Born Marie-Clémentine Valadon at Bessines-sur-Gartempe, Haute-Vienne, France, the daughter of an unmarried laundress, Suzanne Valadon became a circus acrobat at the age of fifteen, but a year later, a fall from a trapeze ended that career.
In the Montmartre quarter of Paris, she pursued her interest in art, first working as an artist's model before becoming a noted painter. She worked as a model for artists while she was observing and learning their techniques.
She modeled for artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (who gave her painting lessons), Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes, and is known to have had an affair with the latter two. She befriended Edgar Degas who, impressed with her bold line drawings and fine paintings, purchased her work and encouraged her efforts.
The most recognizable image of Valadon would be in Renoir's Pierre-Auguste Renoir 146.jpg from 1883, the same year that she posed for Renoir-dance-in-the-city.jpg. In 1885 Renoir painted her portrait again as Pierre-Auguste Renoir - Girl Braiding Her Hair (Suzanne Valadon).jpg. Another of his portraits of her in 1885, RenoirSVprofile.jpg, is of her head and shoulders in profile. Valadon frequented the bars and taverns of Paris along with her fellow painters, and in 1889 Toulouse-Lautrec painted her as the subject of Portrait de Suzanne Valadon par Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.jpg.
She gave birth to a son in 1883 and, never divulging the identity of his father, named him Maurice Valadon. Her son later adopted the paternal family name of a close friend of his mother, Miguel Utrillo y Morlius, who owned the Auberge du Clou. The Auberge du Clou was a tavern frequented by the residents, shop owners, workers, and artists of Montmartre. The tavern had a shadow theatre in its basement and Miguel also created the scenery, ombres, and stage settings for the productions. After being taught to paint and mentored by his mother, as Maurice Utrillo, he became one of Montmartre's best-known artists.
Her first exhibitions, held in the early 1890s, consisted mostly of portraits; among them, and shown below, was one of the composer, Erik Satie, with whom she had a six-month affair in 1893. A smitten Satie proposed marriage after their first night together. For Satie, the intimacy of his relationship with Valadon would be the only one of its kind in his life, leaving him at its end, he said, with "nothing but an icy loneliness that fills the head with emptiness and the heart with sadness."
A free spirit, she would wear a corsage of carrots, kept a goat at her studio to "eat up her bad drawings", and fed caviar (rather than meat) to her "good Catholic" cats on Fridays. A perfectionist, Valadon worked on some of her oil paintings for up to thirteen years, before showing them. She also worked in pastel. Despite her financial success and the recognition gained for her artistic achievements, her fame was eclipsed by that of her son.
Her marriage to stockbroker Paul Mousis in 1896 ended when, in 1909, Valadon left Mousis for a painter half her age, André Utter. She married Utter in 1914, but the marriage did not last either.
Suzanne Valadon died on 7 April 1938 and was interred in the Cimetière de Saint-Ouen in Paris. Among those in attendance at her funeral were her friends and colleagues, Andre Derain, Pablo Picasso, and Georges Braque.
A novel based on her life by Elaine Todd Koren was published in 2001, entitled Suzanne: of Love and Art.