Talking to author Catherine Hewitt about Renoir’s Dancer

13th October 2017

Catherine HewittCatherine Hewitt studied French Literature and art history at Royal Holloway, University of London and then at the revered Courtauld Institute of Art.

Her proposal for ‘The Mistress of Paris‘ won a prize in the 2012 Biographers’ Club Tony Lothian competition for uncommissioned first-time biographers. The book was published in 2015 and tells the story of glamorous courtesan Valtesse de la Bigne cutting a swathe through 19th century Parisian society.

After completing her PhD, Catherine set out to use her academic training to bring history and people alive for a more mainstream audience.

Catherine was at the Guildford Book Festival this week, talking about her new book, ‘Renoir’s Dancer: The Secret Life of Suzanne Valadon‘, which will be published on 2nd November by Icon Books. TripFiction’s Andrew was at Catherine’s event and was lucky to chat with her afterwards.

Suzanne Valadon came from humble origins, growing up in poverty with her mother and not knowing the identity of her father. She was a trapeze artist, who became an artists’ model after an accident. Living in bohemian Montmartre, Suzanne knew and sat for all the great Impressionist painters of the time, including Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas.

But Catherine explained how Suzanne, without any formal training, became a highly regarded artist herself. Her work is known for its strong lines, bold brush strokes and brutal honesty (even on her self-portraits)…all very unusual for a lady of the times. In 1894, Suzanne became the first woman artist admitted to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. You will have to buy the book to find out more about the remarkable and talented Suzanne Valadon.

TF: What made Montmartre such a favourite milieu for the great Impressionist painters of the late 19th century, do you think?

CH: It was a much more relaxed place than the City of Paris. The rents and drinks were cheaper, and the atmosphere was congenial for bohemian artists.

TF: How do you set about making a biography interesting and accessible to less academic readers?

CH: I ensure there is complete underlying academic integrity in the work, but I also try to humanise the story. I’ll add colour through what may have been seen or smelt at the time, or what the prevailing weather was on a given day. But only if supported by research. It took me slightly longer than 2 years to complete my research for ‘Renoir’s Dancer’.

TF: What are your own favourite books based in France?

CH: I enjoy the classics. Zola. Flaubert. Dickens. But generally, a writer should just read as widely as possible. 

TF: TripFiction is all about seeing a location through an author’s eyes. What are some of your favourite paintings that exude a really strong sense of place?

CH: I love Manet’s Music in the Tuileries, for its evocation of the famous gardens by the Seine (painted in 1862).

Manet’s Music in the Tuileries, courtesy of the National Gallery

And Gustave Caillebotte conjures up Parisian life so well, in an Impressionist style but more realistically than others. 

TF: What other writing projects do you have in the pipeline, Catherine, and where might they be based?

CH: I have been commissioned by Icon Books to write a biography of Rosa Bonheur. She was a French artist and sculptor, known for her artistic realism and paintings of animals, and widely considered to be the most famous female artist of the 19th century. Researching her life and work will take me another 2 years!

TF: Good luck with that next project, Catherine, and thank you so much for telling us all about Suzanne Valadon and for sketching a miniature portrait of your own writing life for TripFiction readers.

Catherine is not on Social Media at this time. You can buy her book through TripFiction.

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