“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, is how Leo Tolstoy starts his 1878 novel Anna Karenina about a married Russian countess who is shunned by society after she falls in love with another man. In his masterpiece, Tolstoy poignantly shows the hypocrisy and discrepancy between how unfaithful men and women are treated, the latter being punished, while the former suffer no consequences.
Five years after Anna Karenina was published, in another corner of the world, Suzanne Valadon – a beautiful, French, young woman of 18 – was giving birth to a son whose paternity would be the subject of intrigue and gossip for decades to come. You see, as a muse and model to the Impressionists, Valadon had developed quite an infamous reputation. The uncertain paternity of her son – Maurice Utrillo – didn’t help either.
A playful, but stinging anecdote, allegedly told by Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, captures the intrigue of those times:
“After Maurice was born to Suzanne Valadon, she went to Renoir, for whom she had modeled nine months previously. Renoir looked at the baby and said, ‘He can’t be mine, the color is terrible!’ Next she went to Degas, for whom she had also modeled. He said, ‘He can’t be mine, the form is terrible!’ At a cafe, Valadon saw an artist she knew named Miguel Utrillo, to whom she spilled her woes. The man told her to call the baby Utrillo: ‘I would be glad to put my name to the work of either Renoir or Degas!’”
And speaking of Renoir, you might recognize Valadon as the model for Dance at Bougival.
Valadon, who had always shown an interest in art, must have been inspired by her experience as a model in Montmartre. Far from being a passive subject, with her curiosity and passion the Frenchwoman obtained her education by observing the great artists at work. Soon enough, she started producing her own drawings and paintings, with an emphasis on self-portraits and the female form. It was a refreshing departure from the idealized nudes of those times – she, of all people, could see the model differently, having been one for so long. Gradually, Valadon became a peer to the artists for whom she used to pose, earning their admiration.
However, as her career was gaining momentum, her domestic life was on shaky ground. For starters, her son, Maurice Utrillo, at the age of 21, became consumed with alcoholism and mental illness. At the same time, the artist’s marriage to stockbroker Paul Moussis was falling apart, due to her longtime affair with Utrillo’s friend, André Utter. It’s worth noting that Valadon taught Utrillo how to paint, for which he showed a natural inclination. Eventually he would become more famous than she was.
The odd dynamics of Valadon’s domestic life are on full display in her oil painting Family Portrait, proving Tolstoy’s remarks that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. From left to right, we have: André Utter – her soon-to-be husband, 21 years her junior, the artist herself, Maurice Utrillo – her son, and Magdeleine Valadon – the artist’s mother, who had been responsible for Utrillo’s upbringing.
In this collective portrait, Suzanne Valadon is the only one directly facing the viewer, but she does so tentatively, with her hand on her chest. You can almost hear her say: “Moi? I am innocent, Monsieur”. Utter and Madame Valadon are gazing to their right, each foreseeing a different future: the young man looks confident and rather content, while the woman – all wrinkled and slightly hunchbacked, with the corners of her mouth turned downwards – appears resigned. Maurice Utrillo’s depiction earns the most sympathy, for he seems to be the most miserable and out of place, gazing melancholically with his head leaning on his hand, as if he simply cannot muster the energy to stand or sit upright; life has burdened him. In a sense, the painting is a reminder that we cannot choose our families, but sometimes that is all we have.