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Representing Sexuality in Women Artists’ Biographies: The Cases of Suzanne Valadon and
Victorine Meurent
Author(s): Eunice Lipton
Source: The Journal of Sex Research, Vol. 27, No. 1, Feminist Perspectives on Sexuality.
Part 1 (Feb., 1990), pp. 81-94
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
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The Journal of Sex Research
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The Journal of Sex Research Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 81-94 February, 1990
Representing Sexuality in Women
Artists’ Biographies: The Cases of
Suzanne Valadon and
Victorine Meurent
This paper aims to show how women artists have been excluded from art
historical discourse, and have been inhibited from becoming artists. As
committed and productive as a woman may be, she simply cannot
signify as artist. In our culture, the artist in psycho-sexual terms is
always male, the model female. He makes, surveys, imagines; she poses,
reposes, inspires. The symboUc apparatus is male mastery and power
versus female passivity and resignation. Other ways to frame this
binarism are: man is author(ity), woman is other; man desires, woman
satisfies; man sees, woman is seen. He is active, she is passive; he is
visible, she invisible. And so on. Certainly these are over-simpUfications,
but they outUne nonetheless an accurate construction of the artist as in-
trinsically and necessarily male. By focusing on two women artists,
Suzanne Valadon and Victorine Meurent, we will see how male critics
and historians have represented these artists first and foremost as
women, and how this construction effectively erases them from the
history of art and consciousness.
KEY WORDS: Art, gender, sexuaUty
The artist-model relationship exerts a remarkable sexual allure.
Witness the recent notoriety of Andrew Wyeth’s “Helga” paintings
and the endless curiosity about Picasso’s amours. People love the
opportunity to examine the artist’s studio, because they savor the
privilege of observing what is ordinarily off-limits and mysterious to
them: the hands of the artist at work. They hope that if they look long
and hard enough, they will find him, and he will be?in the act. Hasn’t
an artist’s sexual prowess always been confounded with his artistic
proteanism? And isn’t this trope entirely male in its parameters? Who
would assert the metaphorical efficacy of this image for a woman ar?
tist? Who would insist that her sexual prowess was the sine qua non of
Eunice Lipton, a Ph.D. in Art History (1975), is author of Picasso Criticism,
1901-1939; The Making of an Artist-Hero (1976), Looking into Degas; Uneasy Images of
Women and Modern Life (1986) and numerous articles, reviews, exhibition catalogs as
well as short fiction. She is an independent writer, lecturer and educator who lives in
New York City: 201 West 85th Street (7E), New York, NY 10024-3909.
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because his work was too small and intimate; because he was too
devoted to his wife and too gentle; and because he loved his solitude
and playing the piano.1
The artist is, in psycho-sexual terms, always male, the model female.
He makes, surveys, imagines; she poses, reposes, inspires. The sym?
bolic apparatus is male mastery and power versus female passivity
and resignation. Other ways to frame this binarism are: man is
author(ity), woman is other; man desires, woman satisfies; man sees,
woman is seen. He is active, she is passive; he is visible, she invisible.
And so on.
Certainly these are over-simplifications, but they outline nonethe?
less an accurate construction of the artist in our society as intrinsically
and necessarily male. This epistemology, as Toril Moi (1985) points
out, is entirely, but not only Freudian. She calls it a “pathological divi?
sion of knowledge,” in which “the male is the bearer of knowledge; he
alone has the power to penetrate woman and text; woman’s role is to
let herself be penetrated by such truth” (p. 198). Imagine a woman who
is bombastic, arrogant, self-centered, and driven by “primal” competi?
tive urges, and you have a contradiction in sexual and ideological
terms. Picture this woman in her studio objectifying a model in the
customarily circumscribed, and sealed off terrain of that workspace.
Such a woman would be reading the part of heterosexual desire from a
masculine position, and the irony is that no matter how she actually
behaves, she can never signify from the position of artist. She is either
perceived as an aberration, or she is not seen at all.
