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July 21, 2009

Suzanne Valadon's Blue Room - Part 2

Girl Braiding her hair, 1885
(model: Suzanne Valadon - 1865-1938)
Artist: Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)
Source: Wikipedia

Suzanne Valadon lived near and worked as a model for several of the most famous artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in the Montmartre section of Paris. She learned from Degas and others she modeled for to draw and paint and make etchings. She became a well-known artist, partly due to her talent and style, but partly, I would say, due to being a very attractive, colorful, and ambitious person in the right place at the right time. Because of her good looks that made her a popular model, she was acquainted with many talented artists (including Degas, Renoir, Derain, Puvis de Chavannes, Toulouse-Lautrec, Steinlen, Modigliani, and Picasso), many of whom who were charmed by her (and thought her talented and encouraged her).

She was also a friend of Erik Satie, the composer.

Valadon was brought up by a single mother, and she herself was a single mother (her son was artist Maurice Utrillo). She supported herself from the age of eleven at a variety of jobs (including as a trapeze artist in Montmartre until she fell -- It was after that fall that she became a model).

To be honest, I don't much care for most of Valadon's paintings and drawings that I've seen (many are, in fact, very awkward-looking), but I was struck by The Blue Room. (This is not to say that I think this is a great picture, but just that it made a strong impression on me.)

(Above) The Blue Room - 1923
Artist: Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938)
Source: Wikipedia

Last month I wrote a post comparing this picture with paintings done by men over the centuries of a woman in a very similar pose. In this post I want to write more just about Valadon's The Blue Room.

As I said, the picture made a strong impression on me (in ways it was very appealing and in ways it was confusing to me and in other ways didn't seem quite right and was even irritating, e.g., the pointy part of that pillow!). I wanted to try to figure out why I had these reactions, or in other words I wanted to dissect the picture to find out what it was about it that I liked and what it was about it that made it seem to me annoying and distasteful - and why.

I began by asking two people who are not artists, but who are "aesthetically sensitive" for their ideas about the picture. They did not know who the artist was, not even that it was a woman. I did not tell them any of my own thoughts about the picture, either. I thought that if I told them nothing about it they might intuitively, without any preconceived ideas, see things in the picture that I wasn't consciously aware of (as well as things that I was aware of). Their responses are at the end of this post.

(Click on pictures to see in larger size.)


I myself, still, have not read anyone else's thoughts on this picture, besides the two people I asked, mentioned just above (though I have read some - not many - people's opinions of Valadon as an artist - none said she was a bad artist, and one or two even said she was among the "great" female artists), so I don't know if my ideas are similar to others' or if they're not. I've had a lot of thoughts about this picture (and wrote them down) after looking at it many times, and have also considered what the "non-artists" had to say about it ... and I'm still thinking about the picture and referring to it as I type this.

First Impressions

The first thing that hit me when I first saw this picture was the apparent just-let-me-do-my-thing-and-the-heck-with-what-anybody-thinks attitude of the woman, and, secondarily, the strong (and, I thought, very pretty) blues in the foreground, accented by the orangey "blob" (I haven't figured out what that is) in the background as well as by the yellow-orangey shape that is made up of the woman's torso, arms, and face.

The Woman

I thought the woman looked interesting when I first saw her - a unique character rather than just a female body of the "sexy" type that I would expect to see in such a setting.

She looks solid and compact, snugly packed together as if to fit inside a can like a cooked chicken (her right leg is lying on her left leg, her right arm is lying on her right hip and thigh, the left arm is also close to her body -- only the left hand is free but it is close to the body and is relaxed, not reaching out). Her compactness and solidity (possibly the black outlines contribute to the "solid" look) helps make her seem firmly planted on that saggy bed.

Contrasting with the solid, entrenched look that the body transmits is the "swirling" effect all around the woman (folds, bulges, textures, colors, etc.) -- It almost looks as if she's on a small anchored boat in a sea of flotsam. The contrast makes her look all the more stable and "in charge."

