchase, 1924)

Seen by many as Valadon’s finest work, The Blue Room reinvented artistic traditions, with its sumptuously decorated interior that envelops a clothed, smoking woman.

Family Portrait, 1912 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris, on deposit to the Centre Pompidou – Musée National d’Art Moderne/CCI, gift to the Musées Nationaux by M. Cahen-Salvador in memory of Madame Fontenelle-Pomaret, 1976)

Head of an unconventional household, Valadon paints herself at the center of her family: her young lover by her side, her elderly mother behind, and her melancholy son in the foreground.

Black Venus, 1919 (Centre Pompidou – Musée National d’Art Moderne/CCI, Paris, on deposit to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Menton, Gift of M. Charles Wakefield-Mori, 1939)

In one of a series of works that feature an unidentified Black model, Valadon seems to challenge classical tradition, a subject that is discussed in detail in the exhibition catalogue.

“Little known in the United States, Suzanne Valadon produced works in the early 20th century that even now challenge viewers with their unapologetic exploration of female desire and the challenges of marriage and motherhood,” Ireson said. “Though Valadon’s portraits and nudes were groundbreaking, their reception was often overshadowed by reactions to her personal life. Her second marriage to a far younger man was met with disapproval, and her fame as an artist was eclipsed by that of her son, Maurice Utrillo.”

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