A Note

My name is Suzanne Valadon and I was born in 1865, the illegitimate daughter of an alcoholic charwoman, a servant, who ran off with me in shame to Paris where she stumbled into the Montrmartre and where I grew up in the streets. I lived, sometimes rashly, sometimes foolishly but most of the time passionately; and I always felt myself to be unique.

I regret not having achieved even more. Perhaps because I was a woman artist, I was automatically set apart from the others. Women's names in art were few fopr they were designated by society to marry, have babies and generally be an appendage to their husbands. I fought for what I wanted and cracked the prevailing code for women. I lived and painted the way I desired and was accepted by Degas as "one of us" because Degas had considered me an exclusive property of the Montmartre, nurturing on it, and dying in it. I took lovers with the easy carelessness of a man, freely and completely without the usual games that women play.

I believed that a woman who was a man's equal and gave herself to him because of what she felt, was more desirable to him than one who submitted in obedience. I couldn't accept artifice, only truth and I infused this into my paintings. But the only great mistake I made was to die and end my work and bestow my son Maurice Utrillo's genius on that woman, his genius I alone cultivated. That was my most foolish act.





December 25, 1883

Paris, France


     She was conceived and delivered in disgrace. Only a bastard after all, an artist’s model, Marie Clémentine in her mother’s eyes is no better than a common whore.  Panting by the bed in her labor, she accumulates a torrent of her mother’s curses. She will suffer through the pain and be done with it and empty her belly of this uninvited infant. Who is this stranger who rents one’s flesh so that one can scarcely breathe from the pain, a pain which cascades in waves and then recedes like obedient tides. For a few moments of pleasure? Insane! And to have the man go free and now be eternally tormented with the idiocies of childhood. She is only eighteen and her life has barely begun. 

     Maman Madeleine’s husky voice accuses, "You run around the room like a crazy person. What a way to have a child . . . get into bed like a normal woman." 


     "Of course you are fou. How could I expect anything else?" 

     Her own mother, a miserable drunk, her own mother who wails spraying the air with a cheap blend of brandy and venom.

     The midwife, old Colette, comes hobbling in and places a huge kettle of boiling water atop a black coal stove. She deposits stained blankets on the bureau and then rubs her elbows covered with scabs from the strong lye of washtubs. A stale odor of heavy laundry soap oozes from her body. She examines Marie closely for a moment, and then falls into a monotonous chant as she fingers a rosary; sinking into an old rocker whose stuffing peeks out from a coarse blue linen covering. Another pain steals the young woman’s breath and sprawls her down onto the iron bed. The midwife’s seasoned gnarled fingers pat and knead her huge swollen abdomen as though to estimate the size of the baby. Her eyes scan Colette’s stock of frayed towels scrubbed countless times, torn sheaths of muslin stained by the blood and excrement of past endeavors. Somehow the old woman’s rosary beads calm her; between pains she traces the outlines of faded stains designing a white laundered apron.

     Hoarse urgent sounds crackle from the midwife’s throat. She wrenches Madeleine from her sleep and pushes her to fetch some warm towels. Madeleine, half dozing, staggers back to the bed, dumps an armload onto a peeling cabinet and looks down at her daughter. "To have a baby without a father like some putain," she croaks. She sways, and shakes her fist at unseen enemies. She lifts her skirt and pulls out a small bottle of brandy from a pocket sewn in her petticoat, frantically slurping its contents. She crosses herself, and sinks into a straw rocker, wipes her mouth with her sleeve and spews out oaths. Her eyes hold ancient pools of frustration.

     The pains increase in severity until they are five minutes apart. Merde, so this is what it’s all about, the young woman thinks. The midwife folds her legs back and has her grip the tarnished brass rungs of the headboard behind her. Old Colette calls out to bear down with each pain and the young woman moans.

     "Mon Dieu, it must be fifteen hours," mutters Madeleine through a drunken haze.

     "Have patience," says the midwife. "A first child . . . "

     "My daughter is a whore," Madeleine croaks through the brandy.

     "Shut up you drunken fool."

     A dull snapping sound fills the room as the water breaks. The towels are flooded cradling Marie’s buttocks. Madeleine sits immobilized as a dark head comes into view and then slurps frantically from the bottle. The yellow liquid sloshes down her chin in golden rivulets. Suddenly all is silent.

     "Something is wrong," Colette whispers hoarsely. The contractions suddenly stop. It is now late in the morning of December 26. Christmas Day has passed and the snow comes down in thick curtains outside the window. A deathly stillness is interrupted from time to time by a low moan and a slow trickle of blood drips through the towels, pooling and soaking through the muslin sheet. The blood comes thicker and seeps through the mattress to the wooden floor.

     Colette in alarm crosses herself. She throws on an old hooded cape and plunges into the stormy night to fetch the doctor.  Marie sees the doctor through flashes of consciousness, and hears muffled whispers when suddenly there is one gigantic bearing down as though her life were passing between her legs. Somewhere in the distance she hears herself shriek. A baby cries lustily, and a marvelous warmth is being placed atop her belly. Is that the baby? What day is it? Had Christmas come and gone? It seems an eternity has passed. And as though to answer her question, comes the midwife’s voice.

     "You don’t have to worry. This little one was not born on Christmas day after all." 

     "Much difference it makes," Madeleine drones wearily.  The baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, squeals in the small basket.  Madeleine, drunk from brandy, slumps in folds in the rocker. The gasoliers begin to hiss softly, throwing cobalt blue shadows on the wall merging softly with an inky darkness.  Hours pass since the delivery. The doctor looks at the semiconscious figure, visibly shivers and shovels some coal into the large stove heating the room. He paces back and forth before the bed, examines her, and then examines her again.

     "The hemorrhaging is subsiding," he mutters as he bends over Marie, slaps her cheeks and put spirits to her nostrils.  Madeleine stares at the figure on the stained sheets and scratches her sides. A trickle of amber liquid seeps from a corner of her mouth. She lifts herself out of the chair and bends over her daughter.

     "Marie," she says this time very softly. "You have a son." 

     The young woman opens her eyes and looks toward the basket. The infant is sleeping contentedly.

     "He’s a quiet baby, Maman," Marie says wearily. "I think I’ll call him Maurice . . . yes, I’ll call him Maurice. I like that, Maurice . . . in honor of nobody . . . nobody at all." She falls into a deep sleep.  Several days later Madeleine goes to the mairie and registers the birth.

Maurice Valadon, born December 26, 1883, at 1:00 P.M. in the afternoon to Marie-Clémentine Valadon. Father, unknown