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  • Renoir's Dancer: The Secret Life of Suzanne Valadon by Catherine Hewitt
  • Michael Tilby
Renoir's Dancer: The Secret Life of Suzanne Valadon. By Catherine Hewitt. London: Icon Books, 2017. viii + 470 pp., ill.

The story of the illegitimate Marie-Clémentine Valadon's impoverished childhood, first in rural Limousin and then in Montmartre (where she was educated by the nuns of Saint Vincent-de-Paul), prior to becoming, as Maria, the model of Puvis de Chavannes and Renoir, and later, as Suzanne, an acclaimed artist herself, has been recounted before. Her eschewal of monogamy and her own illegitimate child, the future Maurice Utrillo, ensure its retention of an aura of scandal. Her lovers included Erik Satie and, seemingly, Toulouse-Lautrec. After being divorced by her stockbroker husband, she took as his definitive replacement her son's younger contemporary and closest friend, André Utter. Catherine Hewitt's avowed aim is to 'bring Suzanne's story to life' (p. 391), which her racy narrative and conversational style succeed in doing. Her enthusiasm for her subject is infectious and she evinces appreciation not only of Valadon's achievements, but also of her stoicism in adversity, as represented most notably by Maurice's alcoholism and mental instability. Hewitt has not unearthed much that is new about the lives of Valadon, Utter, and Utrillo, the freshness of her conscientiously researched account owing more to emphasis and balance, although she puts to good use her familiarity with her subject's birthplace. Tangible too are the commercial transactions into which Suzanne and Maurice were bounced by unscrupulous dealers. The author may be forgiven for not solving the mystery of Maurice's paternity (Miguel Utrillo may have done no more than lend his name), or indeed Suzanne's. Accounts of Valadon the artist are, likewise, inevitably hampered by the absence of writings containing her views on painting, which is regrettable [End Page 616] given the Swiss-born painter Robert Naly's recollection of her talking through the night about earlier artists, analysing, for example, Titian and (ahead of Sartre) Tintoretto with 'extraordinary intensity and lucidity' (cited p. 363). The (publisher's?) choice of title is, nonetheless, at odds with the author's rightful insistence on Valadon the painter. (Renoir's canvas, reproduced on the dust jacket, is principally an animation of male desire. The 'real' Valadon is to be found in her early self-portrait or in Toulouse-Lautrec's magnificent Gueule de bois / La Buveuse (1887-89).) The subtitle promises both too much and too little. Hewitt unfortunately omits from her transcription of the plaque commemorating Valadon in her native Bessines-sur-Gartempe a key epithet: it indeed describes her as 'la grande artiste peintre', but also as 'mère du célèbre peintre Maurice Utrillo'. With reference to Napoleon III, Hewitt conflates 2 December 1851 and 2 December 1852. Her grossly inflated 'Selected Bibliography' is the product of questionable criteria. Irritatingly, her publisher has sanctioned its unorthodox position before the endnotes. The index, which is both perfunctory and eccentric, condemns its user to much frustrating page-turning. It includes an entry for 'contraception' in preference to, for example, 'Paul Valéry' (p. 153). While likewise laying no claim to being an academic study, June Rose's more measured biography (Mistress of Montmartre: A Life of Suzanne Valadon (London: Richard Cohen Books, 1998)), augmented by the important exhibition catalogues duly listed by Hewitt, is likely to remain the academic reader's base narrative of choice.

Michael Tilby
Selwyn College, Cambridge


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pp. 616-617
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