The “most painted woman in the world”

She is known as ‘the most painted woman in the world’: around 225 artists have captured the captivating likeness of Suzy Solidor, including Tamara de Lempicka, Jean Cocteau, Francis Bacon, Man Ray and Francis Picabia. A French cabaret star, she was a major mainstream recording artist in the 1930s – even though she sang really rather explicit songs of lesbian desire. Today, however, the chanteuse is hardly a familiar face.

She’d be furious, no doubt, at this slide into obscurity. Solidor was a woman ahead of her time – she matched a risqué artistic persona with shrewd business acumen, and possessed a striking awareness of the power of propagating her own image. She was probably the first woman to own a nightclub in Paris, La Vie Parisienne, where she would perform in front of a line of portraits of herself – the more she favoured the painting, the closer it would be to her (less flattering works were stuck by the toilets). For the artists, it was considered invaluable advertising.

You could consider Solidor a 1930s Kardashian, with painterly portraits in place of selfies. Solidor was hyper aware of her own image, and unabashed at turning her sex life and her body into a commodity. Adept at self-mythologising, she was, however, always true to her own sense of self, her own artistic urges: this was no ‘lipstick lesbianism’.

“Now, when [celebrities] present themselves as gender fluid or out-there in their sexuality and desires, it seems to be a little bit of a pose: you get pop stars flirting with it, but their songs are never full throttle like these,” says Jessica Walker, a performer whose show about Solidor, All I Want Is One Night, has been seen at Manchester’s Royal Exchange theatre and at Wilton’s Music Hall in London; it will be part of the Brits off Broadway Season in New York in 2018.

Walker delved into Solidor’s story after stumbling across her songs – and was surprised at how little known she was, given she had such a dramatic life. Solidor was born in St Malo in Brittany. Her mother had worked as a charwoman for her father, a lawyer, who did not recognise the child (although he would get in touch once his illegitimate daughter became a famous singer). He was, however, a descendant of the Privateer Robert Surcouf – a fact that Solidor made the most of. She liked to sing saucy sea shanties, and her paintings often depicted her in a nautical setting: on the prow of a boat, as a mermaid, or a buccaneering captain.

Read more at the BBC.