In this and other works, French artist Suzanne Valadon steps outside the boundaries established for women artists in the male-dominated world of art. Portrayal of the gazed-upon female nude was reserved for men who conventionally painted them as objects: ageless, beautiful, seductive, passive, and vulnerable. Women painted flowers and children, not nudes.

Not only does Valadon violate traditional expectations, she presents an adolescent nude who, like most adolescents, is self-absorbed with her appearance. She is not positioned for the viewer's gaze, but for her own self-appraisal. The pubescent child/woman sits at the edge of the bed intent upon her own image in a handheld mirror. In contrast, a fully clothed woman, probably her mother, sits behind her on the bed gently towel-drying the girl's shoulder and arm.


Having set the stage with numerous props for viewers to consider, Valadon invites them to construct a story or narrative. That the pubescent girl is seated naked on the bed produces a radical, even startling, departure from domestic scenes created, for example, by Mary Cassatt during the same late 19th/early 20th Century period of time and serves as a signal that Valadon has violated subject-matter rules imposed by the male-ordered world.

The painting is heavily loaded with subjective meanings about being female and moving from adolescence to mid-life. The childhood doll has been cast aside and soon the large floppy bow will disappear from the young woman's hair. A mirror for self-examination, symbolizing adolescent fascination with the changing body, becomes a prompt, as well, for the mature woman to consider changes in herself.

One has the future before her, while the other is moving toward decline and aging. Valadon's representation of this reality is beautifully portrayed and quickly identified by men and women alike as an integral part of the human experience. Until Valadon and other renegade artists and writers, personal stories about lifestage realities had been omitted or excluded from the creative canon.

Note: The painting might have served as the inspiration for the poem, 35/10 by Sharon Olds, in which there are parallels (see The Dead and the Living, Knopf, New York, 1993).

Primary Source

Delese Wear and Lois LaCivita Nixon, Literary Anatomies: Women's Bodies and Health in Literature, State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, 1994, cover (b/w).