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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Maurice Utrillo

St. Vincent Street and the Lapin Agile, 1903, Maurice Utrillo--one of his earliest works.

Maurice Utrillo, 1899, Pablo Picasso
(I question the date, Utrillo would
have been sixteen in 1899,
Picasso only eighteen.)
Sometimes, an artist's personal story can be more interesting than his or her artwork. More than a year ago I wrote about a young artists' model who, herself, became a noted painter simply from watching some of the outstanding artists who painted her and, in effect, "picking their brains." Her name was Suzanne Valadon (11-25-11). I won't repeat her story here except to note once more that she was the mother of Maurice Utrillo, a painter of early 20th century Paris street scenes. What he learned about painting he learned from his mother, though he was in his early 20s before he started working seriously. And, while he may have learned from his mother, there has long been some question as to the identity of his father, including such names as Edgar Degas and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. A paternal "art gene" may have been a factor. In any case, he seems to have possessed a great degree of natural talent.

La Lapin Agile, 1908, Maurice Utrillo--a fairly accurate depiction.
Utrillo's work "grows" on you. Though I've known and seen his paintings for many years he was not, until recently at least, an artist whose work appealed to me. It always seemed to me to be rather bleak and lifeless. (Utrillo seldom included figures in his work, and when he did they were crude, awkward, and childlike.) However, in studying his impressive lifetime portfolio, these elements began to recede in importance to be replaced by a fascination with the Paris Utrillo knew and obviously loved, especially the west bank neighborhood of Montmartre where he was born and raised. It's hard to imagine romantic Paris as being bleak, but then, Utrillo's Paris was a hundred years ago. One of his favorite "hangouts" a scene he painted again and again at various times of day and seasons of the year, was a small cabaret called La Lapin Agile (The Nimble Rabbit, above). It was a quaint, rustic place (especially a hundred years ago). It appears to have been a favorite "watering hole" for quite a number of artists, writers, and their friends going back to well before Utrillo was born.
Lapin Agile Sous la Niege, 1942, Maurice Utrillo--snow was his favorite color.
Utrillo is interesting because in looking at his work, you can watch his talent develop. An astute eye can look at one of his paintings and place it with five to ten years of his 72-year lifespan (he died in 1955). His St. Vincent Street and La Lapin Agile (top) from 1903, is awash with color (unlike his "white period" a few years later). The drawing skill is amateurish, and the painting technique not much better. Yet the work exhibits a lively striving to express a warm love for his favorite neighborhood drinking establishment (he was an alcoholic by the time he was eighteen and only began painting as part of an effort to recover his sobriety). His mature style can be seen in his Lapin Agile Sous la Niege (above). Compare it to the "then and now" photos below.
La Lapin Agile, 2010
The La Lapin Agile Utrillo
knew as a child. (1890)


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