She seems to have as much energy within her as the swirling objects all around her, but her energy seems to come from within her, governed by her thoughts (I see her energy "coming out of her eyes," in her steady, inquisitive gaze), while her surroundings look as though they're being churned up in a stormy sea.

The lower half of the woman's body is horizontal but the top part is close to vertical, and she seems very alert. Her strong gaze toward the other side of the room reinforces the idea of alertness. Because of her posture, she appears to be "rising" actively rather than "sinking" lazily into the bed. She looks like someone who's thinking about something and impatiently waiting for something to happen, possibly for a friend to arrive so they can get to work on something or go somewhere (to buy something she needs right now). In other words, she's ready to pop right up and out of there.

She's on a bed, but she's not there to sleep. Not only does she look like she's not tired, but the bed, while very soft-looking, does not look like a restful place, with all the excitement of the colors, textures, etc. Even the woman's striped pajama bottoms, curving with the curves of her body, contribute to the "lively" look. Also it's quite a claustrophobic-looking place she's in. It looks comfortable there, but not restful.

She looks as though she might be on that bed just to get her feet up while she's taking a cigarette break (maybe there's something running around on the floor that she doesn't want to step on with bare feet).

The Books

The books caught my interest because of their colors (red and yellow) contrasting with the mass of blue, and their rectangular shapes -- very little in that picture is not rounded so they are quickly seen -- and they're also noticeable because of the odd idea of having books in such an "unbookish" scene. But they are kept in the background by their colors and values, the top, yellow one, blending in with the yellow-orangey background, and the bottom dark red one blending in with the dark, closely-related-blue "spread" that it's set against; and both of the colors (the red and the yellow) are the same as colors in the background and seem almost a part of that area. Also, the fact that they're small objects among the large complex of textures and lights and darks in the picture keeps them from calling too much attention to themselves. Indeed, because of all of the "camouflaging" done on behalf of the books, they appear discarded and irrelevant (and therefore, except for their obvious purpose of balancing the weight of the woman, "wrong" for the picture). Here I've identified one of the things that irritated me about the picture...the books...it would be better to have an open candy box or even a cat there . . . those books just don't belong. They are an unnecessary, and unsuccessful, attempt at making the woman seem like she has a mind of her own ... but instead they look irrelevant.)

Without the books, though, (or something else in their stead) the picture would be too heavily weighted on the right side. They help balance the picture. Valadon was apparently very aware of the need to balance things.

The Feet

The feet, also, are "camouflaged," by their darkness (compare with her skin on other parts of her body) -- if they weren't darkened, especially her right foot which is right near the edge of the painting, they would attract too much attention to the edge of the picture, and to themselves.

The Pillow

The pillow is quite jarring to me. It presents a very odd, eye-catching shape that makes it far more important than it should be, in my opinion. I can see how it helps give weight to the woman's body (being so close to her body and repeating the shape of her back, shoulder, and arm, and being similar in value to her body tones, it seems almost to be part of her) so that the body seems more balanced (the pillow, when seen as an extension of her body, helps hold her down so that she doesn't seem about to float up and away). But although the tones painted on the pillow give the surface a look of softness, it is shaped like an arrowhead...an arrowhead that points to nothing important and that seems glaringly "wrong."

There is a light shape in the orangey background that is very similar to the shape of the pillow, but reversed and upside-down. That shape helps balance the awkward-looking pillow, though in a way it also emphasizes it. I personally just do not like the way that pillow points down at the right side of the picture. It does a good job of balancing but it draws too much attention to itself. I would be tempted to try a pattern on it, or do something else to de-emphasize its shape and lessen its contrast with the dark blue background.

The pillow not only combines with the shape of the woman, but these two shapes, together, combine with the lighter area of the background just mentioned that has the upside-down pillow shape. To me this agglomeration of shapes, when seen all together, looks like a bird facing toward the right, the pointy part of the pillow being the "beak." I don't see any reason for this shape being so noticeable.

