|Aristide Bruant raised his glass to me one night at the Cafe Mirliton, "To Valadon," he said, "She is one of us! To illustrate his point, he recited an old ballad about an artist who sacrificed everything to love and art. "What else makes life worthwhile?" He had concluded, raising his hands above his head to invite applause from the audience.|
|Socially, we gathered at the Cafe Chat Noir on the Boulevard de Rochechouart, a place that prospered on the idea of allowing its customers to perform. Rudy Salis, who, with Bruant, ran the establishment, was fond of boasting: "God created the world, Napoleon, the Legion d'Honneur, and I, Rudy Salis, made the Montmartre!"
It was at the Cafe Chat Noir that I heard Guy Maupassant read his stories, saw Coquetin act out various Shakespearean roles, and heard Mallarme and Verlaine recite their poetry. At different times, when I was present, such well-known figures as Anatole France, a writer, Andre Gill, a cartoonist, Debussy, a musician, Jean-Louis Forain, an artist, Andre Gide, a writer, and Octave Mirbeau, a critic, who had supported Cezanne against the academic establishment, showed off their talents.
Some people, like Edgar Degas, the artist, who discovered me in the Place Pigalle, were more reserved, not choosing to perform with the more extravert patrons, but they still enjoyed the ambiance of the Cafe Chat Noir. Degas, always elegant, if occasionally acid in his observations, addressed me formally, as "Mademoiselle Valadon." Degas, until he died, was always helpful, giving advice, or being critical, if it was warranted. Aristide Bruant, along with Degas, was a particular favorite of mine. We became friends, and later, neighbors, when he moved from the Left Bank to a flat on the Rue Cortot.
Bruant was an extravert, loved by some, hated by others, but always, when he was on stage, a superb showman. Through Bruant, I met Toulouse-Lautrec, who had made the famous lithographic poster of the entertainer dressed in his black cape, broad-brimmed hat, and flowing Vermillion scarf wound around his neck. The poster spread Bruant's name everywhere--it was much treasured by collectors almost immediately--and later became a hot item in the galleries along the Rue Peletier.
When Bruant opened the Mirliton, the walls were decorated with the art of Desboutin, Steinlen, and, of course, Toulouse-Lautrec. The mood of the Cafe was perfect, the public was delighted with the way it was run, but the star--the center of attention--was Bruant himself. Bruant always opened his show with a stanza of "Rose Blanche," a popular song he had written, a big favorite of the Montmartrois.
Alle avait, sons sa toque d'martre
Bruant's big ploy was elevating women to the highest pinnacle, romance was everything, and he relentlessly pursued this angle. All other targets were fair game, and this included politicians, actors, writers, artists, and royalty, if they were present, received the brunt of his wit. In one instance, when the future king of England was at the cafe, Bruant had the audacity to make critical references to the prince's love-life, and his sexual potential. Insults were his stock-in-trade--he had mastered the genre--and made the most of it. The showman, always honest, said that he had learned everything he knew about show business from Rudy Salis at the Cafe Chat Noir, and this was self-evident, because there were many similarities between the two of them.
Bruant himself was a reflection of life in those days, a free-wheeling character, and individual willing to take the odds, no matter how many problems were involved. The association with him had contributed a lot toward making me feel confident about being an artist, that I could succeed if I put my mind to it. In those days, the cafe style of life was intermixed with the careers of individuals who made the idea work, making the exchanges that took place, profitable to both sides. I was accepted in a generally male environment on equal terms--no reference, in terms of art, was ever made, about my being female. I was determined to push my obsession as far as it would go--as far as my circumstances would permit. The problems of my son, the old nanny, Madeliene, were, for the moment, pushed aside, ignored in the ambitious dreams of a Limousin girl anxious to succeed in the complex and volatile art world.
My son, in the early days, when he started painting, became terribly upset when I downgraded religion, refusing to have him baptized in the Catholic Church. Fear of God never left Maurice, beginning when Madeliene took him to Notre-Dame de Clignancourt on the Place de Sante-Euphrasie. He'd never forgotten his impressions of gothic architecture, images of Christ and the Virgin Mary. As his addiction to alcohol worsened, the large statue of Joan of Lorraine he had seen at the entrance of the structure convinced him to make her his favorite symbol of spiritual forces. Madeliene, very devout, encouraged him to return to God saying it would be his salvation. "What a joke," I shouted at her, "What did God ever do for you!"
When Robert Naly, an artist-friend, suggested I try a little affection with Maurice, I laughed out loud at the idea. "It's riduculous to try that stuff with him," I said, "he doesn't even understand what the word means!" As I tried to restrict Maurice's access to the streets, the confrontation between us, intensified. He tried to humiliate me by screaming, "Valadon is a whore, Valadon is a whore," repeating it over and over again from the front window of the flat. As Madeliene and I dragged him back, he turned toward us muttering "bitches, bitches, bitches," the tears streaming down his cheeks ....
The mystery of my son, his extraordinary talent, astonished people right from the start, when he sat on street corners with Edmund Heuze, Alphonse Quizet, and occasionally, Elisee Maclet, painting landmark scenes like the Sacre-Coeur, the Moulin Rouge, and the Moulin de la Galette. The pictures he painted sold right off, no sweat at all, even if he was getting only a few francs for each canvas. The money he recieved was used to fuel his thirst, making a neat pro quid quo, which kept some change jingling in his pocket.