Valadon Utrillo

March 10, 2009By Heidi EllisonArchive


The Pinacothèque de Paris is a gallery with a mission: it often sets out to rescue the reputation of artists who have been forgotten, neglected or scorned…


The Pinacothèque de Paris is a gallery with a mission: it often sets out to rescue the reputation of artists who have been forgotten, neglected or scorned, or to examine aspects of a particular artist’s work that have gone largely unnoticed, as in its last show, about the influence of shamanism on Jackson Pollock. This time, the Pinacothèque has taken on the tragic story of Maurice Utrillo (who falls into the neglected and scorned categories) and his mother, Suzanne Valadon (forgotten and neglected).

A short summary of a fairly well-known story: Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938), the illegitimate child of a father she never knew, gave birth in 1883 to a boy she called Maurice, who never knew the identity of his father, either. The bohemian Valadon was an artist’s model who frequented Montmartre watering holes and posed for such artists Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes and Edgar Degas, some of whom of whom were her lovers and some of whom gave her instruction in drawing and encouraged her efforts – “You’re one of us,” Degas told her upon seeing one of her drawings.

While the pretty, lively Valadon was busy in Montmartre, little Maurice, who later adopted the name Utrillo from one of his mother’s lovers, was left to live with his grandmother. His long career as a drunk began when he was just a boy. Later, when he was living in Montmartre himself, he was a laughingstock known as “Litrillo” for the liters of wine he was able to consume. During his adult life, he was in and out of mental institutions and trouble with the police. He always claimed that he was not insane, just an alcoholic.

In spite of this great handicap, in his twenties Utrillo – tutored by his mother and encouraged by his best friend, André Utter – became an accomplished and highly successful painter. Utter later became his mother’s lover and husband, to Utrillo’s great chagrin.

In telling this often sordid but very human story in great detail, the exhibition sets out to rescue Utrillo’s reputation from the scorn heaped on it, supposedly because of his alcoholism, although it must be said that Utrillo contributed to the ruin of his own reputation by spending much of his life churning out mediocre copies of the works from his glory days before 1920. The exhibition at the Pinacothèque includes only works from before that date.

The show does a better job of resurrecting Valadon’s reputation from the neglect it has suffered, possibly (as the curators speculate) because she was a woman artist who did not restrict herself to “female” subject matter – mothers, children and domestic scenes – in the manner of her predecessors Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot. As Utrillo’s star declined, his mother’s rose as she began to paint under Utter’s influence and became increasingly proficient and successful at it.

And what about the paintings themselves? Utrillo’s have become so familiar through reproductions and postcards (ironically, he painted many of his famous street scenes from postcards sent to him by his mother) that they look almost banal to our jaundiced eye – ho hum, another picturesque view of Montmartre. But a closer look reveals a haunting stillness and emptiness in many of these scenes that cuts through their quaintness.

The exhibition also points up the interesting contrasts between the work of mother and son. While Utrillo’s palette became increasingly muted and somber as he mixed plaster, sand, lime and even pigeon droppings into his zinc white paints to depict the buildings of Paris, Valadon’s was brilliant and bold. Although he rarely went out, Utrillo almost exclusively painted outdoor scenes with few human figures (always in the distance, with their backs turned), while his outgoing mother’s pictures, often depicting indoor scenes, were nonetheless full of people and vibrant light and color.

The great merit of this show, the first to display the artistic output of mother and son together, is that it brings Valadon’s work back into the public eye. While she is known for the frankness of her female nudes, I found them rather stiff and unconvincing, and preferred the more natural portraits, landscapes and still lifes. with their rich, brilliant colors.

Although Valadon’s life seems to have been the more active, exciting one, she came to a sad end, becoming a recluse and dying alone in 1938, while her son found comfort in religion and marriage (when he was in his fifties). He lived to be 72 years old, but never again created any original works, simply repeating over and over again the same themes he had mastered during the glory days of his “white period” between 1910 and 1916.

Heidi Ellison

Pinacothèque de Paris: 28, place de la Madeleine, 75008 Paris. Métro: Madeleine. Tel.: 01 42 68 02 01. Open daily 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m. (until 9 p.m. on the first Wednesday of every month; 2 p.m.-6 p.m. on December 25 and January 1). Admission: €9. Through September 15.

More reviews of current art exhibitions.

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