The Background

The basic subject is a woman, and everything else is background -- but what's in the background is very important as it all plays a role in the picture; without the background (and foreground ... all that is not the woman, that is), not nearly as much would be said about her.

Although at first I wondered if it was too colorful and busy (I look at the picture as if I'm the painter, thinking things like -- "Do I need to make this a little darker?" or "Do I need to change this shape?" or "Do I need to remove this thing entirely?"), a little at a time I came to realize that although perhaps not the perfect background it did an adequate job.

The woman, although basically in a reclining position on a cozy surface that conforms to her shape and seems to sink with her weight, looks robust, energetic, alert, and ready to spring up at any moment, so the background (and foreground) needs to be strong, too...which it is. All the movement provided by the swirling, churning mass of blue and orange material flecked with white (the white flecks seem like swirling leaves) not only are a good balance for the very strong subject, but they also give the impression that she lives a "whirlwind" kind of life, in the midst of which she is strong, stable, alert, and in control.

The "orangey colored" area in the background was one of the first things that I decided I didn't like at all (I still don't even know what it's supposed to be), but I came to the conclusion eventually that it served different useful purposes, including that of offsetting all of the vivid blue (the paler orange tones on the subject -- the woman -- don't seem to me to be enough to do the job), and to give at least some depth to the scene, which is so shallow that it seems rather like a bas relief. (It seemed at first amazing that the "warm" colors of the background don't come forward too much, but then I realized that those "warm" colors really aren't that warm, and at the same time the mass of blue these colors are contrasting with is a rather "hot" blue...and so what is supposedly a "warm" color is cooler in fact than the supposedly "cool" color.)

The orangey area in the background also seems almost necessary because if everything was blue and white, like the bedspread and the drapes, it would look like the woman was floating in a sea of blue; she already, for reasons mentioned in this post, seems to be rising up. I say "almost" necessary because the artist has also employed other devices to keep the woman stabilized.

The amount of texture in the background was also troubling to me -- the background should stay in the background, I thought; but there is so much texture in the rest of the painting that in comparison it is not overdone -- The background is staying in the background, no matter that it's very eye-catching; the painting is "lively all over," so the background, in spite of the colors and textures and variations in shading, is actually not too strong. It may be a little sloppy, but it doesn't take over the picture since so much is going on in the foreground, and of course the subject - the woman - definitely dominates the whole picture.

The contrasting background is one of the devices used to make sure the woman does not look as if she's floating, as it helps hold her in place; it's like a weight upon her.

What makes her dominate in spite of all the color, contrast, movement, etc. that is going on all around her, I wondered? First of all it's because she is a human being, and so naturally is of far greater interest to us (at least at first glance) than the materials surrounding her. Also, because of her pose, so reminiscent of the pose of women painted by men (see my last post on this)...we see it as the same yet quite different and this is intriguing. And also by the contrast between her solid, centered self and the chaos around her.

Chaos and Stability

There is a lot of movement going on in this picture, and I think that's one reason it attracts me.

Although all seems in chaos except for the strong figure of the woman, there are horizontal lines to keep the composition from self-destructing. There is a horizontal line behind the woman (the edge of the bed between her right hand and the books), which we assume continues behind her where we can't see it, and there is another horizontal line that is defined by the bottom of her right leg and foot. These lines are a little wavy, but they're still horizontal lines. Also, there's the horizontally-balanced cigarette in her mouth, and last but not least, her horizontal gaze -- The gaze is not physically there, but we follow it anyway, from right to left, clear across the picture and out of it. All of these horizontal lines help keep the picture from "spinning." The diagonals of the drapes behind her, which give the orangey part of the background a solid pyramidal shape, also lend stability to the picture. There is, besides the unseen (but we know it's there) diagonal that goes from the bottom left corner of the picture to the upper right corner, on which lies the woman -- You can think of a rod going from the one corner to the other; she would be held in place by that rod. Of course, there's also the fact that the picture is in a (horizontal) rectangular shape, which lends both verticals and horizontals (as well as the unseen diagonals) to the picture.

