Sunday, July 6, 2008

Maurice Utrillo - Demon of Montmartre

Windmills of Montmartre (1949) - Maurice Utrillo

There is a small cemetery, the Cimetière de St-Vincent, at the intersection of rue des Saules and rue St-Vincent, one of the most visited and photographed corners of all Montmartre. Notable permanent inhabitants of the cemetery are Swiss composer Arthur Honegger (1892-1955), a member of the group of French composers known as Les Six (which included Poulenc and Milhaud) and painter Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955), who terrorized the Montmartre neighborhood he was born in.

(Note: As bizarre as the following account may seem, I swear I’m not making anything up.) Utrillo’s mother, a talented self-taught painter, took Toulouse-Lautrec as her lover after a fall from a trapeze ended her aspirations to be a circus performer. She served as a model for Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec, and studied their painting techniques, incorporating their style into her own. She taught her son Maurice to paint scenes of the streets in the neighborhood, and he soon developed the habit of trading a freshly painted canvas to settle his bar tab. A hopeless alcoholic from an early age, he often picked fights in bars and was frequently arrested for assault.

From the age of 21 he started to exhibit signs of a deranged mind, which would result in his being interned in mental asylums repeatedly. The sight of women on the streets enraged him, and he would yell out and threaten them, chasing them down the street. He was particularly incensed by the sight of pregnant women. He gradually gravitated to painting from post card images, because his reputation as the village idiot made it difficult for him to work beyond the confines of his home. When he did venture out, he was often jeered, ridiculed and cursed. Eventually he was not allowed on the streets without a paid chaperone, because he had a tendency to expose himself to passers-by, shouting, "I paint with this!"

He attempted suicide in 1924, which was probably the result of years of alcohol abuse. Shortly thereafter he painted stage scenery and designed costumes for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.

He lived with his mother (also an alcoholic), whom he revered along with Joan of Arc and the Virgin Mary, until he was 52 years old. Prices for his paintings began to soar when he was in his late 30s, but money meant nothing to him. He contented himself with toy trains and children’s musical instruments – and a lot of wine. Often after a severe drinking spree he would ask his friends to lock him up and not let him drink. He would then scream and wail piteously until someone let him out, or he could escape. Even so, he became an internationally known painter, and the French government awarded him the Cross of the Legion of Honor in 1928.

At the age of 52 he left his mother’s home to marry Lucie Valore, who died of a heart attack just three years after their wedding. Their marriage was less the result of courtship than a transfer of custody, yet she shares his grave in St-Vincent's cemetery.

When the National Museum of Modern Art exhibited a retrospective of his art works in the 1950s, he could not attend the opening because of his intolerance of other people. The museum had to give him a private tour. Today his paintings fetch more than $100,000 U.S., and the most popular ones are reproduced on postcards sold all over Montmartre. Utrillo's famous White Period, between 1909 and 1914, marked his independence from Impressionist influences, and these canvasses are the most sought after by collectors today.

An interesting note is that Utrillo’s paternity was always questioned. When Maurice was born illegitimately to Suzanne Valadon (then a prostitute), she went to Renoir, for whom she had modeled nine months previously. Renoir looked at the baby and said, "He can't be mine, his color is terrible!" Next she went to Degas, for whom she had also modeled. Degas said, "He can't be mine, his form is terrible!" At a nearby café, Valadon saw an artist she knew named Miguel Utrillo, to whom she spilled her woes. The man told her he would adopt her baby son. "I would be glad to put my name on the work of either Renoir or Degas!" Maurice resented being adopted and used his mother’s surname of Valadon until he was 27. when he started to sign his paintings, Maurice Utrillo, V.

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