1 Linda Nochlin suggested this to me as I set to work on my dissertation, “Picasso
Criticism, 1901-1939: The Making of an Artist-Hero,” in the mid 1970s.
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Male scholars, critics, curators and museum directors through their
commitments to notions like the artist-genius, the artist-adventurer,
the artist-lover effectively write the solitary, monogamous, prosaically
working person out of the annals of high art. Many women and their
work vanish from history in just this way. But the strategy which
eUminates women the most is the focus on their so-called feminine sex?
uaUty. I mean to show in this paper just how thoroughly the biographies of women artists by male writers effect this erasure. I take as
examples two French women, Suzanne Valadon (born MarieClementine Valadon, 1865-1938) and Victorine Meurent (1844-1928). I
could have used any women, however, because the operative ideologi?
cal constraints are the sexual construction of woman in our culture and
the masculine construction of the artist. I use Meurent and Valadon
because of my expertise in 19th and 20th century French art history.
Suzanne Valadon is primarily known as the mother of Maurice
Utrillo, the painter of white Montmartre cityscapes. She is also
recognized as the woman who modeled for Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec
and Puvis de Chavannes. Renoir’s pictures of her are the best know
and loved. Ever the painter of lush young female bodies, he seemed to
particularly enjoy painting the young Valadon; she is the figure on the
extreme right in Figure 1.
Valadon?who, it is said, came to be called Suzanne instead of Marie
Clementine, by Erik Satie?was the iUegitimate daughter of a peasan
f-iit il
Figure 1. Auguste Renoir. Bathers. 1887. Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Ar
(Mr. and Mrs. Carroll S. Tyson Collection).
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woman. Soon after she and her mother arrived in Paris from Bessines
(near Limoges) around 1870, she became an artist’s model and then an
artist. Her decision to paint remains mysterious, and in many ways
imponderable. How does a woman from such a background become an
artist? What facilitates her dreaming, and what gives her access to
institutions which are determinedly outside of her class?
Although there have been occasional exhibits of Valadon’s work and
a monograph now and then, she has never been considered an “im?
portant” artist. Indeed, her recognition was at its height when she, her
son Utrillo and her young husband, Andre Utter, had joint exhibitions
in 1917, 1921 and 1925. What writing there is about her relentlessly
recreates her as stereotypically female. In 1965, Robert Beachboard, a
French professor, wrote:
By 1883 the eighteen-year-old, five-foot two Marie-Clementine had
become an artist’s model in high demand. … (p. 137)
Not the least contender for her favors was Renoir. . . . (p. 137)
By the time Marie had reached the age of puberty. . . . (p. 138)
Of all the fathers of Utrillo the one most commonly designated is . . . .
(p. 140).
This article goes to absurd and finally obsessive lengths to determine
who exactly Valadon slept with, when, and who precisely was Utrillo’s
father. It is a piece of thinly disguised peeping-tomism.
Even Adolphe Tabarant, who proudly displayed his friendship with
Valadon, ends a poem in 1949 meant to eulogize her with:
On an evening of her 16th year?mother before artist?
She gave birth to her masterpiece: Utrillo. (unpag. insert)
John Storm in his fictionalized biography of 1959 wrote:
Wherever or however it [her loss of virginity] happened, by the time she
was sixteen it had given rise to a prodigious show of promiscuity. (p. 55)
In the autumn and winter of 1882-1883 Suzanne … moved into Puvis de
Chavannes’ apartment in Neuilly as mistriss of the famous artist. (p. 58)
At these gatherings of Lautrec’s, Suzanne soon became a kind of unofficial hostess. Often she was the only woman present. (p. 77)
It is commonplace for Valadon to be described as promiscuous and
alcoholic, to be derided for being a derelict mother and shameful
daughter. She was also labeled emotionally erratic and undependable.
