Frames Of Reference: Utrillo’s Montmartre

You’d be forgiven for never hearing of Maurice Utrillo, although you probably know him better than you think. Especially if you’ve ever walked the bending paths of Montmartre, or read anything about its artistic heyday, or simply browsed famous pictures of Paris. Your eyes have probably scanned hastily over his name on their way to more recognizable ones, an unfortunate result of invariably appearing in print along larger marquee players like Picasso, Degas, and Renoir who absorb most of the spotlight.

Utrillo’s story is a classic one of the tortured artist. He was born the day after Christmas in 1883 to a young woman employed as an artists’ model. The baby’s father’s identity was unknown even to her, so rumors spread quickly past cobblestones and wooden shutters that it must have been one of her employers, possibly even the same Mr. Renoir mentioned above. Eventually a friend of the mother’s (whom the boy had never met) agreed to adopt the child and give him his name of Utrillo, roughly pronounced in French as oo-tree-yo.

Alcoholism and mental illness plagued Maurice from an early age, and by his 20′s he was already a drunk and had been institutionalized. His mother, who had become so close to the painters painting her that she became one herself and was even tutored by Edgar Degas, encouraged her son to use art-making as therapy. He dove head-first into this endeavor and painted hundreds and hundreds of street scenes, primarily in Montmartre during the early to mid 1900′s. Several of them are now highly revered, and no other artist spent so much time chronicling the scenes of a Paris that has long since disappeared.

Or has it? As I delve deeper into the area’s history I’m coming across more and more of Utrillo’s paintings, and many of them bear a striking resemblance to memories I have of my various walks. Aligning his paintings next to my photos yielded a pretty exciting result:


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It’s remarkable how at times the line between a modern photo and a century-old canvas can be so blurred; it gives validity to the claim that this area has kept its artistic charm over the years. It’s also a confirmation of a phenomenon so common in this area and Paris in general: around almost every corner is a composition just begging to be captured by a lens, a brush, or simply a pair of passing eyes. The sensation of being inside a painting is not a foreign one here.

Utrillo never shook his destructive personal habits and remained constantly on the brink of depression and despair. He’ll never be hoisted to the heights of a Cézanne or Van Gogh. But there he was, day after day with his easel stood in the street, trying to find his own voice in the shadows of Art History’s titans, reigning in his demons as best he could and filtering that darkness through the peaceful and inspiring views of Montmartre. As if the mythos of this famous neighborhood needed anything more, it’ll now have a bit more dignity and poignancy for me after having discovered Maurice Utrillo.

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About A French Frye in Paris

An American living in Paris, savoring the city one secret at a time. View all posts by A French Frye in Paris

14 responses to “Frames Of Reference: Utrillo’s Montmartre

  • Corey Frye

    For anyone interested in going to see these views themselves, they are respectively the St-Pierre-de-Montmartre church, rue de la Bonne, rue Tholozérue NorvinsLa Mère Catherine restaurant, and rue St-Rustique.

  • Lu

    Such a beautiful post. Not being an avid art-lover (I only know the BIG boys of the impressionist period) but I do love this side-by-side comparison of this (to me) unknown artist. His paintings are very romantic – impossible not to be in Paris, I guess.

    • Corey Frye

      Thanks Lu. I had only seen his name in passing over the years and never gave him much thought. Even art fans tend to spend more time on the big names; there’s only so much time you can spend in a museum after all! I’d agree with you that Paris brings out the romantic side in most people, and it’s certainly the case for me. Thanks for your post and take care.

  • hmunro

    You’ve written a beautiful, compassionate glimpse into Utrillo’s troubled life, Corey. I can’t think of a better way to pay tribute to Montmartre. And your photo-with-painting juxtapositions are *wonderful.* I’m starting to think about skipping my next trip and just visiting Paris through your blog! (No, not really. Grin.)

  • Lee I

    A long time ago (like the 50s), I had several small art paperbacks of impressionists’ works. I think I had Utrillo. I can’t find them and can’t believe I got rid of them! I’m marveling in the comparisons of photo and painting at his marvelous use of perspective. It’s just spot on, as are his colors.

    • Corey Frye

      Thanks Lee. Yes I was also struck by the similarities in color and overall feel between the two. Really shows that he wasn’t arbitrary with his choices and that he tried to capture the feel of each place. Also a delight to see how little things have changed over the years.

  • backyardprovence

    Nice post! I have never heard of Maurice Utrillo but my goodness he was a terrific artist! I love the touch you gave with putting your photos next to his art work. It’s absolutely wonderful to see so much of what he painted stay the same over time or change very little. It’s too bad that someone so talented had to wrestle with so many demons. What is it about artists that they always seem to be such tortured souls?
    Ashley

    • Corey Frye

      I was a Fine Arts major in college and it was always a conversation that popped up: do you need to have a sad or difficult life to create true masterpieces? Logically it wouldn’t seem that way, but there are so few famous artists who had a comfortable life that it makes you wonder. I think we probably just hear the bad stories more often because they’re the most interesting & enduring over time.

  • Dena

    That second pair of photographs is my favorite. Not because of anything “scenic” or “historical” in the architecture, but because I just love that one of the few things that could have been easily removed by human beings is that gorgeous, full tree to the left of the building. SAME TREE! I love that!

  • elle marie gray

    I like the last set of photos the best. I’d love to be heading up that cobblestone street right now.

  • emilytoulouse

    I love the juxtaposition of his paintings and your photos! I’m so glad I explored Montmartre before going to Musée de l’Orangerie and seeing his paintings for the first time.

    • A French Frye in Paris

      Thanks emily, I was excited to discover Utrillo’s work and see how often it matched up with my photos. His story is such a classic one of the tortured turn-of-the-century artist, and it fits in perfectly with a place like Montmartre. I also like his approach to painting in that he knew he wasn’t the best artist around, but he kept at it day after day because it was therapy for him and part of his own journey. The fact that he never got the props that the other painters got gives me a bit of a soft spot for him. :)

      It’s cool that you got to see the Orangerie museum as well, that’s a place many visitors never make it to but it can really be an oasis from the larger tourist-packed sites.

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