Catherine Hewitt’s 19th-century Art Geniuses
By far and large, artists are mostly known through the works they leave behind, and the further removed we become from them, the less we know about the actual people behind the art. Renoir’s Dancer by Catherine Hewitt, an accredited specialist with a PhD as a biographer, delves into one such life which fell between the cracks of our collective attention, the life of Suzanne Valadon, one of our history’s most famous painting models.
A cursory glance at her life reveals her to have been a model and inspiration for a number of 19th century painters, including Renoir and Degas, but as the book is quick to demonstrate it, her existence amounted to infinitely more than being a source of inspiration.
Harbouring some secrets of her own in relation to her lowly past, Suzanne is a woman who managed to overcome all odds and restrictions imposed on her by society, breaking through the veil of poverty into a remarkable life.
It would be difficult to sum up in a paragraph all the elements which came together to make her life as special as it was, but I think it might suffice to say her path intersected with virtually every renowned artist and painter from the 19th century, and she was the mother of the famous painter Maurice Utrillo.
She attempted to walk many paths in life, from a circus acrobat to a mistress, and ultimately did what very few women of her time managed to achieve, becoming a celebrated painter in her own right. While her story may not have made it to the main pages of our history books, it’s definitely a unique one with a reason to be preserved.
The Incredible Research behind Renoir’s Dancer
The first thing I feel I should point about this book, is it’s not exactly in the same vein of the modern trend in the biography genre. Generally-speaking, authors these days try to weave a narrative which approaches a novel as much as possible to provide some entertainment for the reader, along with the education.
In the case of Renoir’s Dancer, it felt to me as if Hewitt took on the more classical approach of focusing on the information first, and the reader’s entertainment second… because after all, logically-speaking, if you are reading the book, you already have some sort of interest in Suzanne Valadon.
As such, in terms of delivering well-researched information, I am confident in saying it is one of the best biographies I’ve had the pleasure of reading in recent memory. Hewitt doesn’t simply relay the story of Valadon’s life, but she also takes the time to observe and note all the smaller details which composed her world, all the overlooked bits and pieces which made up daily life back then.
She does a great job at contextualizing Suzanne’s struggles and achievements, which couldn’t have been easy considering how far away we are from 19th-century mores and village adages.
Additionally, as we progress further through the book, the focus begins to pan away from Suzanne at times in order to focus on the many great artists she intersected paths with. It’s quite apparent the author did some extensive research into their lives as well, giving us a previously-unseen angle into the lives of people such as Utrillo, Renoir, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec.
All in all, the sheer amount of information we are presented with is just impressive, and I would argue I learned more about these historical people from this one book than I did in a few years of high-school.
A Story without Embellishment
Earlier I did mention the author seems to have placed a priority on conveying information rather than entertaining, but this doesn’t mean the thought escaped her mind completely. The book is quite conveniently structured, with each chapter dealing with a specific segment of her life, and on the whole I found it rather easy to follow.
I also liked how Hewitt began each chapter with an axiom from Suzanne’s village and a bit more insight into their customs, helping to form a consistent connection between Valadon’s current actions and her roots.
I will admit, the first four chapters did feel a bit slower and less captivating than the rest of the book, largely because Suzanne’s life hadn’t really taken a turn for the remarkable yet. However, once I did get past this small initial hurdle and saw Suzanne move to Montmartre, it felt like the events of her life began picking up at a tremendous pace.
She began to meet new people left and right, embarking on a road of tenacity and perseverance, one I couldn’t fathom leading to the fate I knew waited for her.
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While authors generally try to make their biographies more entertaining, it seems to me Valadon’s life was already captivating enough in and of itself. There is always something new happening in her life as she jumps from one path to the next, and all the incredible people surrounding her only add to the spectacle.
The Final Verdict
Renoir’s Dancer by Catherine Hewitt is a remarkable biography centred on a woman who defied fate and society, a unique human being whose life sadly went overlooked in the end.
If you are interested in Suzanne Valadon concretely, 19th-century artists, the bohemian circles, or learning about some of the most extraordinary models and painters of the time, then I strongly suggest you give this magnificent book a chance.
Catherine Hewitt is an author from the United Kingdom whose career in biographies began with a PhD she was awarded for uncovering the extraordinary story of a 19th-century courtesan.
Her first book, The Mistress of Paris, was a runner-up in the 2012 Biographers’ Club Tony Lothian competition. In 2018 she published her second book, Renoir’s Dancer.