Suzanne Valadon

Born: September 23, 1865 in Bessenes France, died: April 19, 1938 in Paris


A photograph of the artist

Much like the last artist I discussed, Edmonia Lewis, Suzanne Valadon was not born into ideal circumstances. Her mother was a laundress and raised her single-handedly with minimal wages, prompting Valadon to begin working at a young age. Throughout her childhood and adolescence she held many jobs in Montmartre, “the bohemian quarter of Paris“; she was a waitress, vegetable seller, nanny, and perhaps most notably an acrobat. The independent teenager found herself working at a circus as a trapeze artist, a job that she loved dearly. Sadly, she injured her back when performing a routine and had to seek employment elsewhere in order to get by.

A young Valadon quickly found success in a field that wasn’t seen as the most respectable– she modeled for artists, who, as writer June Rose contends, “assumed the right to make love to their girls.” Valadon didn’t oppose this, and often maintained affairs with the painters, most notably Henri de Toulouse-Lautre. Her life consisted of more than posing and making love to famous men, as she began to foster her own interest in art at this time. She studied her employers, and with some encouragement from artist Edward Degas (who, as with Mary Cassatt, seems to be quite inspirational), she began to make art of her own in the early 1890s, exerting an impressive level of autonomy.

During this period, the burgeoning artist went through other major life changes. As an unmarried 18 year old, she gave birth to a baby boy. She was not entirely sure who was the father to the child, but Miguel Utrilo, an old lover, was convinced it was his. The responsibility of raising her infant son Maurice fell entirely on the shoulders of Valadon, who passed on the effort to her mother in order to focus on her career. Several years later she married a stockbroker, whose wealth provided her with the opportunity to spend all her efforts on painting.


Self Portrait, 1883

This is one of the earliest paintings by Valadon. It’s style is minimal and the subject matter tame– two characteristics that were found much less frequently in her later pieces

Consistent to the turbulent nature of Valadon’s romantic affairs, she was divorced in 1909. Around this time, she began focusing on what would become the trademarks of her style, painting nude figures and portraits in distinct marks and colors. Her pieces conveyed “an intensity of feeling and depth in her subjects with bold, heavy strokes,” which did not go unnoticed by the public. In 1911 she held her first solo exhibition, sparking her movement toward international fame.

Valadon’s home life was largely tumultuous. Her son began exhibiting signs of mental problems and alcoholism as a teenager, so she devoted much of her time caring for him. She greatly encouraged him to try painting, which apparently was effective, as he soon became a successful artist in his own right. Around the time of her divorce, Valadon also began a relationship with Andre Utter, an artist over twenty years her junior.


Adam & Eve, 1909

This painting depicts Valadon and Utter in the Biblical account of the first man and woman. It’s interesting to note that Valadon chose to depict Eve at the moment she picked the sinful fruit from the tree, perhaps alluding to the forbidden nature of her affair with Utter. This painting was also the first piece to be exhibited by a woman featuring a naked male and female, and is fascinating in its use of color and emotion in the couple’s forms.

When World War I broke out in Europe, Utter, now Valadon’s husband, enlisted to fight. When he returned from war, he lived with his wife and her artist son, Maurice, as the trio attempted to sell their pieces. Despite Valadon’s critical acclaim for her work, Maurice’s work caught the eye of the public, and he was able to profit nicely from his work. Valadon continued and exhibiting throughout this period and found success even though her son proved too be more lucrative.

    Maurice_Utrillo,_par_Suzanne_Valadon              suburban-street-scene.jpg!Blog

   Maurice Utrillo, 1921 by Valadon    Suburban Street Scene, Utrilo

Clearly the focus and style of the paintings differ greatly, as Suzanne’s work was more novel while her son opted to create classic, subdued cityscapes.

Sadly, Valadon and her husband began to drift apart as he began having affairs with various women. Valadon’s health began declining in 1920, and it seems that around this point she began painting fewer nudes and focused instead on still-lives. She continued to work persistently, even up to the day of her death in 1938, when she suffered a stroke.

Nonetheless, Valadon was a fascinating woman, whose pieces simply can’t go unappreciated, even though for a period of time her son’s work garnered more attention. I feel as though she lived during a period when the notion of the nonconformist, whimsical artist really came into fruition. They became almost the rock stars of early 20th century Europe and America, and she certainly fed into that stereotype, with her numerous affairs and disregard for what was considered appropriate in a painting. She transformed from a model, a mere pretty object for an artist to depict, to a creator in her own right, and I find that immensely empowering.


Reclining nude, 1928



Edmonia Lewis: Neoclassical Sculpture

Born: 1844 in New York or Ohio, died: 1907 in London, England

Picture 215

Edmonia Lewis represents several firsts in my series of artists. She is the first sculptor I have covered, and the first African American/ Native American woman to have graced the pages of this blog. Though not much is known about her early or later life, she certainly was a groundbreaking and remarkable force in the art world.

