A young woman acrobat in the Montmartre of the 1870s, could have easily been brought to life by Zola in one of his critical fictions. Nonetheless, Marie-Clémentine really existed. Born to a single mother, this precocious girl was forced to abandon the circus life after a fall. Her handsome looks opened doors for modeling in the artistic and carefree environment of Paris and she was soon one of the favorite sitters of Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and many others.
Marie-Clémentine became Maria and earned a reputation as a reliable model. But the reputation she was after was of a higher order: she wanted to become a painter.During her coy sessions with the artists, she watched, asked and learned. As her popularity grew, her name changed yet again and Toulouse-Lautrec began calling her Suzanne. It was as if with each name a new chapter opened in her life. By this time, she took to drawing with fierce intensity, sketching with a sure hand female bodies. By the age of eighteen she gave birth to a son. A Spanish artist, Miguel Utrillo was willing to give the child his name. He may have gifted it in a flight of inebriated enthusiasm or from the true generosity of his heart, or even perhaps form his own biological seed. Suzanne never disclosed the paternity.
Her lifestyle did not adjust much to maternity. Increasingly confident in her work output and her feminine success, she continued to bewitch men. Erik Satie was strongly infatuated with her. She ended up marrying one of his friends, the banker Paul Moussis, a bourgeois moneyman who, for a while, tamed her bohemian spirit . Fully committed to her painting, but restless in having to deal with her son’s early alcoholism and bored by the conventions of her lifestyle, she took lover after lover. By 1909 after fourteen years of unfaithful marriage she began an affair with André Utter, an aspiring painter, friend of her son Maurice who often posed as a model himself. He was more than 20 years her junior. The roles are strangely reversed: the female painter chooses a younger male to serve her as a sitter although she was ironically more interested in the female figure. Utter entered her life not just as a lover but as an emotional support to Maurice. This unusual threesome was to last for twenty years.
Both Utrillo and Valadon’s art was rather indifferent, even taboo, to modern art historians and curators. She was considered mediocre, undistinguished and lacking formal training. Utrillo was the epitome of bourgeois taste, a representative of what the market perceived as bohemianism. His art is now being rescued from the clutches of bourgeois taste, whilst his mother’s aesthetic influence dims into oblivion. Their lives in contrast to oscillating tastes, are icons of modernist inspiration, drivers of rupture and defiant iconoclasts.