Suzanne Valadon - "The Blue Chamber"

by KathleenDuffy

Suzanne Valadon was a Fench circus performer, artist's model, waitress and single mother who overcame her class background and her gender to become a respected artist.

Her painting, 'The Blue Chamber' is in the great tradition of 'odalisque' paintings - that is, a picture of a passive concubine reclining in a chamber, usually displaying her body for the viewer who is almost certainly male.

We can see at once that Suzanne's painting is a break with tradition, to put it mildly. This woman is definitely in a chamber, and she is definitely reclining - but that's about as far as it goes.

The Blue Chamber

The Blue Chamber by Suzanne Valadon

From:  Amazon.Fr

Suzanne as a young woman
Suzanne as a young woman

Suzanne was born in September 1865 in Bessines-sur-Gartempe, near Limoges. Her mother was an unmarried laundress. When mother and daughter moved to Paris Suzanne, aged fifteen, became a circus acrobat.

However, after injuring herself during her act she worked at a variety of low-paid jobs.   She eventually took up modelling for the many artists she met in the local bars and cafes of Montmartre.

Suzanne modelled for Lautrec's "The Hangover"
Suzanne modelled for Lautrec's "The H...

Suzanne was Renoir's model

Dance at Bougival, 1883

Whilst modelling, Suzanne began to take an interest in the processes of creating art.  She carefully absorbed the techniques which her modelling life exposed her to,  and began to produce her own works.

Roses in a Vase - Valadon

                                                                                                   She was encouraged by Degas who took her under his wing and gave her private lessons, Matisse influenced her love of colour and Renoir was also a source of inspiration and support.

Suzanne's paintings of female nudes were honest and realistic.   As a result her work was often brutally dismissed by the art critics of the day. It was felt that it was acceptable to be a model for the disaffected bourgeoise artists of the day. Indeed, only lower class women would do this kind of work.  But  it was a step too far for a working class woman to take up the brush herself and undermine the great artistic traditions.




Nude on Bed by Suzanne Valadon
Nude - Suzanne Valadon

A particularly fierce critic, Jean Vertex, said of Suzanne :

"The sensuality of this impetuous and implacable women is expressed to the
detriment of sensitivity. She detests women and takes her revenge for any charm
they may have by damning them with her brush, producing a likeness which is
neglected in idealising them as little as possible"

Woman with Cat - ValadonOf course Suzanne did not hate women.  But It was quite true - she did not want to idealise them in her work.  She knew only too well that most women did not idealise themselves - life was hard and women's  bodies got worn down by work and childbirth. At the same time, women were sensual beings with needs and desires worthy of artistic recognition.  

This was the reality for women, but  of course the idealisation of the female nude was a concept aimed at the male viewer. Suzanne was not aiming at the average male patron, so therefore her work was regarded as without value by conservative critics.

The Tradition of the Classic 'Odalisque'

Let's remind ourselves again of Suzanne Valadon's gloriously outrageous painting.

The Blue Chamber by Suzanne Valadon
The Blue Chamber by Suzanne Valadon

At face value, here's a woman lying on a bed, relaxing, smoking a cigarette, clothed, who has obviously just been reading a book.   So what's the problem?

Let's have a look at other paintings of women who belong to this genre - the classic 'odalisque'.  This was a common theme of the nineteenth century when tales of Arabian harems and exotic Eastern women provided plenty of scope for artists wishing to please their rich European male  patrons.


Here's an odalisque by Ingres. 


Odalisque by IngresShe's glancing round at her male visitor, her back is elongated into a graceful curve, her body is flawless, she holds a fan handle which hints at sexual pleasure.   This lady, despite the classic pose and smooth beauty, is a working girl and hundreds of works of art on a similar theme were produced for rich clients under the pretence of Orientalism with a classical bent.



The mould was broken by Manet in his painting, Olympia:


Olympia - ManetIn this painting Manet's odalisque is also displayed on a couch.  But she stares out at us (probably the male viewer)  with a frank gaze. There is nothing seductive in the way her splayed hand covers her genitals and her body is pale and unhealthy looking.  The maid has flowers from a client, in crumpled paper and the black cat on the right is angry and ready to spit. Needless to say, this painting caused an uproar at the time!



Later Picasso would push the boundaries even more in this work called Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.


Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by Picasso

You couldn't get further from the classical odalisque than this painting by Picasso of prostitutes in a brothel.  These images show women still as exotic, but they appear to be wearing primitive  masks and their demeanour is threatening, their bodies fractured. 

Again, this is another painting that  divided the critics, and even Picasso's closest friends.




The Blue Chamber by Suzanne Valadon
The Blue Chamber by Suzanne Valadon

This picture shows a woman in the classical interior - rich, lush drapery drawn back to reveal a woman in a classical odalesque pose.

But Valadon has completely subverted the meaning - this woman is her own person.  

This isn't an ambiguous sexual reference despite the Ingre-like pose and the revealing, curtained interior. Here is a working class woman stoically refusing to conform to the stereotypical male viewer's ideal of femininity. 

