The Missing Utrillo

photo: rue norvins

One of Utrillo's Montmartre views - the Rue Norvins,
photographed today.

Maybe You Have It

Paris:- Wednesday, 28. February 2001:- If I can believe the mail I get, there are a great number of perplexed owners of artworks by a certain famous Paris painter named Maurice Utrillo, who died in 1955.

As an alcoholic at 17 in 1900, he took up painting on psychiatric advice during a de-tox session at Sainte-Anne, as a way to steady his nerves. His mother, Suzanne Valadon, was a well-known painter and she helped him out with getting started.

Little Maurice learned painting well enough. But as therapy it had one drawback - selling them allowed him to buy more booze, which was particularly available where he lived on Montmartre.

The Paris critics began praising his work in 1910. It may have been this modest success that lead to a series of deliriums, lasting from 1911 to 1914. These were followed by a bit more of the good old 'vie bohème' on Montmartre, lasting two years, until he was chronically in and out of local bug houses - more or less, until his first and only marriage in 1935.

This sobered him up for good, and when he emerged from the depths of fog or whatever it is, he discovered he had become a world-famous artist.

Through all of his short ups and longdesign: norvins sketch downs, Maurice Utrillo painted. He would gladly trade a painting for a glass of cheapo red plonk if he needed one bad enough. Since this was often enough, Maurice painted a lot - year after year.

The sketch I made of the painting, so I could identify the scene above.

My only reference to him concerns his mental state. Art critics are bad enough - or even good enough! - but no psycho-babble can pass for art criticism. This guy, Maurice Utrillo, drunk or not, was a life-long painter, which is more than can be said of most psychiatrists.

This or that lack of something in a painting, or overabundance of something, is due to the painters' whim - and not necessarily because he or she is bonkers.

Maurice Utrillo painted a lot of his neighborhood up on Montmartre. The advantage for him was that it was nearby, and so were - and still are - all of its cafés and bars.

Montmartre must be one of the most popular places on earth. If anyone can make decent paintings of it, they are going to make some sort of living. Even today's pouring rain with some snow mixed in it is not deterring the hardier types from painting, nor the hardier sight-seers from touring the outdoor easels set up in the Place du Tertre.

So the combination of a picturesque place to paint and the chronic need to get money for booze, were combined by Maurice Utrillo to churn out a huge lifetime production.

Even before he died in 1955, an army of impostors and fakers were busily copying everything Utrillo did. To judge from the mail I get, this industry is flourishing, perhaps as never before.

'Original' Utrillos, found in attics, haylofts and cellars - or left by behind by aunties, grandmothers - turn upphoto: rue du chevalier de la barre with astonishing frequency. I've also noticed that there seems to be waves of these 'discoveries,' as if new supplies are being carefully fed onto the market from time to time.

All of this 'surplus' production has created a monster confusion about what is real and authentic, and what is pure fake. 'Real' Utrillos are owned by private collectors or by museums, both public and private, and some are in the hands of dealers, while temporarily being between owners.

The Rue du Chevalier de la Barre as it looks today.

In spite of Utrillo's large lifetime production, the fakes outnumber it by thousands or hundreds of thousands. So I have the sad duty - in some months, several times - to inform proud 'new' Utrillo owners that they should check out their 'finds' against the best catalogues available.

However, there are exceptions to sometimes arbitrary rules-of-thumb and Shirley Lindsay is one of them. A couple of years ago she wrote to me concerning a commercially printed poster she has.

The poster was printed in 1953 for the French Railways, the SNCF, with its brief text in English. The illustration used on it has been taken from a painting Maurice Utrillo did, possibly in 1922. It shows a view of the Rue du Chevalier de la Barre, and I have confirmed this today by braving the elements to look at this street.

Shirley Lindsay is perfectly aware that she has a poster that might have been printed by the thousands, and was possibly sent to every travel agency in the English-speaking world.

What she really wants to know is fairly simple. Where is this painting today?

