The identity of her father was unknown, her mother worked as a sewing maid. She attended a convent school in Paris for a short time before taking a job in a milliner’s workshop at 11 years old. Suzanne also worked as a funeral wreath maker, a vegetable seller and a waitress while she was still a young child.
When she was a teenager, she befriended artists living in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris and worked as an acrobat at the Mollier circus. She fell from the trapeze while practicing and injured her back. Her brief stint with the circus was one of her fondest memories.
In 1880, she caught the eye of painter Pierre Puvis which began her career as an artist’s model. She posed for Puvis for several years and was presumed to be sexually involved with him.
‘Her employers assumed the right to make love to their girls,’ and the career of a model was at that time somewhat of a scandalous one.
One of the most notable paintings featuring Valadon was Toulouse-Lautrec’s 1889 The Hangover.
As an artists’ model, Valadon became an active member of the artistic community of Montmartre and made a name for herself as a feisty, vivacious girl, known for such stunts as sliding down the bannister at a popular club while wearing only a mask.
In 1881 she began a relationship with Spaniard Miguel Utrillo and gave birth to an illegitimate son who later became a renowned painter in his own right. She gave her son to her mother to raise, returning to work as a model.
During the mid-to-the-late 1880’s, Suzanne Valadon produced many drawings and pastels of people and of street scenes.
In 1890, Suzanne became friends with painter Edgar Degas and after seeing her work, he encouraged her to become an artist. He bought some of her pieces and helped her get started. She was the first woman to show at the Societe Nationale des Beaux Arts, a major French artistic accomplishment.
Valadon became best known for her candid female nudes that depict women’s bodies from a woman’s perspective. This is particularly important because it was unusual in the 19th century for a woman artist to make female nudes her primary subject matter.
In 1896, Valadon became a full-time painter after her marriage to stockbroker Paul Mousis, leading a bourgeois life for 13 years at an apartment in Paris and a house in an outlaying region.
She then began an affair with the painter Andre Utter, age 23 and a friend of her son. She divorced her husband in 1913 and married Utter in 1914. Utter managed her career as well as her son’s. They regularly exhibited work together.
In 1915, Valadon’s mother passed away at the age of 84, and her son was called up and subsequently rejected for military service and committed to a mental institution for treatment for his alcohol addiction. Caught up in these matters, Suzanne painted little.
Valadon signed a contract with the art gallery Bernheim-Jeune in 1924, enabling her to again live in financial comfort. She bought a country estate and spent much of her time there. However, tension among Valadon, Utter and her son Maurice Utrillo continued, fueled by Utrillo’s continued dominance professionally.
Utter had taken up drinking and womanizing. Valadon continued to produce works and had a showing at a major retrospective in 1929. Many of her works depict her, her beloved pets, and much of her early drawings.
Through the 1930’s Valadon’s health declined. In 1935 she went into the hospital for complications of diabetes and kidney dysfunction.
That same year, her son got married and Utter also moved out, although they never divorced. Her life continued to be filled with friends, visitors and art despite the exodus of her family.
In 1937, the prestigious Musee du Luxembourg bought 3 of her major paintings as well as many of her drawings.
In April, 1938, she was painting at her easel when she suffered a stroke. She died a few hours later at the age of 72.