The Parisian district of Montmartre was the beating heart of belle époque bohemianism. In its nightclubs and brothels an extraordinary artistic revolution was fermented. Impressionism, a movement captivated by light and movement, had taken artists out of the city to paint en plein air, but by the late 1800s a new and urban approach saw artists enthralled by the heady carnival underworld of the fin-de-siècle metropolis. It was in this atmosphere of excess — and in the district of Montmartre itself — that French painter Maurice Utrillo was born to Suzanne Valadon, a teenage artist’s model. Utrillo’s life would be dogged by mental-health issues and alcoholism, and yet from it he would forge one of the most important Post-Impressionist bodies of work — a melancholy, lugubrious vision of the streets of Montmartre painted from life or, when his health did not allow, from postcards and memory.
Suzanne Valadon, Utrillo’s mother, would become a successful painter herself. Mentored by Degas, she began teaching the young Utrillo after being advised that painting would be beneficial to her son’s rehabilitation following his first institutionalisation for alcoholism at the age 18. Although Valadon’s friend, Spanish painter Miguel Utrillo y Morlius, gave Utrillo his name, his father was variously rumoured to be Renoir or Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, for whom Valadon had posed.
By 1909 Utrillo was painting extraordinary Post-Impressionist street scenes and was exhibiting at the Salon d’Automne in Paris and, by 1912, in the Salon des Indépendants. It was a period marked by a radical bleaching of his palette as white became his predominant tone, and he began mixing paint with glue and lime, producing masterpieces such as La Rue Norvins à Montmartre (c.1910).
Utrillo suffered a series of alcoholic breakdowns throughout his long life, and would live with his mother until his marriage in 1935. By then he was a hugely successful and prolific artist who had painted more than 5,000 canvases, almost all of them street scenes. In 1928 he was awarded the Légion d’Honneur.
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