Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955) is a tragic figure in the history of art, and he is associated with Paris and Montmartre more than any other painter, perhaps. He was born in Paris on December 26, 1883 and was the illegitimate son of Suzanne Valadon, the model and painter. She was only 18 when he was born and even she had very little idea of the father’s identity. It seems that it could have been any one of several artists in Montmartre, though the strongest evidence seems to point to a young artist/wanderer by the name of Boissy, or perhaps to another artist, or Puvis de Chavannes.
Suzanne adored her son, but in his infancy he inconvenienced her lifestyle and so she often neglected him. His maternal grandmother, Madeleine, raised him. She lived with them and took in washing to add to her daughter’s income. At that time, Suzanne was one of the most popular models in Montmartre. Madeleine started giving wine to baby Maurice to put him to sleep, thus forming his future penchant to drink excessively. He was known as a drunk from before the age of thirteen. Boissy, his supposed father, was also an alcoholic.
Utrillo got his name from Miguel Utrillo, a friend of his mother’s, who agreed to adopt Maurice so that the boy would appear to have a father. Maurice became “Maurice Utrillo” on April 8, 1891. At first, Maurice resented this change terribly and he refused to use the name, adopting it only when he was 27, finally settling on “Maurice Utrillo, V.” Maurice, was untrained as an artist, like his mother, but he had a raw, natural style. He almost always painted Montmartre and often it was from memory or from picture postcards. In his painting, Suzanne did all she could to encourage him, and he gradually developed his own style.
For most of his life, Maurice would be in and out of hospitals and institutions for drunkenness and mental illness due to drinking. His mother, herself an alcoholic, was a great contributor to the problem. For many years they lived together in Montmartre and in Brittany (where they later had a large country house), the elderly Madeleine, Maurice, Suzanne, and her lover and then husband, André Utter. They drank and fought and scrounged for money, living from the sale of a painting here and there. Utter began to act as agent for both Maurice and Suzanne, and gradually they both became respected artists in Montmartre and with this new found success, life became slightly easier for Suzanne and Utter. Maurice, however, would never lead a stable life. He drank and painted, and when it was very bad would ask his friends to lock him up and not let him drink. He would scream until someone let him out or he could escape.
The finest examples of this are shown throughout his White Period (≈1909-1914). In his paintings of the White Period, calm and serenity reign, enhanced by the colour white that Utrillo, better than any other painter, could modulate to such poetic effect. He made lavish use of zinc white pigment, which he sometimes mixed with plaster. In heavy, rich pigment, he depicted ageing, cracked walls, sometimes covered in inscriptions.
Utrillo was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1928. In 1935 he married Lucie Pauwels, a widow who was herself an amateur painter, and they settled in Le Vésinet, a fashionable suburb of Paris. In his later years, his painting declined sharply in originality and vigour. Utrillo was notably prolific; he produced thousands of oil paintings. First-rate paintings by Utrillo are few, but critics have linked him as a landscapist with such 18th- and 19th-century masters as Francesco Guardi, Hubert Robert, and Camille Corot. Unfortunately, countless crude forgeries have interfered with Utrillo’s good reputation.
Utrillo is one of the few contemporary painters whose works please sophisticated as well as simple tastes. Despite changing fashions and fluctuations of the market, his canvasses bring higher and higher prices with each year (good Utrillos of the “white period” are sold for thousands of dollars). Now universally respected, he has been challenged in the courts twice and emerged victorious each time: Once when American customs officials had denounced his work as dutiable products because they had been done with the aid of picture postcards; and another time when a catalogue of a London museum stated that the artist had long since perished, a victim of excessive drinking. In the second case, the squire of Le Vésinet was able to convince a British court that he was very much alive and was dividing his time between work and religious devotion…
Above all, Utrillo had an eye for Montmartre - the old, picturesque, and relatively quiet artists’ quarter as it existed before the First World War. He was fascinated by the sad little streets and miserable bistros of the industrial suburbs. It is true that he also painted some of the great cathedrals of France and panoramas of Brittany and Corsica, as well as a few flower pieces, but it is as the painter of the unheralded sights of the French capital that he will be known forever. A celebration of the romantic view of Paris as imagined by the keen tourist is what Utrillo’s paintings invoke.
The painting above is “Sacre Coeur de Montmartre, et rue Saint-Rustique”, oil on canvas, 49.8 x 61 cm, in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. And here is Edith Piaf singing “Sous le ciel de Paris”, a Parisian ditty that goes so well with this painting!