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Fontainebleau



Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955)
Fontainebleau
oil on cardboard
AGLC 379 @ A.G Leventis Gallery

Maurice Utrillo was the son of Suzanne Valadon (1867-1938), a painter whose talent was discovered and encouraged by Edgar Degas (1834-1917). He was born at a time when Valadon had just posed for Danse à la Ville (Paris, Musée d’Orsay) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), one of the many painters for whom she modelled. Worried about his unstable character and early onset alcoholism, his mother encouraged him to paint. Utrillo’s first attempts, realized around 1903 to 1906, were pochades painted directly from nature and are reminiscent of the Impressionists Alfred Sisley (1839-1899), Claude Monet (1840-1926) and Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), as well as Jean-François Raffaëlli (1850-1924), a Realist interpreter of life in the suburbs and outskirts of Paris.  

However, Utrillo soon developed a personal, detailed style, which he applied to the description of sad suburban churches, factories, barracks, and empty roads fleeing towards a closed horizon. His precise brushstroke focuses on the details of matter, attempting to convey the worn plaster of the walls, the scrawny trees of the city and the transparent or heavy sky. This sincerity, like the painter’s tormented soul, reminiscent of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), whose genius had recently been recognised, earned him the interest of major, enlightened connoisseurs, such as Francis Jourdain, Octave Mirbeau and Paul Gallimard (the father of Gaston Gallimard, founder of the Nouvelle revue française), who hung works by Utrillo next to their Impressionist masterpieces before 1914. Art dealers expressed interest in him, but their efforts were compromised by the artist’s propensity to produce slapdash work in order to pay his drinking debts. In retrospect, this first period, often referred to as his ‘white period’ due to the colour that dominated his palette, appears to be Utrillo’s most interesting one.  

Fontainebleau, whose subject is identified by an old inscription on the back of the painting dated to 1913, which we can agree to accept in the absence of a different indication, belongs in fact to this period. Works of a similar motif are not known to exist, but a painting by Utrillo of a larger format (location unknown) was auctioned in 1919 (Vente Eugène Descaves, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 28 March 1919, no. 87, 59 x 85 cm) and was called Une Route à Fontainebleau. It is impossible to know whether Utrillo actually stayed in Fontainebleau or whether, according to a habit of his, he used a postcard from there. His palette used that famous white on the wall that borders the road, which was then treated in tangible relief on the chimneys. The delicate blue-grey of the sky does not block out the crude cardboard background, which has probably darkened with time, slightly modifying the initial colour scheme. Finally, the orange note on the tile roofs gives rhythm and accent to this wellbalanced composition.

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About the artist

Born in Montmartre, he was the son of the painter Suzanne Valadon, who had modelled for Edgar Degas and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. He was encouraged by his mother to paint, to treat his mental illness and alcoholism, and he was trained by her. He developed an idiosyncratic style with precise brushwork in detailed, rather sad depictions of churches, factories, barracks and empty roads, which he painted from nature, from postcards or from memory. By 1910 his work attracted critical praise, and by 1920 he was internationally acclaimed.

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