Two Women who Scandalised the Art World – Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938) and the Marchesa Luisa Casati (1881-1957)


Born into poverty, Suzanne Valadon began modelling in Montmartre aged 15. She was a successful model, greatly in demand, and we see her in  many important works such as Toulouse-Lautrec’s ‘Hangover’, Renoir’s ‘Dance at Bougival’ and Puvis de Chavannes’ ‘Sacred Grove’. She also posed for Degas who saw her talent as an artist, encouraged her to paint and bought her works.

She was the mother of Maurice Utrillo whose alcoholism caused her many problems, but the identity of Maurice’s father has never been established. Her first marriage to a successful stock broker brought her stability but also a sense of imprisonment in the suburbs of Paris, so she left her husband, returned to Montmartre and took up with a minor painter Andre Utter who was 20 years her junior. Their stormy marriage was well known and as Philippe Jullian has written ‘No one has ever washed their dirty linen in public so spectacularly’.

Suzanne quickly established a reputation for her striking and unusual nudes as well as her figure paintings and was exhibited by the leading Parisian dealers. There is a uncompromising modernity about her work which makes them appear very contemporary. Suzanne was a highly individual painter who never subscribed to fashionable schools of painting. In her later years she became a friend of the French Prime Minister Edouard Heriot – a true rags to riches story !

Marchesa Luisa Casati was born into a fabulously wealthy Italian family whose money came from textiles. She married an aristocrat whose passion for fox hunting Luisa found extremely boring so decided to turn herself into a work of art. This she achieved by spending her enormous inheritance on parties, clothes, works of art and expensive properties.

In 1910 Luisa rented the Palazzo Venier in Venice, now the Guggenheim Museum, and began to throw lavish parties. She filled the palace and gardens with exotic animals and birds, and would venture out in her private gondola accompanied by her cheetahs or panthers. She staged fancy dress balls based on historic characters such as Sarah Bernhardt or the Venetian painter Pietro Longhi. She invited Diaghilev and Nijinsky to the palace and Leon Bakst was soon designing costumes for her. She was painted by Giovanni Boldini and adored by Gabriele d’Annunzio and became a heroine of the Italian Futurists who dedicated paintings and a manifesto to her. Guests to her villa in Rome included Picasso and Isadora Duncan.

In 1918 she moved to Paris where she bought and renovated the Palais Rose near Versailles. She met Augustus John who painted her three times and with whom she had a passionate affair. She was also painted by the brilliant Dutch artist Kees van Dongen and the American artist Romaine Brookes with whom she had a lesbian affair.

She commissioned a young photographer newly arrived from America called Man Ray to photograph her at the Hotel du Rhin in the Place Vendome. His floodlights fused the hotel lights, but Luisa insisted that he continue in the gloom. The resulting photographs were hailed as Surrealist masterpieces and made Man Ray’s name! Extravagant parties at Le Palais Rose and the stock market crash of 1929 dented her fortune and she was finally forced to move to London where the composer Lord Berners helped her financially. She died penniless in a Kensington flat in 1957.

Always a striking dresser, ‘the divine Marchesa’ was a fashion icon in her day and has remained so since her death. She has been the subject of fashion collections by John Galliano, Karl Lagerfeld, and Georgina Chapman who calls her range ‘Marchesa’ in her honour. She was honoured with a retrospective at the Fortuny Museum in Venice in 2014-15.