Storm: [She was] nervous, loquacious, given to gusts of hysterical gaiety
and paroxysms of strident laughter. . . . She was extremely quick to
explode in ungovernable rage. . . . Once the storm passed, she made as
dramatic a display of her remorse. . . . There was in all her frenzy a poignant desire, above all else to be loved. (p. 36)
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It is assumed that men used her?first her artis
son, then her young husband, Utter. Men of
her. Even Edgar Degas (1947), a man who cou
to women and indeed admired Valadon’s dra
You must have taken your drawings away from
illustrious Valadon. So come and bring some to me
(March 1894, p. 189)
You see, my poor Maria, that I am still unable to c
(March 30, 1895, p. 193)
I have been in bed and am late in answering, terri
see me with drawings. I Uke seeing these bold
Degas constantly uses ironic and playful mo
“poor,” “terrible,” “illustrious” when referring
ing a certain paternalistic distance and effectiv
possibility of a juncture between “woman” an
would not have spoken to his young male artist
What this critical discourse gives us is Val
sexy, desired girl; the alcoholic; the erratic u
bad daughter; the girl/woman who incident
Although only Degas among artists noted her
Victorine Meurent is hardly known as an artis
fied primarily as Manet’s model for Olymp
Vherbe (Figure 2 and Figure 3). It was said that
streets, was lucky that Manet chose her to w
whom we encountered earlier commenting
following in 1931:
[Victorine Meurent] was between 1862-1874, with
she was whimsieal, Manet’s preferred model. . . . H
have been Uke a lot of girls of the lower classes
beautiful and unable to easily resign themselve
mediately consented to model for Manet. . . . (p. 7
Others noted that she was promiscuous, frequ
with Manet’s picture, Olympio, which was thou
tion of a courtesan. There was also much goss
Emile Zola wrote in 1867:
The child’s body itself [in Olympia] is charmingly palUd. She is a girl of
16, doubtless some model whom Edouard Manet has quietly copied just
as she was. And everyone exclaimed that this nude body was indecent.
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Figure 2. Edouard Manet. Olympia. 1863. Oil on canvas. Musfe d’Orsay, Par
That’s as it should be since here in the flesh is a girl whom the artist h
put on canvas in her youthful, sUghtly tarnished nakedness_He h
introduced us to Olympia, a girl of our own times, whom we have met
the streets. .. . (unpag.)
She was also said to be flighty. Tabarant (1947), for example, w
that “a sentimental folly . . . had taken her to America” (p. 220
Meurent was also condescended to for dabbling in painting
harboring foolish ambitions to exhibit her work at the Salon.
Georges Riviere (1921): [In the 1870s at the cafe Nouvelle Athenes] goin
from table to table was a former model of Manet’s, Victorine
Meurent…; she was showing painters her most recent studies because
she had started painting since she was no longer able to model in the
nude. (p. 32)
And Tabarant (1932): She had developed the ambition to be a painter
herself. Having received advice from a certain Etienne Leroy, a mediocre
artist, she wasn’t intimidated to try to exhibit at the Salon whose jury
behaved gallantly towards her. She sent her own portrait in 1876, and
following that, other works, anecdotal and historic subjects of no
interest. (p. 5)
Then the Manet Uterature?for that is the only place Meurent exists at
all?proposes that she began to drink too much and descended into
prostitution. She died a degraded beggar, their story goes.
Were we to summarize Meurent’s life from this literature, we could
say that she is first and foremost a model from the streets of Paris who
came within a hair’s breath of being a prostitute; she was unpredictable emotionally and naive (at best) in her artistic ambitions.
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It is almost too easy to delineate the ways in which both Valadon’s
and Meurent’s lives, as told by male commentators, fit conventional
parameters of femininity. But most glaring of all is that the women are
so completely constructed as objects?of desire, of fantasy, and of con?
tempt. They are models, mothers, daughters, inviting bodies. Always
construed as Other, they are never represented as subjects. In psycho?
analytic terms they are castrated, they have neither agency nor
appetite. They are reactive and fooUsh. They are girls.
