Maurice Utrillo: Sacre-Coeur De Montmartre, 1937

Utrillo is best known for his views of Paris. This image offers a glimpse of the famous church of Sacre-Coeur (Sacred Heart), identified by the immense white dome at the end of the narrow street. The church is the most familiar building of Montmartre, the artistic quarter on the north side of Paris that Utrillo frequented.

Utrillo suffered from alcoholism and mental disorders and was encouraged to paint by his mother, the artist Suzanne Valadon, who was his only teacher.

The loose brushwork and bright color scheme suggest the influence of the Impressionist painters, though Utrillo was more than a generation younger than Monet and Pissarro.


In the entire history of modern art, miracles have occurred only twice, and both times in France. Just Before 1900, a poor, middle-aged civil servant, Henri Rousseau, a self-taught "Sunday painter," infused new energies and ideas into art. Shortly thereafter, a young, half-mad alcoholic of Montmartre, Maurice Utrillo, presented strange lanscapes which delighted the man in the street and astonished the connoisseur. These pictures inspired many artists to re-examine their world and, instead of turning to abstraction, once again to re-create reality. Yet, except for the miraculous element of self-preservation through art, no parallel exists between the two masters. Utrillo was the pupil of his outstanding mother, Suzanne Valadon, and a close friend of Amedeo Modigliani. Unlike Rousseau, Utrillo is not a primitive. He has been a professional painter all his life.

His is an incredible story. He might very well have ended his days, unknown to the world, as a patient in a sanatorium. Born in Paris in 1883, Utrillo is the offspring of a liaison between a teen-age model, Marie-Clémentine Valadon, and, so it is thought, a young amateur painter and chronic alcoholic, named Boissy. The boy's mother, an illegitimate child of peasant stock, later became the protégé of Toulouse-Lautrec, upon whose advice she changed her first name to the more elegant "Suzanne." It was Toulouse- Lautrec who introduced her to the great master Degas, who taught and encouraged her to paint.

Maurice Valadon was only a child when the Spanish writer and art critic, Miguel Utrillo, a friend of Suzanne's, in a spirit of kindness, bestowed upon him his own name. A highly neurotic youngster, Maurice was a poor student in secondary school. He was a failure, to say the least, as a bank clerk, and by the time he was eighteen had become an alcoholic and had to be temporarily committed to an asylum. It was "occupational therapy" which saved him and his hidden genius. Upon a physician's advice, Suzanne urged Maurice to take up painting as an emotional outlet through which he might regain his equilibrium. This experiment worked so well that in the past fifty years Maurice Utrillo has produced thousands of oils, gouaches, water colors, and pencil sketches, relying chiefly on his memory or the picture postcards in his possession. By 1920, he had become a legendary figure, internationally known. In 1929, the French Republic awarded him the Cross of the Legion of Honor. In his fifties he married an energetic widow, Lucie Pauwels, who managed his interests so ably that they could purchase a luxurious villa in the neighborhood of Paris where the couple is still living in grand style. It is known that, from his first confinement to an asylum to his retirment at Le Vésinet in the late thirties, Utrillo had many alcoholic relapses with self- destructive tendencies. He owes his redemption largely to the watchfulness of his mother, and then of his wife who became another gentle but firm "jailer." Even today it cannot be said that Utrillo is "a mind that found itself."

Of greater importance than his case history is the genius that alcohol was not able to destroy. Many artists and critics regard him as the century's greatest painter of urban scenes. But, in spite of his admittedly high standing, one is painfully aware of his total lack of self-criticism which permits the creation of both unbelievably inferior works and of indisputable masterpieces. No one can overlook the absence of intellectual concepts and the endless repition of the same motifs in the same manner. Still, if Utrillo is only an eye, as Cézanne said about Monet, one can continue with Cézanne: "But what an eye!"

Above all, Utrillo has an eye for Montmartre -- the old, picturesque, and relatively quiet artists' quarter as it existed before the First World War. He is fascinated by the sad little streets and miserable bistros of the industrial suburbs. It is true that he also painted some of the great cathedrals of France and panoramas of Brittany and Corsica, as well as a few flower pieces, but it is as the painter of the unheralded sights of the French capital that he will be known forever.

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