Born to an African American father and a Chippewa Indian mother in the year 1844, Lewis was orphaned at a young age. It is believed that she and her brother traveled with their mother’s tribe in New York state throughout their childhoods, being given the names Wildfire and Sunrise, respectively. Her brother Sunrise then traveled to California during the Gold Rush, obtaining a considerable amount of wealth. He enrolled Wildfire into Oberlin College and it was there that she adopted the name Edmonia Lewis. She excelled in her studies, pursuing art and gaining in interest in the abolitionist movement. Tragedy struck, however, when two white students accused Lewis of poisoning them. The young artist was acquitted of all charges but was violently harassed by upset locals. She left the college and fled to Boston with the help of her older brother.

In Boston, Lewis became further involved in the abolitionist movement, befriending the famed anti-slavery advocate William Lloyd Garrison, who introduced her to a sculptor, Edward Brackett. She became his protégé, and began to earn recognition for some of her early pieces, especially a bust of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the leader of a black troop in the Civil War. This sculpture spurred her career in the art world, allowing Lewis to earn enough money to travel abroad to Rome.


Colonel Robert Gould Shaw

This piece shows the beginnings of Lewis’s neoclassical style, with its “lofty idealism and Greco-Roman resources.” She portrays the subject both elegantly and realistically.

Lewis found her calling in Rome, where she converted to Roman Catholicism and joined a group of other female, neoclassical sculptors. The different elements of her identity are evident in her work, as she often focused on African, Native American, and Biblical themes. Lewis also felt compelled to work entirely alone, despite the fact that many marble sculptors in Italy at the time received assistance with making their pieces. She didn’t want to be subjected to “racist assumptions that she wasn’t really responsible for her work.” This decision, along with her experiences at Oberlin College, demonstrate that Edmonia’s life was not at all an easy one. She had to work even harder than her white contemporaries to not only thrive in the sphere of art, but also just to survive.       321beede4262280c65a4597f3d862d5e

                         Hagar, 1875                           Forever Free, 1867


Hiawatha’s Marriage, 1868

These sculptures help to display the extent of Lewis’s artistic and personal interests. Hagar is based upon the Biblical story of Abraham’s second wife Hagar, a handmaid who was to bear him a son. Forever Free and Hiawatha’s Marriage reflect Lewis’s own African American and Native American ethnic background. Forever Free was a tribute to the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing black American slaves, while Hiawatha is a reference to a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

The end of the sculptor’s life isn’t clearly documented. She stopped making new pieces around 1880, but remained in Europe. Reports state that she was alive as late as 1911, but it’s now known she died in London in 1907. Many of her sculptures were lost after her death and have recently been rediscovered, however many still remain unseen.

Edmonia Lewis really breaks the mold of the artists I’ve been studying– she wasn’t white and born into a wealthy family; her life, largely, was not easy. I think this represents a growing trend as we move into the twentieth century. Art became a more accessible pursuit for people, so we’ll start to see more female artists and artists from different backgrounds in my next few posts. I’m really excited to move in this direction and can’t wait to see what brilliant artists lie ahead. Stay tuned!




Mary Cassatt: Impressionism

Born May 22 1844 in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania; Died June 14 1926 near Paris, France


Self Portrait, 1878

Though Mary Cassatt is the first artist from America I will be covering, I don’t really feel as though she can be classified as an “American artist,” as she spent much of her time abroad. Cassatt was born into a well-to-do family in Pennsylvania, but quickly discovered her love of art. Her father, a conventional man, greatly discouraged this, and was reluctant to allow her to enroll in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts at the age of 16. Cassatt did so anyway, but found the largely male environment to be constricting and disrespectful. She set her gaze towards Europe to study art, which only served to upset her father more. He claimed he would prefer to see her “dead than living abroad as a “‘bohemian.'” In 1865, however, a young Cassatt left for Paris.

The painter spent her days traveling across Europe, studying the works of the old masters and slowly developing a style of her own. She became close to other French painters, such as Charles Joshua Chaplin, who painted many beautiful, delicate portraits of women. In 1868, Cassatt’s painting The Mandolin Player was entered into the famed Paris Salon, earning her some recognition. Soon after, the Franco-Prussian war broke out, forcing the disappointed artist to return to her family in Pennsylvania.


The Mandolin Player, Mary Cassat

This painting’s simple content is contrasted by its rich colors. The piece certainly seems to be from the earlier period of Cassatt’s career, before she embraced looser strokes and bright colors, elements of the impressionist movement.

