Sue Hubbard on a rebel's art; Mistress of Montmartre: a life of Suzanne Valadon by June Rose Richard Cohen Books, pounds 25
If you had never heard her name, you would know her face. She is there with her dark auburn hair, in a bonnet and swirling dress, white gloves and a ball gown, in Renoir's 1883 dance paintings. She was muse to the elderly Puvis de Chavannes. She was painted by, and lover of, the eccentric Toulouse-Lautrec, friend of the great Degas, beloved of the composer Erik Satie and mother of the alcoholic painter of Parisian street scenes, Maurice Utrillo. She married a rich stockbroker, then tired of bourgeois life and left him for a painter half her age.

Not bad for the illegitimate daughter of an impoverished country seamstress who arrived in Paris in 1870. If Marie-Clementine Valadon had never done anything else, she would be remembered as the quintessential muse of fin- de-siecle art. But somehow, against all the odds, this spirited little girl transformed herself into the foremost female artist of the age: Suzanne Valadon.

In this compelling biography, June Rose brings to life the girl who described herself both as a "monkey" and as a "devil". We encounter her cheekily begging for broken scraps of charcoal from the coalman in order to practise drawing on the pavement, and one day encountering Renoir at his easel in the Rue Lepic. She candidly advised him to keep on painting and not to be discouraged.

Suzanne Valadon received her education on the streets of Montmartre. "I grew up among giants," she said, remembering the artists who met regularly at the Cafe Guerbois. Her harsh upbringing, the natural beauty that at 15 led her to become a model, her diligence and visual intelligence: this was the anvil on which her future was forged.

In art, as in life, she broke the rules. The female nude had for centuries been painted for the delectation of the male gaze. Valadon, because she had been a model, painted the nude from inside out. The eroticism came from deep within, powerful and self-absorbed. Her subjects were ordinary working girls. Among her best works were the edgy line drawings of her small, gawky son and ageing mother. When the reclusive Degas bought La Toilette, a drawing in red chalk of a girl getting out of the bath, she knew that she could take herself seriously as an artist. "That day I had wings."

But her work, although respected by fellow painters, never sold particularly well. Throughout much of her life, it was eclipsed by that of her half- crazed son Utrillo. For Suzanne Valadon painted and drew as she lived, with spirit, verve and integrity. She leaves not only the legend but a body of compassionate, muscular work that indeed justifies her title as "Mistress of Montmartre".

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