Renoir's Dancer: The Secret Life of Suzanne Valadon by Catherine Hewitt

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Renoir's Dancer: The Secret Life of Suzanne Valadon by Catherine Hewitt

Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Hard to pick up, then hard to put down, this socially aware biography of an artist will appeal to many.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 480 Date: November 2017
Publisher: Icon Books Ltd
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781785782732

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Deep in the rural parts of France in the 1860s, you would never really expect to find someone who would come to embody a full artistic period – and not just a movement at that, but a full generation of both creative and societal change. And if you were to expect that someone, they would like as not be male. But almost stumbling into the hedonistic culture of Montmartre came Marie-Clementine Valadon. She started in the circus that first caught her teenaged eye, although her gymnastic career was short-lived. But what she did have from that was the poise to be an appealing model for some seriously important painters, and a natural beauty and figure to appeal to both them and their audiences. And what she also had, much to the surprise of many and the distaste of some, was artistic talent of her own…

None of this story was known to me – but boy, is it known to me now. And that, if anything, is the issue with the book, for it certainly might not fully sit with the man on the stereotypical omnibus I declare myself to be. It's a book that stamps its intentions right on the contents page, to be the definitive version of this story to gazump anyone else planning to create a study along these lines for years to come. The selected bibliography is almost twenty pages, the notes and references are on fifty. Such effort is taken to let us know the woman's origins, both as regards her family tree and the society that begat her, that nothing about art is mentioned until page sixty.

But that is to deny the import this story has. It begins with a cagey prologue referring to the rural village as hardly having running water, and the changes in society are flagged up most highly throughout. The place of a woman in society is utterly transformed within this timeline, the Paris Metro is begun, the Eiffel Tower pierces the sky as the tallest metal structure in the world at the time, cabaret is replaced by Chinese shadow puppetry is replaced by cinema, and so much more. In front of such minutiae, the tale of this one woman is quite riveting as regards what she goes through, what everyone around her thinks – and of course who all those people around her actually are. Van Gogh, Degas, Renoir the assumed lover, Erik Satie the besotted lover, and even her own son deserve more than fifteen minutes of fame.

I didn't mind that name-dropping approach to things, for it's all part and parcel of the story, and to repeat once you're OK with the almost forensic detail you will find this a compelling tale. You get multiple cliff-hanger moments as well, adding impact and poise to the narrative, although some are a little heavy-handed in foreshadowing things. She certainly lived an interesting life, in interesting times, and while I'm not always keen to get on board with a book of this length about a subject I'm mostly ignorant of, here it was fully justified. You get a very clear picture (pun not intended, for once) at the hands of this author, and throughout the story the woman's multiple changes in name, persona and status are just fragments of the multifarious things you can take on board. Certainly, to close, I think that if you are in the market for hefty books where biography and the history of art collide, you will find little to disappoint you here.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

The Vanishing Man - In Search of Velazquez by Laura Cumming is similarly an art biography and so much more besides.

Buy Renoir's Dancer: The Secret Life of Suzanne Valadon by Catherine Hewitt at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Renoir's Dancer: The Secret Life of Suzanne Valadon by Catherine Hewitt at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Renoir's Dancer: The Secret Life of Suzanne Valadon by Catherine Hewitt at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Renoir's Dancer: The Secret Life of Suzanne Valadon by Catherine Hewitt at Amazon.com.


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