Maurice Utrillo
Biography/ Paintings of French Post-Impressionist Painter.
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Church in the Suburbs (c.1928)
Private Collection.

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Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955)

An important figure in French painting of the early 20th century, the prolific Monmartre-born artist Maurice Utrillo is best known for his picture postcard views of Parisian streets and hills, characterized by sharp perspectives and deserted streets, all executed in his idiosyncratic style of Post-Impressionism, using pale colours - notably white - applied with loose impastoed brushwork. By the 1920s his painting enjoyed huge popular success, and his poetic interpretations of Monmartre helped to define the locality's romantic image. Despite, or perhaps because of, his chronic alcoholism and a personal history of mental instability, Utrillo's works can be found in many art galleries across Europe. Indeed, because of the apparent simplicity of his paintings, he is one of the most copied of Post-Impressionist painters. His paintings include: Saint-Denis Canal (1906-8, Bridgestone Museum of Art, Tokyo); Marizy-Sainte-Genevieve (1910, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC); Church at St Hilaire (1911, Tate Modern); La Rue du Mont-Cenis (1915, Pushkin Fine Arts Museum, Moscow); Le Moulin de la Galette (1922, Museum of Modern & Contemporary Art, Liege); Moulin de la Galette in Snow (1923, Private Collection); and Flag Over the Town Hall (1924, Musee de L'Orangerie, Paris).


Flag Over the Town Hall (1924)
Musee de L'Orangerie, Paris.
A characteristic picture postcard
view by Maurice Utrillo and one of
the greatest 20th century paintings
of the Paris suburbs.


Notre-Dame de Clignantcourt
Private Collection.

Biography

The illegitimate son of Suzanne Valadon, herself a talented painter and a model for such artists as Renoir (1841-1919) and Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), Utrillo was given his surname by a family friend - the Spanish painter Miguel Utrillo y Molins (1862-1934), whom he never actually met. It is believed that his real father was the celebrated muralist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98). As it was, the young Utrillo sank into delinquency and alcoholism from an early age, and only in 1902, at the urging of his mother, took up oil painting as a therapeutic distraction between confinements in hospitals and sanatoriums as a result of his drinking. From 1903 to 1906 Utrillo painted in the suburbs around Paris and in Montmartre, in a sombre and impasto style which attracted the attention of the dealer Clovis Sagot and several other collectors.

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White Period

After 1907 Utrillo lightened his palette and, from around 1910, began using a lot of white colour in his paintings, along with chalky/milky tones, which earned the name 'white period' for his activity between 1910 and 1916. In fact many critics consider that Utrillo did his best work during this period. In 1909, the dealer Libaude, secured the sole right to his paintings in return for a modest monthly sum. Through Libaude, Utrillo came to know the architect Frantz Jourdain (1847-1935), one of the founders of the Salon d'Automne, Elie Faure, who was a fervent admirer, and Octave Mirbeau. It was from 1909 that Utrillo began showing both at the Salon des Independants and the Salon d'Automne. But he had little contact with other painters and spent his unhappy life between the Belle Gabrielle cabaret and the Casse-Croute bistro. Following an attack of delirium tremens in 1912, Utrillo spent two months in a clinic at Sannois, and afterwards went to Brittany and to Corsica where he did a great deal of painting. In 1913, he had his first solo exhibition at the Galerie Blot. Unspectacular, it attracted little attention from reviewers.

Recognition

Around 1914, under the influence of his mother, his painterly technique began to develop towards a more colourful, linear style close to Cloisonnism, after Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). In 1916 he was shut away at Villejuif with dangerous lunatics, then in the asylum at Picpus. An exhibition at the Galerie Lepoutre in 1919 brought him great critical and financial success, but from then on his family kept him under surveillance and took advantage of him. After two exhibitions at the Galerie Weill, he was offered a contract by the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, and suddenly found himself the most fashionable artist of the day. Despite this recognition, Utrillo remained unstable, attempted suicide, and was taken by his mother to the Chateau de St Bernard in Ain, where, from 1923, he spent every summer. He designed the sets for Barabao, staged by Sergei Diaghilev for his company Ballets Russes, and in 1928 was awarded the Legion d'Honneur. In 1935 he married Lucie Pauwels. At this time the Greek-Cypriot dealer Paul Petrides acquired exclusive rights over Utrillo's output.

Later Years

In 1948 Utrillo designed sets for Charpentier's Louise at the Opera Comique, and in 1955 two panels, each 9ft high, were commissioned by the Hotel de Ville to decorate the Salle de la Commission des Beaux Arts. Utrillo's talent, however, had greatly declined at the same time as he was acquiring an international reputation (exhibition in New York, 1939; a room at the Venice Biennale in 1950). Fake Utrillos flooded the market, giving rise to resounding scandals, a situation exacerbated by the conviction for fraud in 1976 of Paul Petrides (1901-93), Utrillo's exclusive dealer since 1935.

Utrillo's Style of Art

His painting cannot be classified with a stylistic label. Some critics have tried to place him with the naive painters because of the minute detail in his drawing and his popular forms, but these characteristics do not appear until relatively late in the more colourful canvases. (See also: Outsider Art and Primitivism.) Utrillo was, in effect, self-taught, having received advice only from his mother and from a painter called Quiet, a solitary like himself, with whom he painted in the streets. (It was not until later, when his talent waned, that he began to copy postcards.) His early style was akin to that of Impressionism, and he looked in particular to Alfred Sisley (1839-99). However, his subjects were always limited to urban views of Montmartre or the Paris suburbs and to some provincial churches and buildings. His originality lies in his conception of space, with steeply rising and descending perspectives, the curving lines of streets and the volumes of houses creating, parallel with Cubism, an exceptionally vital style.

Expressionist

The other side of his art, however, displays a poignant expressionism: the leprous walls of the slums, the hallucinatory repetition of black windows, the emptiness of roads and pavements. In his early period he achieved startling effects with the flight of streets across the canvas, the rising impetus of a church steeple, the despairing nakedness of certain forgotten corners of the suburbs. His 'white' style, more airy, is especially representative of his views of Montmartre, and he could elicit an astonishing poetry from such everyday sights as the Lapin Agile Restaurant (1910, Paris, Musee National d'Art Moderne) or the Sacre-Coeur, as well as from suburban churches. He could also capture the grandeur of such buildings as Notre Dame de Chartres with a serene power that no other artist has yet attained.

The Musee National d'Art Moderne at the Pompidou Centre in Paris has a fine collection of Utrillo's works. He is also well represented in the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville, and in most of the best art museums in Europe and America.

 

• For biographical details of other important modern artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For the development of the arts, see: History of Art.
• For more about Parisian genre painting, see: Homepage.


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