Suzy Solidor inspired about 225 artists and despite singing about her homosexuality, she became successful. Then, why was she forgotten by history?
We keep talking about muses in art history because the lives of these figures intrigue us. Why? My first guess is that they reveal a a part of the artist's private life. Although we can read the stories of certain paintings in books, approaching at the muse's life makes the work more vivid and approachable. The second reason is perhaps the fact that we want to know how they sparked the artists’ creativity and pushed them to create the most impressive and moving works of art. In some cases, these muses were the unrequited loves of artists. Sometimes they were their partners and accompanied them in all their artistic process. There are cases of muses being platonic characters or acquaintances of the artist. At the end of the day, each case brings a new beam of light into these unattainable characters and brings them closer to us.
Francis Picabia (1933)
Some women became some sort of professional muses, as they appeared in many important artworks by brilliant artists, but if you asked me who was the ultimate muse of them all, that would be the forgotten singer, Suzy Solidor. Not only was she an interesting and complex character but she managed to inspire about 225 artist to paint her during her successful years, in the 1930s. But what was so special about this woman who became the most painted woman in the world? Was it her beauty? Perhaps, but that’s just an extra. In fact, her story is one of the most puzzling ones, if we think of the times she lived in, as well as her personality and interests.
Roger Toulouse (1962)
Solidor was born in Brittany, France, in 1890. Her mother was a house cleaner working with a lawyer with whom she had an affair. When the man found out she was pregnant with his child, he fired her and never recognized the baby until she grew up to be a famous and wealthy woman. After a tough childhood and adolescence, she left home when she was seventeen to volunteer as an ambulance driver during World War I. After the war ended, she had no interest in becoming a housekeeper like her mother, so she decided to move to Paris where she was welcomed in the house of a wealthy antique dealer.
Yvonne de Bremond d’Ars had a successful antique shop right next to the fashion house by Jeanne Lanvin. When Solidor started working for this woman, she saw the opportunity to shine in a different profession and soon became a model for a fashion label. From the moment the first images of Solidor appeared in magazines, she was an absolute success and became the instant muse of Parisian emerging artists. This was the moment in which so many portraits of her began to appear. Being a woman ahead of her time, and knowing how to seize the moment, she realized that her image was the best way to make a brand of herself and start business right away.
Francis Bacon (1957)
In her article for the BBC, Holly Williams explains how Solidor understood and sold her image not so different as the many Kardashians are doing right now. However, the main difference between the artist and this family no one really knows why they’re famous for is that there was way much more than just her beauty and image. Once the portraits started to emerge, she decided to collect them and display them all together to reinforce her looks and make herself an icon among her contemporaries. But besides that, she wanted to pursue a career in music, and cabaret became the best way to propel her talents.
Man Ray (1929)
As I mentioned she wasn’t a common woman, and of course her attempts in music were far from being conventional. She started singing about themes that were still unthinkable for women to explore openly, like her sexuality. She openly acknowledged herself as a lesbian woman exploring her own desires and passions. One would think that she would have backlash from the conservative society of her time because of the inappropriate and immoral themes of her music, yet instead she became a huge success in the Parisian music scene of the thirties. Soon, she was famous and wealthy enough to open her own business.
Kees van Dongen (1927)
By 1932, she became, as Williams supposes, the first woman in the world to own a nightclub. Remember all the portraits she had collected so far? In a very smart marketing move, she decided to display all of these in her brand new club La Vie Parisienne, where she would perform in front of a crowded audience and all her paintings looking at her. If you think about it, this is genius. People would not only remember her for her talent and the daring content of her songs, but the fact that they would be looking at the same person in hundreds of images simultaneously, was a brilliant way to make herself memorable. I mean, that’s what most performers and musicians do nowadays, isn’t it? Moreover, this became also a huge opportunity for emerging artists to display their work before a wealthy audience. Her club was so popular that iconic figures such as Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich performed on that stage.
Moïse Kisling (1930)
Now, how could a character like her went into oblivion? According to Williams, it’s probable that the Nazi occupation in France during World War II might have something to do with this. When the troops took over Paris, she kept her nightclub open for the German socialité and high rank soldiers. For that matter she was later trialed as a collaborator of the Axis and sent away from Paris. Now, according to some records, more than being a collaborator she actually worked as a double agent who would pass information drunk officers would spill out to the resistance and helped Jewish citizens escape the city before they were caught. However this was never proven and her image remained as that of a simple sympathizer of the Nazi.
Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita (1927)
She went to the US where she would perform accompanied by a selection of her favorite portraits. Here she was an immediate success, especially in New York, where her number of fans and followers increased noticeably. But she missed her country and soon returned during the sixties to settle in Haut de Cagnes, a medieval town in southern France where she opened a new club in the basement of her house. Her image was so important for her career but with the passing of time, she realized she could no longer make a living from that unique trait, so she started dressing in a navy uniform and made people refer to her as “the Admiral,” her latest persona until she died in 1983.
Dreyfus Stern (1927)
Before dying, she donated forty of her hundreds of portraits to the museum Chateau Grimaldi where they have kept a permanent hall devoted to Solidor’s portraits. The rest of the collection has been sold in auctions and passed through the hands of art collectors. Although she’s still a forgotten figure, the museum and the musical All I Want Is One Night by Jessica Walker that will premiere in Broadway in 2018 are small attempts to revive the story of this eccentric and trailblazing character.
Eduardo Malta (1945)
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Cover painting by Tamara de Lempicka (1933)