The Basic Composition

As I mentioned in the other post on this painting, the composition puts a certain part of this woman virtually in the center of the painting, thus making it very important. Everything relates to that area (even though the main focus appears to be the upper part of her body, beginning with her head; and of course everything also relates to that important area). Although that critical point is not in the exact center of the picture, it is very close, and there are "arrows" pointing toward it, if you will notice them, in the creases of the pants.

I'll add the little slide show from that other post below, so that you can compare typical paintings of a woman lying on a sofa or bed made by male artists in and before the 19th century and this one made in 1923 by a female artist (Valadon). This post continues below the slide show.

The very noticeable orangey area in the background is framed by blue curtains that together make that orangey shape in between them taper at the top -- That tapered-at-the-top shape (like a rocket launching - or a pyramid) counterbalances the sinking heaviness of the lower part of the picture by "lifting" it up (paradoxically it holds the woman down at the same time). It also emphasizes the verticality of the woman's upper body.

My Conclusions

I now have a good idea of why this picture both attracts me and repels me. I'm pulled into it by the subject (a strong woman, not dominated by men), by the color, and by the liveliness and strength of the composition, which befits the subject. I am repelled by the awkwardness in places, particularly the shape of the pillow and its cry for undeserved attention, and also the books which are just wrong for the picture in my opinion; other parts of the picture bother me, too, but not nearly as much as the pillow and the books. Overall, though, after having spent so much time looking at it and thinking about it, I like it better than I did originally, and also I give the artist more credit than I initially did, for putting her picture together in such a way that it very unambiguously gets her point across.

I also learned some things from the two (one male, one female) "non-artists" who commented on the picture. I think now, in fact, that it's a very good idea to consult aesthetically-sensitive but untrained-in-art people about what they think about whatever artwork I'm trying to learn from, since they are "seeing" without preconceived ideas. (When it comes to this particular painting, I was lucky to have a male and a female respondent, as the subject has to do with males and females. I noticed that they responded quite differently to the picture.)


In my opinion, the meaning of The Blue Room has to do with fighting back against the image of a woman docile, subservient, pliable ... an object. This painting is about a strong woman who is not dominated by men. The comparison of this picture with pictures made by male artists of women in the same setting over the centuries reinforces the message and makes it more poignant, but Valadon composed and painted her picture in such a way that her point comes across quite clearly, even if a viewer has never seen the pictures painted by male artists.


Some Photos of Suzanne Valadon


Here is the response of the first respondent (a male):

(This respondent made a statement, or two statements actually - with the other there was an - unplanned - "interview")

"Well, I can’t miss the woman, can I? However, the first thing that strikes me about this painting is the proportion of depth in the elements, that the plushness of the bed and bedding are equal to the plushness of the woman...[T]he woman is warmer and more dimensional than the elements of her setting, and the much cooler tones of the bedding and drapes in the background could threaten the woman, but they don’t because she is so balanced inside those elements. I pause on the cigarette, but I decide its inclusion is neither good nor bad. The painting has a nice roundness to it, a richness that is not overstated, but perhaps lightly underscored with fecundity."

After I told him about the artist, and he had read my last post, which compares Valadon's The Blue Room with paintings of a similar subject by male artists through the centuries, he added:

"What does strike me, though, is that women tend to like this cushy kind of arrangement on beds made of soft stuff with lots of backing. It’s a simple comfort thing and it seems natural to pose a woman in a way that makes her look like she would be if she had the choice.

"In the case of the Valadon painting, I wonder if there is a connection between the haircut, the cigarette and the not-so-come-hither look… I wonder if there is a different statement about comfort, that comfort comes in many forms. Perhaps Valadon’s statement is about a woman who could be strong and self-willed and yet want the same comforts many women liked and wanted, a woman who was more a product of the (somewhat) advancing position of women at the time."

The other respondent (a female) and I went back and forth, and in fact it turned out to be more like an interview:

(Note: At the beginning, she realized she had seen this pose before and we thought of several artists who may have painted a woman in this pose and looked them up and that's how I was inspired to write that first post on this painting -- I left that part out.)