Figure 3. Edouard Manet. Dejeuner sur Therbe. 1863. Oil on canvas. Musee d’Orsay,
Feminist writers constructing the Uves of these women wrote dif?
ferent narratives. Male and female behavior is not clearly distin?
guished and named, and the possibiUties of desire, of appetite, are re-
articulated to include what women know and what they want. In?
formed by the feminist critique of the privileged position of the
Oedipal complex in traditional psychoanalysis, feminists writing
about art have come to question the “naturalness” and desirabiUty of,
for example, (Oedipal) competition. They have also deconstructed the
binary division of the sexes which is the alleged inevitable product of
the Oedipal and castration complexes. Many women writers and
theorists have increasingly turned their attention to the pre-Oedipal
period during which a nurturing body?even if only as longed-for
ideal?functions for boy and girl aUke. Focus on the pre-Oedipal brings
attention to human activity before gendering and before language and
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restrictions. In so doing, BayUs casts doubt on sociological and
psychoanalytic discourses concerned with both artists and female
Baylis positions herself as Valadon and creates a woman of
enormous appetite and rage. This is how Valadon (via Baylis) describes
a Gypsy woman she’s watching in the countryside:
Wash your thoughts, Roshani. She shifted about on the ground,
her legs lolUng in the grass, her skirts arranged so none of the peas
would roll away. The pods were biUous green and the occasional spot of
bUght, but inside the peas were brilUant and plump. She flicked them out
with her thumb, eating the fattest and rolUng them on the tip of her
tongue. . . .
She was thinking in a desultory way of a man, his fingers pressing into
her, stroking her cUt, and his tongue becoming hard and pointed as he
kissed her ear. . . . (p. 22)
This sexuality is Valadon’s own as told by Baylis; she is the subject
of her own desire. Indeed, Valadon by Baylis has many sexual part?
ners, because she wants to; she desires men?and women?and pursues
them. She also takes women as role models. When she was nine she fell
in love with Simone, the baker’s socialist daughter:
2There is a very exciting body of literature on this material. See Nancy Chodorow,
The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender,
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978; Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice:
Psychological Theory and Women’s Development, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univer?
sity Press, 1982; Jane Gallop, The Daughter’s Seduction: Feminism and Psycho?
analysis, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1982; Jessica Benjamin, The
Bonds ofLove: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination, New York:
Pantheon Books, 1988.
3I say ironic, because Utrillo, alas, is a better-known artist than his far more gifted
mother, Valadon.
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Simone was happy for the first time in her Ufe. T
spoke in whispers: they flocked to the cafes and hel
talk of nationaUzation, universal suffrage and t
property and power. . . . She looked very beautiful
waving ideas about in the chilly air. . . .
She was a lure into adulthood for me. . . . (pp. 63-
Baylis also creates a Valadon who is in an emb
relationship with her mother, Madeleine. Where
Valadon, Madeleine is portrayed as an alcoholic
her daughter, BayUs tries to capture what migh
tive contradictions in a relationship between an
brought up in an urban environment and her peasant mother
exhausted from the drudgery of a cleaningwoman’s life:
It was after nine at night when I got back, and Madeleine gave me a
look. She was holding a basin of water like in so many of the drawings I
have done of her (Figure 4), and she looked up with her face full of vacant
melancholy. (p. 122)
Figure 4. Suzanne Valadon. Grandmother Holding the Wash Basin for a Young Girl
1910. Black crayon on paper. Private collection.
. . . Madeleine . . . whatever else, made sure that I survived physically
[during the Commune] while many of the local children were being
slaughtered by the troops. (p. 69)
And the darker side:
I don’t want you to come to harm,” Madeleine mumbled. . . . She felt
tyrannical, but powerless; protective but horribly jealous. Her daughter
was a wildcat, a termagant, a shrew. She was furious that this daughter
possessed all the daring that had eluded her in the course of her own life.
(p. 115)
Madeleine, in Baylis’ construction not only drank a lot, she was a com?
pulsive eater, and Valadon is driven to predictable imitation:
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