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Written by: Emma Martin

Jacqueline Marval – ‘the Fairy of the Belle Époque’

It’s a funny thing, the idea of being respectable. It’s all about how others see us, too often has very little to do with what we ourselves want and yet we frequently let the concept rule our lives. For 18 year-old Marie-Joséphine Vallet, a young middle-class woman born in 1866 in a small town in the south-east of France, there was only one respectable path open to her. So she became a schoolteacher, married young and had a child. For someone like her Paris, and all it represented in terms of personal and artistic freedom, must have seemed an impossible dream.

Tragedy struck, however, and her child died aged just six months – it seems that this dreadful event must have been the catalyst that led to her quitting her job and leaving both her husband and home. She went first to Grenoble, and then to Paris, where she moved in with the artist Jules Flandrin.

Contemporaries make particular mention of her ‘provincialism’ during her first years in Paris and the bohemian bustle of the French capital, although long dreamt about, must have proved something of a culture shock. Soon, though, it was her striking beauty and forceful personality that drew attention. Legend has it that her art career began in 1895, when, tired of the pompous talk of Flandrin and his friends, she dashed off a landscape on the lid of a cigar box ‘just to teach [them] how it should be done’.

Flandrin and Marval lived near the Luxembourg gardens, and from 1901 Henri Matisse and fellow artist Albert Marquet were frequent visitors – the four often setting up their easels together to paint the views of the gardens and surrounding suburbs. It’s difficult to overstate the influence that the access to such great artists must have had on Marval, a privilege the majority of her female contemporaries never had. But what is more unexpected is the influence that she in turn had on them, as she developed her bold, rule-breaking style. Lucien Mainssieux, a fellow painter from Grenoble, wrote that ‘Marquet, Flandrin, Matisse all awaited each work she produced with curiosity and emotion.’

Marquet’s wife later wrote that, ‘Marquet and Matisse were bowled over by admiration for Marval’s personality, as much as for her work.’ A remarkable testament to the fact that these men viewed her as an equal. And it was surely this powerful personality that led her to change her name around 1901. Taking the first three letters from Marie and Vallet to create a new surname, she finally jettisoned all remnants of the former schoolteacher to become Jacqueline Marval.

Probably Marval’s most famous work, and certainly the most celebrated in her lifetime, was The Odalisques, which was featured in the 1903 Salon des Indépendants. Like her earlier work, Odalisque with a Cheetah, this is a reinterpretation of a popular 19th century theme – the oriental harem. Marval’s depictions of nude women won praise from the (male) critics. At face value it’s easy to see why; her works are not confronting. They conform to set tropes in that they copy established compositions and their pleasing female forms are ready to be consumed by the voracious male eye.

Yet look a little deeper and there is something more going on. The figures all bear a remarkable resemblance to the woman who painted them. Marval has sensationally cast herself in the role of the courtesan. This is not the body of an exploited young model (perhaps a prostitute herself) that has been presented to the viewer; rather it is that of a woman very much living life on her own terms. Look at her in Odalisque with a Cheetah; she is haughty and imperious, feast on her with your eyes if you will, but she will never be yours.

Marval had arrived in Paris at the same time as women from across the the world, all attracted by the new opportunities for study opening up for female artists. What they found, however, was that the majority of academies, exhibition spaces and critics were at best unencouraging, at worst downright hostile, to the idea of serious female artists. For many the solution was to promote their art through female only show and societies. The indomitable Marval seems to have refused to participate in this gender war and throughout her life rejected invitations to join or exhibit with such organizations. Ever the individual, she stridently insisted that she be judged solely as an artist, not a female one.

As the decade progressed, Marval’s style developed, her brushstrokes became freer and her palette lightened. Women, children, nudes and nature were frequent subjects, all painted in an increasingly loose and recognizable style. Whilst many contemporary female artists, in an effort to be taken seriously, were eschewing such subjects and hues in an attempt to distance themselves from perceived ‘feminine’ art, Marval didn’t bother. She painted what she liked, how she liked and usually on enormous canvases measured by the meter. Her works exhibit a typical exuberance, lightness of touch and sense of humor; flowers burst from their vases, pointy-toed dancers in fabulous hats flit across the stage and pink-cheeked nudes lounge in their boudoirs.

It’s not difficult to surmise that Marval was having fun. She befriended many of the most influential people in society; among them eminent fashion designer Paul Poiret who dressed her in the latest styles – the restrictive corset of the 19th century abandoned for the freedom of the dropped waist. She attended Dutch artist Kees van Dongen’s famed costume balls – the rumblings of war not seeming a deterrent to the masked ball of 1914. 

Marval continued to paint and exhibit throughout the first world war. Photographs from the time show her exuberant personality seemingly undimmed by current troubles. There she is in 1917 in the Luxembourg Gardens poking fun at Marquet’s diminutive stature, later that same year she’s playing the fool with old pals the painter Alfred Rome, the critic Pierre-André Andry-Farcy and a more sombre looking Flandrin. The latter’s fortunes suffered after the war, his art no longer found favor with the critics and his relationship with Marval became strained.

The irrepressible Marval shows no sign of these troubles in her art. Her palette takes on hues that would not be out of place in a sweet shop and her subjects become more outrageous. A topless woman, her billowing skirt bedecked with pink flowers in front of a grey Notre Dame cathedral? Why not! Marval seems to revel in the fluidity of the skirt’s blue stripes, their movement echoed by the dancer’s perilously slim, delicate legs, their form in turn replicated by her elongated arms. The oversized pink hat caps not only the dancer, but the whole scene.
Les Années Folies, or the ‘crazy years’ of the roaring 1920s saw Marval decamp yearly, with many of the day’s celebrities, to the seaside town of Biarritz. Never shy in front of a camera, photographs from the time show her posing in the latest fashions, her mouth always in a pout or a smile. She seems to have taken great delight in poking fun at the beachgoers in her art. Dressed much like her, with the latest hairstyles and fashionable sportswear, they struggle to hold their poses as they, their parasols, and umbrellas, all battle the wind. Like the vast majority of her works this piece is large, an astonishing 197 x 375cm!
The party ended in 1932 when Marval died of cancer, she and Flandrin having parted some years prior. She was still painting and participating in exhibitions shortly before her death and in 1928 took part in at least 21 shows from Tokyo to Venice. Throughout her career she exhibited her work widely in France, the rest of Europe and the US, often sharing the space alongside luminaries such as Matisse, Modigliani and Picasso.
The question of why, after so much success and recognition in her lifetime, she is almost completely unknown today doesn’t take long to answer. Female artists, who faced so many obstacles during their lives, continued to be marginalized after their deaths. Thematically and stylistically too, Marval’s lightness of touch, crayon box colors and focus on women had little in common with the rise of Surrealism and the increasing move towards abstraction which characterized the coming decades. All of this was compounded by the fact that Art history is a discipline almost entirely written by men, who never viewed an overtly ‘feminine’ oeuvre like Marvel’s as serious art,
The irony that it takes female focused books, articles and exhibitions to bring Marval back to prominence is something that would surely not have been lost on her. She deserves to be better known beyond these confines, not just as an artist, but also for forging an unapologetic life lived utterly on her own terms. Her radiant art serves as a token, a reminder not to take things too seriously, and to every now and then throw caution (and reputation) to the wind..