When Suzanne Valadon met Erik Satie

first encounters

Friday 20 October 1995 23:02 BST

Erik Satie was 21 and a Conservatoire dropout when he traded the bourgeois comfort of his parents' home for a ramshackle hole at the foot of Montmartre. It was late in 1887. He was just completing those hauntingly simple little Gymnopedies, and the new, unconventional tunes that crowded his mind demanded a more free-spirited existence.

It was at the Chat Noir, the cabaret where he took a job as second pianist, that he met Suzanne Valadon. Only a year older, but wise in the world's uncertainties, she had left school aged nine to work in a clothing sweatshop, had worked as a waitress, a pushcart vendor, and a groom in a livery stable, and had joined a circus. At 16, she became an artist's model. Beautiful, exuding a wild vitality, she was painted and loved in turn by Puvis de Chavannes and Renoir, either of whom she was wont to credit with the paternity of her son, Maurice (Utrillo). When she herself began to draw, Toulouse-Lautrec hung her works on his walls, and Degas, the Master, praised them.

On the night in question Valadon was at a corner table with her current lover when Satie joined them. Within minutes he was entranced; before the hour was out he had proposed. The lover seemed no impediment, but the time, 3am, proved a problem. "An impossible time to get to the mairie," Satie said later, adding regretfully, "After that it was always too late. She had too many things on her mind to get married."

The ensuing affair was like no other in Valadon's experience. They sailed toy boats in the Luxembourg Gardens. Satie brought her necklaces of sausages. All the while he was composing short atonal pieces such as Three Real Boneless Preludes for a Dog, which he performed in friends' studios with Valadon at his feet. She became domestic, mended his socks, cooked. Her first work in oils was a portrait of him. Then, abruptly, she left. On that day he wrote the first of many letters he would send her over 30 years, protesting a love that, unlike youth in Montmartre, was eternal

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