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:
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.