Maurice Utrillo, “Le Moulin de la Galette,” 1924. Oil on panel, 25.6 x 31.3 cm. Signed lower right. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak
If it’s true that, as an early champion, Francis Jourdain, observed (in “Utrillo,” Les Editions Braune & Cie, 1948, Paris), Maurice Utrillo (1883 – 1955) was “essentially urban…, a portraitist of walls…[, of] their customs, their particularities, the thousand manners that they adorn themselves to be livid or sparkling, their tattoos, their lizards, their lichens, their leprosy, all their maladies of erosion and billboards,” it’s also true that he was the foremost chronicler of a Montmartre landscape in the final stages of its transformation from bucolic pastoral suburb to monochromic metropolitan annex. The harmony he brought to this conflictual landscape was imbued with new prismatic vigor in the 10-year period that began in 1923 when, following a suicide attempt, Utrillo’s artist mother Suzanne Valadon (one-time model for Renoir and Degas) and her companion Andre Utter started taking him to the Saint-Bernard Chapel near Bourg-en-Bresse to recuperate. If Utrillo wasn’t crazy about the countryside, he appreciated rural reds, notes Georges Boudelle (“Utrillo,” le Musee Personnel, Paris, 1966), and his palette was imbued with a new brilliance revealed in lush reds, blues, and greens, reflected in the synthesis of the 1924 “Le Moulin de la Galette” (above), on sale in Artcurial’s October 18 Impressionism and Modern auction in Paris. The oil on panel might also benefit from the veneer of nostalgia, given that during this period intersected by sojourns at Saint-Bernard, Utrillo was frequently painting from memory. If Artcurial’s pre-sale estimate of 28,000 – 32,000 Euros might seem exorbitant for a 25.6 x 31.3 cm piece, its supported by several elements unique in Utrillo’s oeuvre. The sky — never higher and more vast than in Montmartre! — is not the grim grey we’re used to, but a light blue which permits the darker reds and greens in the forefront to flourish without seeming oppressive. There are none of the austere Haussmanian apartment behemoths, whose dull facades Utrillo captured by mixing sand into his pigment. And with the inclusion of a Sacre Coeur imposed on the defeated Communards of 1871, the observation post below it (its actually grey gussied up to rust), the windmill at the right, and the vestiges of verdure cruelly cut off by the n’importe quoi fences of haphazard urbanization, he encapsulates several Montmartroise epochs. Add to this the absence of human figures usually sketched as apparent after-thoughts or, in this period, as malicious caricatures, the women with ballooning skirts — but without the lonely melancholy this void produces in Utrillo’s more grey street views — and you have a faultless oeuvre.