KEY: J (that's me), and R (the respondent) -- We are both looking at the picture.

J: "Do you have any thoughts? What did you notice first in the painting, for instance? The books? The pillow? Her hands? The colorful area behind her bed?"

R: "First the similarity to another painting [mentioned above in the "Note"]. Then the colors."

J: "Which colors strike you?"

R: "The purple on the bedspread first."

J: "I think of it as blue."

R: "It jumps out at you and somehow the mishmash of colors on the wall seems even more muted to offset it so you aren't struck so much by it, maybe."

J: "What do you think her thoughts are...her attitude is?"

R: "She is probably wondering who left those books on her bed."

J: "Does she seem to be looking toward the books to you?"

R: "Somehow they don't go...She seems to be looking off, maybe out the window...she actually looks like she's posing and they added the cigarette later. The artist, that is. It's too posed ... a common pose, apparently."

J: "What do you think of her attitude about life in general, from looking at her here?"

R: "She doesn't look like an intellectual to me, which is why her books look out of place. She looks more like someone who is disenchanted with life and does what needs to be done and is somewhat hardened, although oddly softened by the colors of her pajamas...or whatever they are."

J: "Does she look shy? Or mean? Or....?"

R: "She looks hardened and most hardened people aren't shy. If I were to hazard a guess just based on the painting she looks like she would be easy to get to know in the sense that I would expect her not to hold back -- direct."

R: "She doesn't look introverted, but she also doesn't look extroverted."

R: "She is approachable if you're near her, perhaps. But she wouldn't go out to find you."

J: "What do you think it is about the painting that makes you think of her as hardened, and not intellectual, etc.?"

R: "Well, I think it's mostly in her face and the cigarette doesn't help...Then you have the weight which supports the hardened theory, because most people with that much weight aren't shy -- they have to deal with what life has dealt them a little faster, maybe."

J: "Do you think of her as sexy? Or just relaxed?"

R: "She looks somewhat relaxed, but posed. Definitely not sexy. That differs from the painting I remember." [Here the respondent is remembering the painting she had seen before by a male artist of a woman in virtually the same pose]. "She [the woman in other pictures] was soft and gentle and voluptuous and approachable and looked relaxed ...Though heavy."

R: "She [the woman in the Valadon painting] doesn't look as if she is resting well against the pillow ... it looks like most of her weight is on the elbow. So when you think about it the placement of her other arm seems off. Or more extended than it should be somehow .... It's as if there is this mysterious space between the back of the pillow and her back."

J: "What do you think that orangey [area] is, behind the bed or sofa?"

R: "Well, I would think it was some abstract painting if it weren't for the fact that the curtains surround it and it has no edges, so it looks like a painted wall ... I'd almost guess trees or ... something abstract. Looks like little leaf prints and I'm not sure what happened in the middle."

J: "To me, after looking at it a while, it looks like maybe it's a window with a slightly see-through curtain in front, plus those side drapes."

R: "Hmm ... Well, then she did a terrible job of the outdoors." [Notice that somewhere along the line I inadvertently gave away the sex of the artist.]

R: "To me it looks like she is on her bed and the bed has curtains around it ... and maybe she is looking off toward a window thinking ... 'this is so uncomfortable.'"

J: "What point do you think she was trying to make about this subject?"

R: "Well, she didn't have to include the cigarette, so simply by doing that she made her hard. She kept her hair up, which is also hard (by comparison to a flowing look). She let her meatiness show, didn't seem to pare that down, but she did make her look proportionally together. Perhaps she wanted to paint a friend how she sees her."

J: "What if someone showed you this picture, and said: "This is going to be your roommate for the next six months." What would your reaction be (to yourself)?"

R: "No."

J: "No, what?"

R: "I mean ... my reaction would be no -- she is not living with me. I like gentler people. You can be smart, but not hard."

.....End of this "interview."

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