Like Mother, Like SonIt is not unusual for a son to follow in his father's footsteps. Art history is full of references to "the elder" and "the younger" used in discussing various fathers who no doubt taught their sons how to paint. Even today, as with Andrew Wyeth and his son Jamie, art talent and careers are sometimes passed down from one generation to the next. It's a little more unusual, however, for a boy to have art training and a career passed down to him by his mother. Unusual or not, that was just the case for a young Parisian boy by the name of Maurice Utrillo. He was born in 1883, the son of a young Parisian girl named Marie-Clementine Valadon who was herself not yet eighteen at the time. Aside from his last name, little is known about Maurice's father. His mother, who went by the name, Suzanne, had left home and school at the age of fourteen, working briefly with a circus before becoming an artist's model. She is known to have posed for both Renoir and Toulouse Lautrec, through whom she met Edgar Degas, who encouraged her to become an artist herself.
It's never easy being a working mother, raising a son alone; and a hundred years ago, on the rough streets of the Paris artists' district of Montmartre, it was especially treacherous. There was no welfare, no social safety net, and the opportunities for a largely uneducated woman to earn a living were limited pretty much to waitressing, domestic work, and prostitution. And indications are young Suzanne may, at various times, have engaged in all of the above. However she had going for her the fact that she was young, attractive, and smart. She quickly parlayed her work as an artist's model into an art education she could never have got or afforded any other way. Her early work included paintings of women and children not unlike those of her near contemporaries, Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot, but with a decidedly lower-class flavour imbuing them with a sense of loneliness and despair typical of her surroundings. In 1894, at the age of twenty-nine, she had some of her drawings accepted by the Salon and after that, became a regular fixture at various galleries and juried exhibitions including the group calling themselves Femmes Artistes Modernes (Modern Women Artists).
All this time, she was also raising her son, Maurice. Just as there had been no money for her own art training, the same was true for her son. She took it upon herself to become his one and only art teacher, and for years, his only artistic influence. Initially, his Paris street scenes were purely Impressionist, which was not surprising, given his mother's informal association with some of that movement's best. And though he gradually assimilated various Cubist tenets into his style, his paintings never lost the sorrowful empty feeling passed on from his mother's work. Many of his early paintings were done in palette knife employing the heavy use of white (which came to be known, not surprisingly, as his White Period). He survived two world wars, both of which found their way into his art. A French farm burned by the Germans as they advanced toward Paris during the First World War is among his most searing images. During his life, he succeeded in enveloping himself with the mystique of the Bohemian Paris street artist, his work after the Second World War gradually attaining respectable prices. His mother died in 1938, her son in 1955. His life, as well as hers, and their art, is one of the most remarkable and inspiring stories of success at beating the odds to be found in all of art history.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
17 August 1999