The Bohemian Female Artist Who Broke All the Rules
The artist Suzanne Valadon painted The Blue Room in 1923, when she was approaching 60 and moving towards the tail end of a remarkable life.
The portrait shows a voluptuous brunette nonchalantly stretched out among the embroidered setting of a daybed. The interior, painted in shades of ultramarine blue, verges on exuberant. Meanwhile, the model’s striped trousers and pink camisole top suggest something altogether more informal.
The Blue Room is a form of odalisque — a popular subject in art featuring an Ottoman chambermaid or concubine as the subject.
To my mind, Valadon’s The Blue Room is a direct riposte to Ingres’ famous La Grande Odalisque — with the luxuriant blue setting, the parted curtain in the background and the almost identical postures of the model, albeit reversed. Everything from the elbow propped up on a pillow to the way the models’ legs cross.
Yet instead of being unclothed and coquettish as tradition would have her, Valadon’s model overturns the convention. She boldly holds an unlit cigarette in her mouth and exudes confidence and ease. Notably, the jewellery and peacock fan in Ingres’ original have been replaced with a pile of books at the model’s feet.
An Extraordinary Life
Paintings like this show that Suzanne Valadon was an outstanding artistic talent, even if she is much less well-known than many of her contemporaries from the Post-Impressionist era.
Still, in late 19th-century Paris, she established herself as an artist of unique capability. She was also considered by some to be a scandalous bohemian who made improper paintings.
Born in 1865, Marie-Clémentine Valadon grew up in the artistic district of Montmartre. Her mother was unmarried and she never knew her father. During her adolescence, the young Valadon took on a series of odd jobs, including waitressing, nannying and selling vegetables. At the age of 15, she became a trapeze artist in a…