Erik Satie
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Suzanne Valadon

The painter and model Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938) had from January to June 1893 an intense affair with Erik Satie which is known to be Satie's only love affair. This page will tell you more about the artist and the way she may have looked at the composer during their affair.

All information on this page is taken from chapter 11 of Thérèse Diamand Rosinsky's book Suzanne Valadon, 1994, © Universe Publishing, New York.


V aladon believed that "painting was the most difficult [medium] in which to reach greatness." (15) She worked for thirteen years on her oils before she showed them. The wait was worthwhile when one sees her early Portrait of Eric Satie. The musician, who was to be called "The Father of Modern Music", met Suzanne Valadon at the Auberge du Clou, a boisterous and inexpensive nightclub, where he played the piano. An eccentric and penniless bohemian, Satie affected a top hat, a flowing lavaliere, and wore a pince-nez. His room in 6 rue Cortot was next door to Valadon's, with whom he had a six-month liaison. (16) The affair began on January 14, 1893, and Satie proposed marriage that same night. He immediately became obsessed with the artist, whom he called his "Biqui", writing impassioned notes about "her whole being, lovely eyes, gentle hands, and tiny feet." (17) Valadon did Satie's portrait and gave it to him, while the musician did hers, which he kept. The two works hung together and were found after Satie's death in his room at Arceuil.

The fickle Valadon soon ended the romance with Satie, leaving him with "nothing but an icy loneliness that fills the head with emptiness and the heart with sadness". (18)

The Portrait of Eric Satie is a small work with a height double that of its length, but it achieves a monumentality far beyond its actual size. The oil's unusual dimensions accentuate the sitter's elongated appearance. An abrupt cropping seems to amputate his arms, while his tall hat emphasizes the verticality of the image. The canvas is divided into two squares: the lower one shows Satie's black-clothed bust, and the upper part forms the background, painted in a striated blue-green that sets off the face and dark hat. The head constitutes the focus of the work and is conventionally placed in the center of the composition it seems to stand upon a light oval pedestal, which is actually the white shirt collar. There are no clues to Satie's character other than those rend in the facial details. A decisive and stubbornly fixed glance, sensual red lips, unconventional waxed mustache and the pince-nez project a personality conscious of and unafraid of its own originality. Satie was twenty-six when the portrait was done, and his lively complexion and taut features stress the youthfulness of the face to such an extent that the skimpy beard appears fake.

The linearity of the image, where every contour is imprisoned in black outlines, is contrasted with the treatment of the visage. Valadon has modeled the features solely with layered patches of color, a Cezannesque technique that she continued to use throughout her career. (19)

The portrait of Satie possesses a monumentality and physicality found in the works of such renowned portraitists as Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. By filling three-quarters of the canvas's surface with Satie's image, Valadon gives him an overwhelming presence. The musician seems to advance toward the spectator, an illusion created by the receding quality of the pale background. The life radiating from the painting takes its source from the vibrancy of the colors. Large areas of velvety black sparkle with elusive blue-green accents, and Satie's red cheekbones set off his startlingly blue eyes, outlined by the pinee-nez rims. Although the portrait was done at the beginning of Valadon's idyll with Satie, passion did not abate her impartiality. Her assessment of her lover reveals a methodical frankness close to brutality. If she has rendered his powerful yet sensitive presence, she has not hidden an aloofness and judgmental quality that sets him apart. He stands alone, towering over the viewer, his strength as well as his weakness captured by Valadon's impartial brush.

Although stamped with Valadon's personality, the Portrait of Eric Satie points to several interacting influences - the strength and overwhelming presence of the image evoke the immediacy and sobriety seen in many of Toulouse-Lautrec's posters, his Aristide Bruand (20) in particular. Valadon's choice of few but indicative traits gives to the representation a caricatural economy that brings it close to the tradition of the Montmartre satirists.

Valadon seems to have lost her taste for portraiture during the two decades following the Portrait of Eric Satie. Not until 1910 did she resume her former interest and pursue it with a new and challenging style.


15. Suzanne Valadon ou l'absolu.

16. The affair between Valadon and Satie is fully discussed in Rollo H. Myer, Eric Satie, London, 1948.

17. Quoted from Satie's letter, March 11, 1893, Archives of the Musée National d'Art Moderne, CNAC Georges Pompidou, Paris, Vol C.2, 122-128.

18. Ibid.

19. This will be discussed later in this chapter.

20. Aristide Bruand at the Ambassadeurs, 1892, Musée Toulouse-Lautrec, Albi, France. Bruand is shown wearing a black hat and large red scarf.