Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Child of the Streets

At its peak, the Montmartre section of Paris in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century pulsated as the heart of the bohemian art scene, with the Moulin Rouge and other lively venues as the accompanying soundtrack. In the middle of all that excitement, Maurice Utrillo was born and raised. Born on Christmas Day 1883, Utrillo grew up to paint countless scenes of the Montmartre streets (one example above) he knew and loved. Perhaps the most famous fact about Utrillo involves the mystery of his father, who may have been one of the great artists of the time.

Suzanne Valadon, Utrillo’s mother, posed for such artists as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes, Berthe Morisot, and Edgar Degas after her career as a circus acrobat ended with a fall from a trapeze. Valadon learned to paint watching these artists and eventually Degas served as a mentor. The beautiful Suzanne bedded many artists as well, which led to the disputed patrimony of Maurice (whose La Belle Gabrielle Montmartre appears above). The minor Spanish painter Miguel Utrillo y Molins legally claimed paternity in 1891, but the rumors of an art star father dogged Utrillo to the end of his life, overshadowing in some ways his own artistic achievement.

There’s a long-standing joke that Miguel claimed parentage of Maurice just to put his name to a creation by Renoir or Degas. Maurice’s work, however, is not a joke. Works such as La Rue Tholoze (above, from 1913) capture quietly the daily life of Montmartre in a way that Toulouse-Lautrec’s boisterous café scenes do not. Utrillo shows the flip side of Montmartre—the side that a young boy growing up amidst all the noise and excitement would know firsthand. Few people populate Utrillo’s street scenes of Montmartre, giving the feel of the quiet early morning when people were sleeping off the effects of the previous night’s festivity. Despite the clear quality of his renderings, Utrillo’s name often appears on bad fakes that take advantage of the touristy hunger for souvenirs of the bohemian neighborhood. There’s a Hopper-esque quality to some of these scenes in their architectural emptiness, the loneliness of a café when everyone has gone home. You might even see a hint of loneliness from a man who never truly knew his full heritage but could only guess at potential genius in his blood.

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