Despite opposition from her father, Cassatt returned to Europe in 1871 at the request of the Catholic Church. She was commissioned to paint copies of old works by an archbishop, and then traveled to Spain and eventually Paris. It was there she met the renown impressionist Edward Degas in 1879, who is especially well-known for his paintings of dancers. He recognized potential in Cassatt, and invited her to join the growing impressionist movement. She was the only American in the group, but was interested in their use of color and light. Her subject matter also shifted, as she moved towards the intimate, everyday scenes of family that we associate her with today.


Ballet Rehearsal, 1873 Edgar Degas

This is a very famous example of Degas’ work– it features streaming light, dynamic movements, and bright, pastel colors. It’s easy to see why Cassatt was attracted to the movement.


Children on the Beach, 1884 Mary Cassatt

This intimate portrait is one from Cassatt’s impressionist period, and is evident in her use of light and her brushstrokes. However, her tendency to paint families, specifically mothers and children, set her apart from the movement.

Around the mid 1880s, Cassatt stopped associating herself with impressionism. She studied different techniques and mediums throughout the rest of her life, often using pastels and prints. Cassatt also started to support emerging artists from America, buying many of their works. In 1900, her eyesight began to fail, causing her to work less frequently. She passed away in 1926, completely blind due to her diabetes, in her home in Mesnil-Theribus, France.


The Fitting, 1890

This is a print from the later period of Cassatt’s career. She was actually inspired by Japanese printmaking, which seems evident in the simple style and muted, warm colors of this piece. Despite the shift in style, Cassatt still focuses on a scene from the home, for which she is so recognized.

Mary Cassatt was clearly an exceptionally talented woman, and based on her disagreements with her family, it appears that she also was independent and strong-willed. She did not feel bound to any particular movement or style, or even any specific place– she was, after all, a bit of a “bohemian.” The artist was fiercely proud of her line of work, as well; one of my sources states that she only felt like she was amongst her “intellectual equals” when she was with other artists. After constantly being discouraged from pursuing art, though, I can see why she developed such an attachment to it. I’m certainly glad she did, because her pieces are a lovely glimpse into domestic life of the time.

Next week I will be introducing a truly amazing artist, and the first sculptor in my series. Stay tuned!



Rosa Bonheur: Realism

Born: March 16, 1822 in Bodeaux, France, died: May 25, 1899 Fontainebleau


Rosa Bonheur, 1898 by Anna Klumpke

Though the subject matter of her paintings might seem commonplace to modern eyes, Bonheur lived an unprecedented and rather unorthodox life. She was born to a fairly wealthy French father, and, as we have seen before, was taught to paint by her father, who studied landscapes. He also doubled as a professional art teacher and was the only local painter who would teach a young Bonheur. The family, which included several other children, was very socially liberal, and probably encouraged Bonheur’s later desire to become such a nonconformist.

The Bonheurs moved to Paris in 1829, where Rosa’s love of art flourished. As a teenager, she started to sketch animals she observed at farms, slaughterhouses, and auctions in order to study their motion and anatomy. She fell in love with these subjects and they became the main focus of her work, which rapidly increased in popularity. But her methods of intensely studying animals proved to be problematic, as places like slaughterhouses tended to be meant for working men. To get around this, Bonheur began dressing like a man to draw less attention to herself. Wearing overalls and pants, which she had to get a special license for (seriously), actually caused Bonheur to become more well-known. Her taste for men’s clothing, which lasted throughout her life, along with her penchant for smoking in public, furthered her eccentric reputation.


Study of a Cow

This piece shows Bonheur’s interests in their simplest form– a lone bull painted in stunning anatomical detail, standing amidst a wide open field

Bonheur first displayed her pieces at a salon in Paris at age 19, where she would enter her works for the next ten years. At a salon in 1847 the artist “was given the ultimate praise, ‘She paints like a man.'” As sad as this sounds, it wasn’t entirely wrong– at that point in time, realism and paintings of nature had been a man’s game. Unsurprisingly, the resilient Bonheur was undisturbed by remarks like these.

The groundbreaking artist’s popularity in France sadly declined near the center of her life, and she received criticism amongst her people for how favored her paintings were in England and America. Her most famous painting, The Horse Fair, was displayed in England in 1855 and “greatly admired”  by Queen Victoria. In 1887, Cornelius Vanderbilt bought the painting for an unparalleled price and gave it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it still hangs today.


The Horse Fair, 1852-1855. This magnificent painting is seen as her masterpiece. With it’s rich colors, dynamic composition, and immense size (it’s about 8 by 12 feet!!), I can certainly see why.

In 1865, Rosa Bonheur was the first female to receive the Grand Cross Legion of Honour, an extremely high regard in France. After this, Bonheur’s spent a lot of her life privately, and she shifted from depicting life on the plains to painting pictures of lions at the end of her life. During this time she also live secluded in her chateau with her companion Anna Klumpke, a fellow artist. It isn’t explicitly stated in any of my sources, but it seems like it’s generally assumed that they were romantic partners.

