Monday, February 16, 2009

Utrillo's Montmartre

An upcoming art exhibit featuring the paintings of Maurice Utrillo and his mother Suzanne Valadon at the Pinacothèque de Paris inspired a visit to Montmartre, one of Paris' most visited neighborhoods.

Utrillo is pictured here in a portrait by his mother. Born in Montmartre in 1883, he lived there much of his life and is buried in the neighborhood Cimetière Saint-Vincent. The illegitimate son of Valadon, Utrillo led a troubled existence and was in and out of mental institutions all of his life. A friend, André Utter, described Utrillo as a "tragicomic Hamlet...a gaunt figure who went about gesturing and yelling." Nonetheless, Utrillo continued to paint the long stairways, secret gardens, dance halls, restaurants and ordinary street scenes of Montmartre. His bohemian Montmartre has largely disappeared, but if you step just a bit off the beaten path, the Montmartre of Maurice Utrillo still exists.

To find it, come to Montmartre by the back door. From downtown Paris, take the metro to the Abbesses station where the beautiful Hector Guimard Art Nouveau entranceway is your introduction to old Montmartre. Then wander up the hill, letting your curiosity lead the way.

If you see secluded byways, take them. They will lead you to romantic Utrillo scenes come to life, such as La Mason Rose (the pink house), the rue des Saules (Weeping Willow Street), l'Allee des Brouillards (Fog Alley), le cabaret au Lapin Agile (agile rabbit) and the charming Montmartre Museum, where Utrillo and his mother once lived.

Montmartre's best-known site is Sacre-Coeur, a huge church which crowns the hill of Montmatre like a big wedding cake. The interior is disappointing, but on a clear day, there can be a wonderful view of Paris from its famous steps. To see the original neighborhood church, head for the 12th-century Saint-Pierre de Montmartre. One of the oldest churches in Paris and the only remaining vestige of the huge Benedictine monastery of Montmartre, it's an oasis of peace just off the Place du Tertre. Teeming with artists (two per square meter), the square is a must-see, but if you want a hint of Utrillo's Place du Tertre, try to go in the early morning before the crowds arrive.

When you're ready to take a break, head down the stairs in front of Sacre-Coeur to La halle Saint-Pierre on the rue Ronsard. One of the old market halls of Paris, it is a superb example of 19th-century metal architecture. On the ground floor, there's a cafe, whose large windows provide a bucolic garden view.

Just around the corner from the cafe is the Marché Saint-Pierre, a huge six-story building filled from top to bottom with cloth of every hue and texture. Almost as visited as Sacre-Coeur, you'll see all of Paris there - from fashion designers to furniture makers to home seamstresses looking for just the right material at just the right price.

On our first visit to Montmartre many years ago, we went to the Marché Saint-Pierre and bought wonderfully absorbent French cotton dish towels as gifts for friends. You can still buy them along with sturdy plain linen aprons, just like the cooks in Utrillo's time used to wear.

A bientôt,

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor
To see more photos, click here


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