The Thankless Art of Painting

Maurice Utrillo

Artist: Maurice Utrillo
Born: 26 December 1883, Paris, France
Nationality: French
Movements: Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Expressionism
Died: 5 November 1955, Dux, France

La Butte Pinson by Maurice Utrillo, La Butte Pinson 1905-08. Oil on card glued on wood, Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, France

Utrillo’s life could not have been a more Bohemian one. For many the romantic concept of la vie bohème was living a life in Paris of the late-19th and early-20th century but far less dazzling in its reality. The son of Suzanne Valadon, a former circus performer turned artist model and avant garde artist Utrillo never knew his father. Rumours abound that it could have been anyone from Puvisde Chavannes to Renoir to Boissy.

At 21, Utrillo, encouraged by his mother, took up painting. His mother had learned to paint while posing for artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Morisot, Degas, and Renoir, and she was a skilled artist in her own right. Mother and son shared a studio in Montmartre. Utrillo sold his first painting when he was 22 and by 1909 he was exhibiting at the Salon d’Automne. His style of landscape painting combining Post-Impressionism and Cubism achieved critical acclaim, earning him lucrative sales and notoriety. He is considered one of the pioneers School of Paris, the pre-World War I modern artistic movement known for its experimentation and pluralism.

Notre Dame Cathedral by Maurice Utrillo, 1909, Oil on card. Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, France

Modern Art took form in Paris during the tumultuous and formative first decades of the 20th century and became a sort of cultural laboratory for creative types. Utrillo became associated with a group of decadent artists known as ‘Les Maudits’ along his mother, Chaim Soutine and Amadeo Modigliani.

Utrillo’s most frequently used subjects were buildings in Paris and the neighbourhood of Montartre, well known as a retreat for the bohemians of Paris – its artists, poets, writers and the like. His favourite places to hang out such as the Lapin Agile are represented numerous times with only subtle difference between canvases.

Utrillo was the quintessential struggling artist, and he was also influenced by the avant-garde innovators including Picasso and Degas, and often used unusual if not everyday materials like cardboard in place of a canvas to create his paintings. Unlike his idols, Utrillo was untrained and his greatest achievement must be the way he adapted his unrefined techniques to successive avant-garde style such as Impressionism, Cubism, and Expressionism to attain critical and financial success.

Berlioz House by Maurice Utrillo, 1914. Oil on plywood. Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, France

Utrillo was the son of model and artist Suzanne Valadon who wasn’t married. His father is not known and he was given the name of the Spanish art critic, Miguel Utrillo. Utrillo received no formal training as an artist other than that provided by his mother who was also untutored. As an adolescent Utrillo became an alcoholic and his mother encouraged him to paint as therapy. Despite frequent relapses, painting became Utrillo’s obsession.

A shy and withdrawn man, Utrillo painted few portraits. He usually used the deteriorating houses and streets of Montmartre, its cafes, windmills and places of interest as his subject matter. Utrillo also took inspiration from his trips to both Corsica and Brittany.

Rue Saint-Rustique, Montmartre, Under Snow by Maurice Utrillo, 1940. Oil on canvas. Private collection

Utrillo’s most renowned work is that of his white period (1909-14), with his creations in lavish zinc white, which he sometimes mixed with plaster. He depicted aged and cracked walls in the heavy and rich pigment, These works garnered Utrillo with fame and financial success. In 1924, Valadon moved with Utrillo to a château near Lyon, in an attempt to keep her son away from the bars of Montmartre once and for all.

Made a chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1928, Utrillo married Lucie Pauwels in 1935 and the couple settled in Le Vésinet. In his later years, Utrillo’s painting declined rapidly in originality and vigour although he was notably prolific, producing hundreds of paintings but few of first-rate quality.

© 2021 JG Farmer

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