Instead of flowers laid to one side, the signal that a man or client has called or will be calling, Valadon's woman has been reading. Relaxing in her male drawstring pyjama bottoms and camisole vest she smokes a cigarette and is composed, enjoying a moment of quiet reverie.

At the time the Musee National D'Art Moderne in Paris described the picture thus in their Catalogue des Collections:

"...the vulgarity of this woman smoking, her get up, the familiar attitude of the thick, common body...".

Steady on chaps!

And unlike Manet's Olympia or Picasso's Demoiselles, The Blue Chamber is not concerned
with woman as a signal for moral debate.  This woman has ousted the seductress from her bed but has decided to keep the posh drapery.  She is chilling out, reading, thinking, being herself. 

When she was eighteen, Suzanne had a son, Maurice, She never revealed the father's name. That's her portrait of him, below, when he was older. He was a troubled soul, but under her guidance he too became an artist and, ironically, overshadowed his mother.

His name was Maurice Utrillo.

Eric Satie by Suzanne Valadon
Eric Satie by Suzanne Valadon
Maurice Utrillo by Suzanne Valadon
Maurice Utrillo by Suzanne Valadon

She was married twice, first to a rich banker.  This  enabled her to paint full time and support her mother and her son, Maurice.  Later she married a poet twenty years her junior.   Despite the latter being a passionate relationship, it did not last.

During her life she had numerous lovers, including the composer Erik Satie who wanted to marry her. (Her portrait of him is on the above right)

Her rejection of an invitation to join the Salon of Female Artists until the depression in 1933 has been interpreted as evidence of her hostility towards women. But there was a distinct suspicion on the part of working class women towards the French feminist movement who were still shackled to conventional bourgeoise ideals about femininity and regarded proletarian women as in urgent need of their moral assistance.   That wouildn't have gone down well with Suzanne!

Suzanne Valadon - Death and Legacy


Many of Valadon's critics imposed upon her the values and moral judgements of a class and gender to which she did not belong. The details of her personal life which caused such a furore amongst some of her biographers were, in the context of their time and place, hardly exceptional.

Suzanne Valadon was amongst those rare proletarian women who turned to art with great success.  Most impressively, she was a working class woman artist who, with the encouragement of her male artist friends,  broke through into the rarified hot-house atmosphere of the male-dominated, Parisian art scene.

In her work she portrayed women without idealisation.  It was the beauty of reality.  And age was no barrier to her honesty when portraying herself.

In a remarkable self-portrait (see below) executed at the age of seventy, she represented herself as a naked, bejewelled, defiant elderly lady without artifice or idealisation. 

Suzanne died on 7 April 1938 aged 72.   She is buried in the Saint-Ouen cemetery in Paris.  Many famous artists and friends were there to say goodbye to a free spirit, amongst them Picasso, Braque and Andre Derain. A fitting tribute indeed!

Self-Portrait at Seventy - Suzanne Valadon
Self-Portrait at Seventy - Suzanne Valadon

Suzanne Valadon Items

Updated: 07/13/2013, KathleenDuffy
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


Only logged-in users are allowed to comment. Login
Jo_Murphy on 12/28/2023

I enjoyed this post. Thank you, Jo

KathleenDuffy on 02/03/2014

Hello Kari - Thank you for your comment and I am so glad you have found Valadon interesting. I can see the similarities between the Phtoshopped debate!

Kari on 02/02/2014

This is a nice article. I had never heard of her before, but I really admire what I know of her now. I can't help but think this parallels the natural model versus the Photoshopped model current debate.

Mira on 01/31/2014

Good to hear! :)

KathleenDuffy on 01/30/2014

Hello again Mira! Thanks so much for the encouragement. I will try and do more! :)

Mira on 01/30/2014

Wow. What a nice read! I missed it at the time. Glad I saw it in the sidebar of your latest article on art. Keep them coming!:):)

KathleenDuffy on 04/12/2013

My pleasure Elias - so glad you enjoyed the article.

EliasZanetti on 04/12/2013

Never heard of her before but I really liked her paintings. Thanks for introducing her to us Kathleen :)

KathleenDuffy on 04/11/2013

Wow Katie -I do so agree! I love Suzanne! She had guts! And she lived life to the full - as well as being very talented. Thanks for your comment :)

katiem2 on 04/11/2013

I love art, Suzanne Valadon's work screams a real moment in time of real life, the art respects and portrays the human condition and form in it's purest form without the slightest edit or influence of anything other than what is actually before the artist. Talk about capturing real life in it's natural form. Great tribute to great art. Much Appreciated! :)K

You might also like

Claude Monet - A French Impressionist Paints the River Thames

Monet's paintings of the River Thames tried to capture the fleeting effects o...

Modernity in Edgar Degas : Women on the Terrace of a Cafe, Eve...

This work by Edgar Degas illustrates an aspect of the emerging dynamics of 'm...

Disclosure: This page generates income for authors based on affiliate relationships with our partners, including Amazon, Google and others.
Loading ...