Suzanne Valadon at Norton Gallery
Hidden Gem in Stunning Collection
By: Charles Giuliano - Jan 29, 2024
We spent most of yesterday at Norton Gallery in Palm Beach.
It was a museum I knew well from annual visits to drive my mother home to Annisquam.
Decades had passed and the museum has expanded. From a firm base in primarily French modernism the additions of contemporary art have maintained the same impeccable standards.
One of the great pleasures of the collection is its hidden gems both then and now.
A mantra for the Norton is to expect the unexpected. Wedged in the cracks and margins of masterpieces are niche works by unfamiliar or underappreciated artists. It conveys that Norton over a span of decades has had astute curators and savvy collectors at their service.
Just such an encounter was a small, arresting, skilled and galvanic head of a woman by the autodidact Suanne Valadon (23 September 1865 – 7 April 1938) born Marie-Clémentine Valadon at Bessines-sur-Gartempe, Haute-Vienne, France. In 1894, Valadon became the first woman painter admitted to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. She was also the mother of painter Maurice Utrillo.
Valadon spent nearly 40 years of her life as an artist. The subjects of her drawings and paintings, such as Joy of Life (1911), included mostly female nudes, portraits of women, still lifes, and landscapes.
She is best know as a model and appeared in such paintings as Dance at Bougival (1883) and Dance in the City by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1883), and Suzanne Valadon (1885) and The Hangover (Suzanne Valadon) (1887 - 1889) by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
The models of artists were frequently their lovers. In the case of Renoir blatantly so with tacit approval. The trope was to do as you please Saturday night and be home for Sunday mass.
Valadon was more than a floozy. The modelling sessions were also opportunities to pick up the craft from a master. It was more likely a casual than formal mentoring relationship. Another example of this was Victorine Meurant who was Manet’s source for Olympia and other masterpieces. She asked to be regarded as his associate with a retainer fee. It is known that she was also a painter but I have never seen an actual work by her.
Paintings by Valadon are rare but not an endangered species.
The Norton picture is arresting even before reading the label. What she lacks in formal training is more than compensated by a fresh originality. While of the milieu of art in Paris of her time the work deserves respect and attention beyond the trope of feminism.
The sense is that she was resilient and independent making her own way as a single mother. There is speculation regarding the paternity of her renowned outsider artist son Maurice Utrillo. Allegedly she fed him booze as a pacifier and he was an alcoholic from an early age.
His loose and sloppy work was regarded as a souvenir of Montmartre. He seems less regarded now than when first encountered as a rage.
By comparison the paintings of Valadon are both uncanny in their originality as well as more disciplined and controlled.
Her small work in the Norton holds its own among the big boys and heavy hitters in the collection. With other discoveries on this level a visit to the Norton Gallery is a treasure hunt.