Though she was quite a figure during her time for her habits unusual for a woman, Bonheur really helped to reinvent what it means to be a woman and an artist. She lived her life according to no one but herself in so many ways– in her art, her dress, and her mannerisms. Her disregard for societal norms frequently made people uncomfortable, but allowed her to really transcend the realm of artists. Rosa Bonheur truly left her distinctive mark in both art and feminist history.


Ploughing in the Nivernais, 1849


Royale à la maison

These two paintings represent different periods and interests in the artist’s life. In Ploughing in the Nivernais, the young Bonheur was in the midst of her prolific period of painting realistic farm scenes, while Royale à la maison was painted towards the end of her successful career. Personally, I find the first painting much more compelling. She used much richer and darker colors in her earlier works, and the painting has this intensity that I feel the second work very much lacks.


~Next week I will finally be crossing the pond and introducing you to an American artist, who I’m sure some of you are familiar with. Stay tuned!~


Rosalba Carriera: Rococo

Born January 12, 1673 in Venice; Died April 15, 1757 in Venice


Self portrait as Winter, 1731

As annoying as I find this, I’m forgoing the chronological order for this post and taking a step back in time to the Rococo period, which was before Neoclassicism. This style is just too pivotal in artistic history to gloss over. Sorry!

Rosalba Carriera was a central figure in the art world of the 18th century, but not much is known about her early life. Born into a simple family in Venice, she was perhaps trained in lace-making by her mother, but switched hobbies after the trade became less popular. The young woman began painting the lids of snuffboxes, or small, very ornamented boxes that held tobacco meant to be sniffed. Interestingly, this was an actual career for artists at the time, as the prevalence of using snuff and giving the boxes as gifts became a huge fad in Europe and beyond.


An example of an 18th century snuffbox (not of Carriera’s)

Carriera enjoyed this decorative style of painting, and moved on to paint many more miniatures on ivory, instead of vellum (parchment), that was so popular of the time. She became a major proponent of the Rococo art movement, which began in France and is notable for its “rich and delicate brushwork, a relatively light tonal key, and sensuous colouring.


The Love Lesson, by Jean-Antoine Watteau

Watteau popularized the Rococo style, and its elements- the light brushstroke, almost airy, ethereal backgrounds, and subdued pastel colors- are evident in his pieces

Carriera greatly admired his work, and even had the opportunity to paint him twice.

Like the other artists mentioned, Carriera also received fame at a relatively young age. She was inducted into Italy’s prestigious Academy of Saint Luke when she was only 25. The quality of her artwork wasn’t the only thing making waves across Europe– she also was one of the first people to use pastels instead of paint in her finished portraits. Until then, pastels were seen as a means for creating sketches, but Carriera found that they were perfect for executing the light, blended style of the Rococo movement she loved so much.


Young Lady of the Le Blond Family, 1730

This is a pastel portrait made by Carriera. It’s amazing how much detail she was able to convey using pastels, and how finished the product looks.

The clever artist’s innovation with pastels only served to further her fame, and she was soon encouraged to move to Paris to promote her talents more. Carriera did so, arriving in 1720 and soon being commission by many notable people. Among some of the more famous patrons was a young King Louis XV. She continued to beguile nobility, and painted Holy Roam Emperor Charles VI multiple times. Tragically, the end of the artist’s life was riddled with hardships– her beloved sister died in 1737, and Carriera lost her eyesight about 10 years later, making her unable to paint.


Louis XV of France, 1720

It’s interesting to compare Carierra’s self-portraits to those that she made of others. She makes her subjects look soft and attractive, portraying them in flattering ways (probably because they all paid her a ton of money, so she had to make them look good.) With herself, however, she is “brutally honest in representing herself”, as she was not particularly stunning… Or at least that’s how she felt about herself. Her pictures of others are absolutely beuatiful, but I think it’s way more fascinating to analyze how how she portrayed herself. Unlike Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, she doesn’t seem to have any ego about her, even though she was just as deserving of one. She managed to pave the way for both a new style of art and a new medium (Rococo and pastels, respectively), along with inspiring future artists to come, including Le Brun.

220px-Rosalba_Carriera_Self-portrait                parrot

Self Portrait, 1715                   Young Lady with a Parrot, 1730

There is such a large contrasts between Carriera’s self portrait- her demure expression, unrefined features, and conservative clothes- and the way she made her clients look. The young lady on the right is adorned with flowers, jewelry, makeup, and revealing clothes (and also, inexplicably, a parrot.) Nonetheless, Carriera’s talent is clear despite her subject.