Maurice Utrillo was one of very few painters to actually be born and raised in the bohemian quarter. His mother, Suzanne Valadon, was an artist’s model, who would later herself go on to become a famed artist in her own right. The question of who was Maurice’s father has long been the stuff of legend.
Suzanne thought that Renoir or Degas could have been Maurice’s father. She also suspected that it could have been Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Ultimately, Miguel Utrillo, a Catalan artist offered Valadon his name, and gave Maurice a surname that he would make famous.
Born in Montmartre in 1883, Maurice’s then 18-year old mother was known to have had liaisons with many local artists. After an accident ended her career as a circus acrobat, Suzanne had become a model for many painters. This allowed Suzanne to learn techniques from the painters as well as being a mistress to some.
Suzanne would go on to become a famed painter, becoming the first female to enter the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts; while Maurice struggled in school, becoming a regular truant. The young Utrillo’s problems with disobedience and alcohol resulted in being committed to a mental asylum. During this time, his physician encouraged his mother to teach him how to paint as a means of therapy.
With no formal training, Maurice quickly took to painting and began capturing his local Montmartre surroundings. Although his problems with alcohol persisted, Utrillo’s experimentation with oils, water colours and pencils produced portraits that would become known the world over.
Illustrating every inch of Montmartre, Utrillo turned his local area into legendary art. Many critics regard his multiple portraits of Au Lapin Agile, le Moulin Rouge and the Sacré-Cœur as some of the finest paintings of urban scenes.
In 1929, the French government awarded Utrillo the prestigious Cross of the Legion of Honour. Throughout his life, Utrillo’s mental health problems resulted in periods in asylums; however, he contented to capture the backstreets and bistros of Montmartre until his death in 1955.
While he painted many of France’s great cathedrals and panoramas across the country, it is his many portraits of the unheralded sights of Paris’ 18eme arrondissement which yielded Paris’ most recognised cityscapes.
Today, many of Utrillo’s paintings are on display in the Musee du Montmartre, a few minutes from his final resting place, the Saint-Vincent cemetery. Both are merely a few minutes walk from our hostel.