Less importantly, she also wants to know how many posters were printed and where they went - where were they posted? She also wants to know why the printer - Plas - is no longer listed in the Paris phone book.

Shirley Lindsay has sent many emails and regular letters to many people in Paris who she thinks may know the answers, but up until now, nobody has been able to give her the main answer.

She even knows there is a reproduction of the painting in a book titled 'Utrillo Folie' that was published in 1992. But shephoto: lindsays utrillo, sncf poster has been unable to get any information about the original painting's location from the book's author and publisher.

The conservator of Paris' poster collection in the Bilbiothèque Forney has said the poster is not in that collection and he has no idea where the painting may be. The painting was dedicated to Robert Rey, who was the conservator of the Musée du Luxembourg in 1922, but this museum doesn't seem to have the painting.

Shirley Lindsay's poster. Where is the painting?

Most 'new' Utrillo owners lose faith in their 'finds' fairly quickly. Some go a bit further and do some research, before deciding that a reproduction with a New Jersey printer's name on it is not likely to be an 'original.'

But Shirley Lindsay won't give up. It has finally occurred to me to ask her to send a photographed copy of her poster, and it is displayed here.

I don't know why I didn't ask for it a year ago. Now that I've seen it, it's enabled me to go up to Montmartre and actually confirm that it is a real scene. From my 'crazy-artist' psycho book, I was also able to confirm the 'realness' of some of Utrillo's other subjects on the Butte.

Many of the scenes he painted have been destroyed by property developers, but Montmartre still has lots of other 'original' scenery - probably recognizable in many paintings by many famous artists - as well as the living ones who are still hacking away at it.

The next stage of Shirley Lindsay's odyssey will be her upcoming visit to Paris. She intends to talk to everybody she has written to, and she intends to prowl through all the museums and galleries where she thinks the painting may be lurking.

This will happen within a few weeks. The reason for writing this now is in case you - whether you know it yet or not - know where the painting is. Is it in your attic?

Or is it hanging, slightly tattered, inphoto: musee montmartre your garage beside your collection of old license plates? Look at the poster's illustration here, and then run down to your cellar or out to your garage, to see if it is the same.

Montmartre's museum today - where Maurice Utrillo lived as a kid.

You, reader, you may have a real and original painting by Maurice Utrillo and be completely unaware of it. If it turns out you do have it - or any 'real' one - put it in a bank vault. Then write to me and I will inform Shirley Lindsay that she doesn't have to go to all the trouble of coming to Paris.

But - hey! - we all know she is going to come anyway. It's just that, if she knows where the painting is, safe and sound, then she won't have to spend all her time here doing a lot of foot-slogging detective work instead of having fun.

Instead, she'll have time to go up to Montmartre and look over Maurice Utrillo's home turf. Do her a favor - tell Shirley Lindsay where the painting is hiding.

Utrillo In Metropole

Maurice Utrillo was featured for the first time in Metropole as 'Born Nobody on Montmartre' in September's last issue in 1996. A year later, the Café column asked, 'Will the Real Utrillo Stand Up?'

Shirley Lindsay's research tips were in this 'Café column in 2000. If you are the lucky owner of a new Utrillo work, following these tips may help you find out how 'new' it is.

Metropole's Photo Offer

You too can have your very own original fake Utrillo today! Well, nearly today. Nearly fake. The real photograph at the top of this page, taken in freezing rain and semi-snow conditions on Montmartre on Wednesday, 28. February 2001, closely resembles the painting done by Maurice Utrillo, usually called 'Rue Norvins.'

The photo of this scene is available in a large size - 1000 x 750 pixels - suitable as 'wallpaper' for your very own personal computer.

To order the photo simply send an email to 'Ed,' saying you want your very own original fake Utrillo photo today. 'Ed' will reply to you with extremely simple ordering instructions.

No banner ads, no complicated Web order forms, no credit card flim-flam. Privacy guaranteed. Do it today. Better still, do it now!

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