After concluding this account of the life, loves and alcoholism of one of the greatest French artist of this century who died only a little over 3 years ago, I cannot help but feel that the Longstreets have allowed their imaginations to become a little highly coloured. Surely no man who lived to be 72 could be drunk or partially so for 64 years. It is alleged that Maurice commenced his excessive drinking at about the age of eight and by the time he was 10 years old he was a problem drinker. He remained so until his death in 1955.
Well, be that as it may, Utrillo was one of the greatest painters of his age and the Longstreets knew him and his mother in the early 20s when they were beginning to be famous around the streets of Montmartre for their unorthodox way of living - spectacular even in that milieu where social behaviour was always on a low moral plane.
Utrillo's mother, the natural daughter of an unnamed father, eventually became famous as a painter in her own right. Her name was Suzanne Valadon and the book starts in spectacular fashion with Maurice birth under the most sordid conditions. At that time his mother was earning a meagre living scrubbing floors and occasional posing for the poverty stricken artists of Montmartre. The book implies that Maurice was the illegitimate son of Renoir for whom Suzanne often posed in the nude or partially clothed as required. Whether the implication is true is not established and the reasons for Suzanne's silence on the subject are not very satisfying.
While Maurice was growing up in the mean little room where Suzanne lived with her old mother, his only acknowledged parent was leading a Bohemian life, an amoral existence which led from one excess to another. But she did love her son and she took him with her often in the sidewalk cafes, the smoky gin filled bars, the rendezvous which she frequented. There he met many of the famous painters of the age - the dope addict Modigliani, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Degas, Renoir and a host of others.
But by the time he was 18, Utrillo (he was given the name by one of his mother's Spanish friends who paid fifty francs for the present and the official paper which went with it) - was a confirmed alcoholic and was placed in an institution for a short time. On his release he went back to his old ways and according to this account continued his wild excesses for the rest of his life. He was institutionalised several times; never cured.
But he had the spark of genius which unaccountably seems so often to go hand in hand with instability - and he could paint. Always his pictures were of Paris streets; always they evidenced, whether deliberately or unconsciously, I do not know, the isolation of man. In all of the Utrillos I have ever seen myself, the tiny figures of human beings are dwarfed by the architecture around them.
When Suzanne took as her lover Maurice's best friend Andre, a man 20 years her junior, the Utrillos commenced to make money. Andre was a salesman and he did his best to keep healthy the geese who only required his discipline to continue laying golden eggs. At least so Andre thought. But in the end they were both incorrigible and Andre finally left his aging mistress and her debauched son to themselves.
The novel ends with the death of Suzanne and the crazed Maurice turning again to his painting and his bottle; cold comfort for a partially deranged mind.
While the Longstreets have produced a most readable novel they have built it on very few bare bones trimmed with imaginative episodes. Their acquaintance with Suzanne Valadon is undoubtedly authentic but it is over 30 years ago that they knew her "when", more research might have produced a greater book. For instance constant reference is made to Utrillo "picking up his brush." Utrillo nearly always used a palette knife for his painting, applying colours like a mason working with cement to give his paintings a zestful yet ominous feel of reality.
Indeed, Utrillo's accomplishments as an artist here fade in to insignificance in comparison with his prodigious drinking. Utrillo was above all a painter of the first rank. Unfortunately, in this novel the Montmartre "character" comes first, the painting second. J.E.H
Not the most reassuring review I'm sure you'll agree. That said, I'm in agreement with the reviewer when she states it's "a most readable novel." It's in this context that I'm enjoying the book but it looks like I'll have to dig a little further to learn more about Maurice Utrillo and indeed his mother Suzanne Valadon.