Trenino Utrillo

The Infernal Trio: Maurice Utrillo, Montmartre’s Bottle

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Son of Suzanne Valadon, Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955) was a constant, unstable problem.


Utrillo a 7 anni
Portrait of a 7-years-old Maurice Utrillo made by his mother Suzanne Valadon.

Alcoholic since he was 13, the poor boy was subjected to some fits of rage that would have scared out Kylo Ren. Bipolar, autistic, paranoid, it’s possible to describe him in many ways. The only thing that could make him forget the bottle was the color palette. Utrillo painted to endure himself.

Suzanne e Maurice
Suzanne and Maurice (ca. 1889).

Suzanne was accused to be a negligent mother, always around bistrots with artists and intellectuals while the kid with the “aubergine-shaped head” was left with the old grandmother (Utrillo, to be honest, was never handsome). I wonder then what should be said about the champion of indifference who was his father (painter Miguel Utrillo acknowledged him as his, but for many it was just an act of kindness).

If a 19-years-old Suzanne didn’t want to be a mother, some years later she had to face the harsh reality that her son had become a sad alcoholic. It had all started as a traditional remedy for his epileptic crises (hot broth with wine), but for young Maurice, the need for drinking soon went out of control. Maybe the guilt, maybe a sudden maturity reached in the face of misfortune, maybe both things drove Suzanne to be the mother she didn’t want to be. Maurice would have never been without her again. Ever.

After the umpteenth hospitalization in a nursing home, a doctor suggested a manual activity to calm down Maurice’s demons. Suzanne then decided to teach him painting. Thanks to this providential decision, Maurice was able to create the hundreds of views of Montmartre that would make him famous (a subject that would remain extremely popular even later, until today). The obsessive perfectionism of Maurice worked wonders on canvas. First from live observation, then enlarging postcards, his portrait of the butte was the most faithful and whole, except for the human presence, often absent or anyways completely irrelevant.

the Lapin Agile, the famous Montmartre’s cabaret, painted by Utrillo
Maurice Utrillo Valadon and the expression of one of his peculiar characteristics
Maurice Utrillo, Église de Nôtre-Dame des Blancs-Manteax (1911)
The Church of Nôtre-Dame des Blancs-Manteaux by Maurice Utrillo (1911). If his mother’s painting was instinctive, Maurice’s was methodical and precise.
Notre-Dame des Blancs Manteaux
The same church of Nôtre-Dame des Blancs Manteaux today. Utrillo’s paintings were so accurate to be true proof of the appearance of the places at his time. I had some fun finding the big/small differences.

But as soon as he put the brush down, Maurice wanted to drink. Suzanne even gave him money to vent in some brothel, but he spent everything in wine. She even got to the point that she went with him personally, to check that he couldn’t slip in some bar, but it was useless: Maurice Utrillo, also known as “Litrillo” because he had more wine than blood in his veins, always preferred a glass of red to any other pleasure. I just want to point out that only in Montmartre you could actually hear someone say “Today my mother brought me to the brothel”, yet another proof that Maurice was the worthy son of the butte I rebaptized Mount-Mad.

(For a taste of the crazy genius focused on the most famous hill of Paris, read: “Montmartre o Mont-mad? Little creepy stories from the hill of madness“)

Poor Utrillo roamed the streets of the hill, mimicking the movement and sound of the electric train he loved to play with, even when he was older, he couldn’t bear the sight of a pregnant woman, blew for hours into a flute he couldn’t play, read technical books he couldn’t understand, cradled in his arms the statuette of Saint-Jean d’Arc, to whom he was very devoted, and if they didn’t let him drink he exploded in fits of rage, throwing from the window everything he could put his hands on.
Camera Maurice Utrillo
Maurice Utrillo’s room at the Montmartre Museum, 12 rue Cortot, the same house where the Infernal Trio lived.
Finestra Utrillo
Detail of Maurice Utrillo’s window: the iron bars were needed to stop him from jumping out and go out looking for something to drink. The tighter iron web was there to stop the objects he threw out during his fits from falling over the people on the street.
Trenino Utrillo
The electric train with with Maurice Utrillo loved to play.

(Here is the website of the Montmartre Museum)

However, someone noticed his talent. Often exposed beside mommy Suzanne’s the views that had dragged him away from his inner hell for a bit became greatly fashionable in Paris and in America too; but if Utrillo became rich, that was also thanks to the third member of the Infernal Trio: André Utter, the young husband of his mother.

Tomba Utrillo
Maurice Utrillo, and his wife Lucie’s tomb in the cemetery of Saint-Vincent, close to the house in rue Cortot in Montmartre. Maurice lived 72 years, and I’ll call this a miracle, seen his habits…

(Read about the last member of the Infernal Trio, the youngest of the three, Suzanne’s great love: Painter André Utter)