Maurice Utrillo – Art, Alcohol, Depression & Women

Maurice Utrillo is a talented post-impressionism painter who battled with alcoholism and depression for most of his life. It is actually because of his mental illness that he became a painter. His story is fascinating!

Portrait of Maurice Utrillo painted by his mother, Suzanne Valadon
Portrait of Maurice Utrillo painted by his mother, Suzanne Valadon [Public Domain]

Early Years

Utrillo was born in Montmartre in 1883. Suzanne Valadon, his mother gave birth to him when she was only 18 years old. Suzanne never knew who the father was as she had many lovers at the time. However, Maurice received the surname of the Spanish art critic Miguel Utrillo, the officially appointed stepfather who lived abroad.  

Utrillo’s Mother & The Impressionists

Utrillo’s mother, Suzanne Valadon, made a living as a model and lover to numerous painters including Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec. She is the subject of quite few of their famous canvases. Valadon also was a talented painter who later made a name for herself in the art world.

Suzanne Valadon painted by Renoir
Suzanne Valadon painted by Renoir

Utrillo’s Alcoholic Early Life

Maurice Utrillo was cared for by his heavy drinking grandmother and his unconventional mother, Suzanne Valadon. Although Suzanne tried bringing up Utrillo the best she could, he was highly strung and insecure.

As a child, he had fits of uncontrollable rage and grief, for which he was given wine to help calm his nerves. It is then not surprising that as an adolescent, Utrillo was already a heavy drinker. By the age of 17 he was drinking anything he could get his hands on. Utrillo was expelled from school for being drunk and unruly.

For a while Utrillo worked in a bank and tried to stay sober. However, his unmanageable behavior got him into trouble with his manager and he was fired. A period of heavy drinking together with continual outbursts of rage and depression followed.

The streets of Montmartre -Maurice Utrillo art from his "White Period"
The streets of Montmartre – Maurice Utrillo art from his “White Period” [Public Domain]

Painting as a Form of Art Therapy

By the time Utrillo turned eighteen he was so out of control that he was committed into a mental asylum. During this period, his mother, Suzanne Valadon encouraged him to paint as a form of “mental health” occupational therapy. She intuitively understood that painting could help him re-channel his anguish and help find emotional balance through his art.  

Streets of Montmartre - Maurice Utrillo painting
Streets of Montmartre – Maurice Utrillo art [Public Domain]

Utrillo discovered a hidden talent and passion for painting. Paining did indeed provide him with an emotional outlet.

Montmartre & Utrillo

With coarse brush strokes and thick applications of paint, Utrillo captured the sloping narrow streets of his childhood neighborhood, Montmartre. To achieve a greater realism and texture in his paintings, Maurice Utrillo often mixed into his paints sand and plaster.

His paintings can be divided into two groups, depicting not only his surroundings as he viewed them but also his inner-emotional self.

  • A melancholy view of his surroundings evident somber hues, grey skies, deteriorating buildings & empty streets
  • A sunnier view of his surroundings shown by scenes of blue sunny skies and people milling about
Winter scene in Montmartre - Maurice Utrillo art
Winter scene in Montmartre – Maurice Utrillo art [Public Domain]

Utrillo succeeded in capturing the atmosphere of rustic Montmartre with mastery, not only because of his artistic skill, but also because he was born and grew up in Montmartre.  Montmartre was his world from birth. The infamous nightclubs, cafes, the bourgeois residential houses, small wooden shacks and the seedy bars were all so familiar to him.

Maurice Utrillo painted what he saw. Initially his palette consisted of dark, heavy hues but slowly shifted towards lighter colors under the influence of Impressionist painters Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley. 

Utrillo’s White Period & Claim to Fame

During World War One, Maurice Utrillo was unfit for military service because of his emotional instability. It was during the wartime that Utrillo painted his “White Period”. These paintings are defined by a range of white tones and a sense of eerie emptiness.

Sacre-Coeur  - Painting by Maurice Utrillo
Sacre-Coeur – Painting by Maurice Utrillo [Public Domain]

The “White Period” brought Utrillo fame. Utrillo used plaster and sand and white tones to depict the cityscapes of Montmartre, his hometown. Critics and the art world alike praised his paintings. In a joint exhibition with his mother, Valadon in 1923, he became famous.

However, his personal struggle with alcoholism and depression did not diminish with success. His entire life was punctuated with admissions into mental asylums.

As recognition for my efforts, I received harsh sarcasm. Still, I pressed onward. In the beginning I sold my canvases for two francs, and later, little by little, I entered into this difficult career as my life’s work. (Quote Maurice Utrillo)

Montmartre - Maurice Utrillo painting
Montmartre – Maurice Utrillo painting [Public Domain]

The Dominant Women in Utrillo’s Life

The most significant people in his life were women, his grandmother, his wife Lucie, after whom he named his last residence, and probably the most important woman of all, his mother, Suzanne Valadon. The painter’s deep attachment to his mother is expressed in his signature, “Maurice Utrillo V.”, adding a “V.” to show his love for her.

Legacy

Like his mother, Maurice Utrillo was a self-taught artist. Despite his continual struggle with depression and alcoholism throughout his entire adult life, Utrillo produced around 5000 thousand oil paintings, watercolors, pencil sketches and gouaches.

Where to view Maurice Utrillo’s Art

Utrillo’s artworks can be found today in most prestigious art museums all over the world. In Paris, you can view his paintings & follow his footsteps at:

  • Centre Pompidou showcases around ten of his paintings
  • Museum of Montmartre. This lovely museum is located on a quiet street behind Sacré Coeur. It provides a glimpse into the former workspace of Utrillo and his mother, both painters and an intrinsic part of Montmartre’s extraordinary artistic past
  • The National Museum of Modern Art in Paris exhibits around twenty of his beautiful paintings
  • Musee D’Orsay showcases six of his paintings
  • Musee L’Orangerie has a wonderful collection of Utrillo’s paintings
  • Go for a quiet stroll in the lovely Montmartre cemetery. Here you will find the resting place of many famous celebs, including Utrillo, Degas and Emile Zola
Grave of Maurice and Lucie Utrillo in the Montmartre cemetery
Grave of Maurice and Lucie Utrillo in the Montmartre cemetery (Wikimedia Commons)