The Misogyny of Impressionism : UTRILLO’S MOTHER <i> by Sarah Baylis (Rutgers Press: $19.95; 246 pp.) </i>


“I’ve always been a liar--it runs in my family,” begins Sarah Baylis’ brilliant and biting novel, “Utrillo’s Mother.” Capturing our attention and imagination while failing speculation as to the veracity of her story, Baylis recounts in a series of flashbacks a fictionalized biography of Marie-Clementine (Suzanne) Valadon (1865/7-1938).

The mother of Utrillo, she was a talented post-Impressionist artist in a period when the art world was experiencing tremendous growth and upheaval, though it remained almost exclusively a male domain.

Baylis writes about art and politics, women and sex, oppression, freedom, self-expression and social stigma from an ardently feminist perspective. Her vision is frank and refreshing, sparing neither the sacred cows of Impressionism nor our preconceptions of their world as portrayed in their paintings.


Baylis’ protagonist is brash. She acts without regret or apology. She sells herself time and again, yet survives on her own terms. We may blush at her audacious conduct but admire her courage and conviction. Her desire to paint, to draw, to be an artist overwhelms all else. She sleeps with artists to learn their technique, models for others to steal tubes of paint or drawing pads.

The novel is multidimensional. Political and social events helped to inspire the new art and bring on the rejection of the standards of the Academie des Beaux Arts. Turn-of-the-century artists were caught up in the spirit of revolution which led them to strike out in new directions and experiment with new ideas: Impressionism, Pointillism, Symbolism. Much of the descriptive narrative involves the events of the revolution of 1860, the Paris Commune, the Prussian War, the turn-of-the-century Parisian cafe society. Baylis gives us characters which bring to life the period: the beautiful baker’s daughter who paints slogans, the lesbian waitress who introduces Valadon to the seedy underground. Baylis’ descriptions are luscious and earthy, giving us not only sights and sounds but the odors and the emotional fervor of the moment.

This historical context is equally important in establishing the role of women, and thus the basis for Valadon’s outrage at the injustice she suffers. Baylis gives a brutal description of the lives of the working-class women of the time--their backbreaking menial work, their constant fear of starvation and poverty, the very hopelessness of their plight.

It is with this reference point that Baylis critiques so strongly Watteau, Fragonard, Renoir and other artists in their rose-tinted portrayals of shepherdesses and washerwomen: “Washerwomen were the rage. . . . Contemptible in real life, they were now almost respectable in fine art . . . but where slavery exists in a civilized society it must be quickly romanticized, or else there will be complaints, petitions, fuss and bother . . . and we’ll all be waiting until domesday for our collars and cuffs. The same painted tradition that had transformed the shepherdess from a dung-smeared illiterate into a beribboned picnicker changed the lowly washerwoman from a tippler to a giggling cutie.”

Yet, on another level, the novel is atemporal. Valadon’s feelings are too real, too natural: We identify too easily with her fantasies and with her struggle. Questions of sexual politics, of woman’s role in society--these are questions that are valid today in our society.

The story begins with Valadon as an old woman, looking back on her childhood on a farm where she lived with her mother, Madeleine. Her mother is called Madeleine throughout the book, possibly indicating the tense and angry nature of the mother/daughter relationship: “We were tied together by poverty and kinship, hating both and loathing each other, eaten up by love and guilt.”

The farm is described in detail, a dark and dirty place seen through the eyes of an unhappy child. In one episode, there is an encounter with a Gypsy, and we see immediately the scene through the eyes of the artist: “I wish I could have painted her like that--I would have made her green brown, then outlined her hands with a strong black line and all the colours of her clothes would be rich and sombre against the turbulent grass.”

Having revolted against her insulting and obnoxious employer, Madeleine is forced to leave, and with child in tow, heads for the city, hoping to improve her lot. Their lot does not improve. Madeleine finds another menial job and sends Valadon off to a convent school: “The place reeked of suppressed sex and the girls were infected by it. We were the most obscene creatures; pornography was scrawled on the toilet walls and swear words, picked up from our brothers and fathers were the cornerstone of our language--alongside that cannibalistic butcherspeak that religious people use.”

After the convent, Valadon holds a series of jobs--in a hat factory, then in a restaurant where she becomes a waitress and a pickpocket: “I loved thieving, it was my chief satisfaction. They had so much it wouldn’t be missed. They were rich old cows in fancy hats and fox furs, who despised me. They deserved to be inconvenienced.”

After the restaurant, a vegetable stand, then, taking a 50-year-old clown as her lover, a job with the circus. It is at the circus that she meets Theo, her first artist, and she becomes involved with him and his world, learning from his work and eventually becoming a model. She models for Renoir and Chavannes, all the while drawing and painting furiously on her own. The transition from model to artist of some renown is gradual. She meets Degas, whom she considers brilliant: “He was called a misogynist, too. If a painter portrays a woman as she is, that painter will be called a misogynist, a hater of women.

For to portray women with truthfulness is to suggest that you accept them as they are, and that is the most dangerous thing you can do in the world. Just think of it! If women are ever accepted as they are--exhausted, possessed, angry and bartered . . . then the world will have to change in every single particle.” Valadon ignores the critics and continues her art but is finally betrayed by her femininity--she gets pregnant and the son she bears marks forever her destiny: “Never encourage your son to pick up a brush and dabble with painting, within a few months they’ll say he has outstripped you . . . they’ll do anything to hold a woman back, even use her poor drunken son to betray her. . . . Christ, it’s hurtful this endless punishment of being mother to a painter.” There are more liaisons--a banker, a painter, and eventually some fame and fortune.

Although today she is recognized as a gifted artist, a modern reference book refers to Valadon’s work as “violent.” If this be the case, certainly Baylis has created a biography that would explain the violent nature of her work. More important, Baylis’ rich prose brings to life a vibrant and impassioned character--a character whose ideas are as truthful and vital in 1989 as they were 100 years ago.