Three Modernist Women Who Reclaimed the Nude

In Painting Her Pleasure: Three Women Artists and the Nude in Avant-Garde Paris, author and art historian Lauren Jimerson cleanly dismantles one of the enduring myths of 20th-century modernism: that ground zero in advancing the avant-garde was the female nude — as painted in Paris by two men. As the foundational tale goes, after Fauve Henri Matisse showed his “Blue Nude (Souvenir de Biskra),” an unclothed woman in the odalisque tradition (reclining, orientalizing) reduced to disjointed line and color in the spring of 1907, Pablo Picasso answered by painting “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” a brothel scene credited with ushering in Cubism. From there, the traditional story of modern painting is relentlessly male, at least so far as the artists, rather than models, go.

Jimerson quotes Griselda Pollock’s observation that “museum curators and art historians produced a heroic and exclusively masculine legend of the avant-garde,” then delves into the work of three women artists active in Paris before and after World War I whose own engagement with the nude was prescient and groundbreaking. While Jimerson acknowledges that these three artists did not share much stylistically, they all “spurned bourgeois mores and unhinged normative conceptions of womanhood.” It’s a felicitous turn of phrase, one that aptly captures the world they had to navigate, both within and outside of the avant-garde.

Two of the three artists whose work Jimerson examines are not well known today: Marie Vassilieff (1884–1957), a Russian émigré to Paris who trained with Matisse, became a Cubist, and founded her own art academy in 1912; and Émilie Charmy (1878–1974), who was connected with Fauvism, was one of only 15 women to exhibit at the New York Armory Show in 1913, and was dubbed “the Colette of painting” for her intimate, self-referencing work. The third artist is far better known today: Suzanne Valadon (1865–1938), who began as a (sometimes nude) model for significant artists like Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Pierre-August Renoir, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, but would become the first woman painter admitted to the Société National des Beaux-Arts in 1894, and whose first major American exhibition opened at the Barnes collection in 2021 (to which the author contributed). 

All three artists worked in Paris alongside some of the best-known men of modernism. All three were also single mothers (Valadon’s son, Maurice Utrillo, became an artist himself). They all have bodies of work devoted to the modern nude, and all achieved success and recognition in their lifetimes, but were overlooked after. They knew each other, but did not collaborate or necessarily support one another’s work. They were, as women artists, loners in the same place at the same time.

The author is quick to assert that these artists were not feminists in any contemporary sense — they were not even necessarily supportive of other women artists. Jimerson writes that Valadon actually claimed to dislike “women’s art.” But they were feminist in seizing the gaze and the nude subject for themselves. That subject included “the male body, the Black female nude and the nude self-portrait, a genre which few artists, male or female, dared to tackle until the latter half of the twentieth century.” That such subjects were shocking and groundbreaking even in avant-garde Paris can hardly be overstated. 

Vassilieff, who described herself in her memoir as “ni homme, ni femme” (neither man, nor woman), created “Homme et femme” (1911–14), a Cubist work painted on both sides of the canvas, depicting a somewhat darker male nude on one side, with a lighter female nude on the other. Since Vassilieff sometimes posed Black men and White women together in her academy, Jimerson theorizes that, potentially, “Homme is a rare Black male Cubist nude.” For her part, Charmy also explored new arenas for the nude, specifically in her pregnant nude self-portraits, among the first known of the type, two of which Jimerson discovered while researching her book. And in Valadon’s “Vénus noire” (Black Venus, 1919), the author describes “one of the earliest known examples of a single, idealized Black female nude in Western European painting.” While Valadon’s “Vénus noire” is not distorted or primitivized, she also has no name of her own. Jimerson is quick to acknowledge the recent critical dialogue around this painting, one that also pertains to artworks done by Vassilieff and Charmy: “Black Venus cannot be read simply as an ennobling image. … Like the other artists discussed in this book, Valadon was a white woman who was immersed in a rapidly evolving, yet doggedly unequal, imperialist and patriarchal French world.”

Such a world is likely why it was the male nude, when depicted by female artists, that most shocked their contemporaries. In Valadon’s first male nude, “Adam and Eve” (1909) she portrayed herself as Eve alongside fellow artist and future husband André Utter as Adam. Valadon later covered Utter’s genitals with fig leaves so that it could be exhibited, while her pubic hair remains on full display. 

Even under threat of censorship, Valadon continued to paint Utter nude, inserting her vision into the history of art. Her painting “Le Lancement du filet” (1914) depicts him as a kind of fisherman bather in three views (referencing the “Three Graces” trope often used in images of female nudes). His genitals are obscured, but she leaves nothing else to the imagination. Utter is part of nature the way female nudes so often are, his form rhyming with the landscape, his idealized body graceful, even sexy. But while male avant-garde artists utilized the female nude to advance the cause of modernism via all kinds of sexualized poses and places, a male critic wrote of “Le Lancement”: “Suzanne Valadon knows well the little recipes, but to simplify is not to make simple, old slut!” 

Sexist criticism or not, Valadon carried on. According to Jimerson, among her documented self-portraits as an older artist are three nudes “from the mature phase of her career” — up to the age of 66. To paraphrase Artemisia Gentileschi — “I’ll show you what a woman can do” — Valadon showed what an old woman can do. That is, like each of the artists in Painting Her Pleasure, shock the avant-garde along with the bourgeoisie.

Painting Her Pleasure: Three Women Artists and the Nude in Avant-Garde Paris by Lauren Jimerson (2023) is published by Manchester University Press and is available online and in bookstores.

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