A Buying Guide to Paintings of Paris (Part One): The Utrillo/Maclet Conundrum

We all love Paris. Even people who have never been to Paris love Paris. Whether or not you are one of those fortunate enough to have visited what might be the most beautiful and seductive city on Earth there can’t be many of us who wouldn’t want an oil painting of ‘la Ville des Lumières’ hanging on a wall at home.’

Perennially popular are street scenes of Belle Epoque and post-WW1 Paris, the city’s Golden Age when Pigalle and Montmartre were still sexy and the boulevards were crammed with cafes and cabarets, hansom cabs and beautiful women. With so many terrific artists of the past century having painted Paris post 1900 potential buyers with fifteen thousand pounds (or twenty thousand dollars) to spend are spoilt for choice and can fundamentally go one of two ways; the Picturesque School of Paris or the Picaresque School of Montmartre.

Today, the latter – the School of Montmartre – is basically thought of as being the ‘followers of Utrillo’ – artists such as Marcel Leprin 1891-1933, Lucien Genin 1894-1952, and Frank Will 1900-1951. In several regards I believe this is incorrect; if anyone is Head Master of this school it isn’t Maurice Utrillo 1883-1955 but his contemporary Élisée Maclet 1881–1962.

Admittedly I am fascinated by the largely untold and curiously entwined story of these two painters of colourful, naïve Parisian street scenes. Maurice Utrillo and Élisée Maclet were so similar in terms of age, painterly style, choice of subject and artistic merit yet their legacies are so very different. As we know the line between success and failure, fame and fortune, and acclaim and obscurity is thinner than a Giacometti shinbone, and surely enough whilst Maurice Utillo achieved financial security and a Légion d’honneur, Élisée Maclet always struggled to make ends meet and is today all but forgotten.

With his frequent bouts of alcoholism and mental illness Utrillo can hardly be said to have ‘had it easy’ but he was the son of the Post-Impressionist painter Suzanne Valadon and therefore destined to become Parisian Artworld royalty. By the time her son picked up a paint brush, Valadon – the former muse of Renoir, Degas, and Toulouse Lautrec – had been exhibiting her work at the Paris Salons for 15 years. In other words, her son Maurice was connected.

Maclet meanwhile was anything but. Born into a poor family in Picardy he seemed certain, like his father, to become a gardener. In fact, Old Man Maclet was clearly determined to curtail the ambitions of his artistically gifted son. When, in 1892, the famous French symbolist painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes came across the 12-year old Maclet sketching he was so impressed with his potential that he asked Maclet Snr. to allow the boy to study with him. The Old Man’s response; “My son is a gardener, and he will remain a gardener!” Hmmm, thanks Dad!

Nevertheless, Maclet made it to Paris but in order to paint he first needed to avoid starvation. This meant earning what little he could varnishing bedsteads, washing dishes, shucking oysters, doing odd jobs at the Moulin Rouge, and finally as a cook on aboard a ship bound for Indochina. But at least this enabled him to paint and when he did, he began producing vibrant and yet melancholy scenes of Old Montmartre.

Today. if you were to show people with some knowledge of art a Maclet picture of this era I’ve no doubt a great many would identify it as a work by Utrillo, but the truth is that Élisée Maclet was painting his childlike figures outside the Lapin Agile and Moulin de la Galette years before Utrillo, and in an almost identical fashion. In Paris back in the ‘20s and ‘30s important dealers and critics like Max Jacob paid more to acquire the work of Maclet than they did Utrillo, so how come today can you pick up a Maclet of Montmartre for under two thousand pounds when a Utrillo of the same subject might set you back more than a million? In my opinion the explanation lies with fickle fashion, dumb luck, and above all lazy journalism.

It’s a disgrace that so many art critics and historians have neglected to mention (or are ignorant of the fact) that without Élisée Maclet there would have been no Maurice Utrillo as we know him. When Utrillo first set up his easle he often worked alongside the more established Maclet and there can be no doubt that the latter influenced the former’s early development as an artist. However, Maclet was known to have been a quiet man and not the sort to go shouting about his talents like a Whistler or Picasso, and perhaps in the end this more than any other factor allowed influential tastemakers to ignore him.

My advice to any lovers of picaresque paintings of Paris who don’t have hundreds of thousands to spend on a Utrillo is to seek out the charismatic and idiosyncratic paintings of Monsieur Maclet. He was prolific, so not everything he did was special, far from it. But when he was good, he was very, very good. And at least – let us not forget – he did it first.

By the way, the final irony to the story can be found in Utrillo’s questionable parentage. For the first few years of his life young Maurice was raised solely by his mother, the aforementioned Suzanne Valadon whose life as an unmarried woman with a child would have been hard, even in Bohemian Paris. Although he wouldn’t stick around for long, eventually the little-known Spanish painter Miguel Utrillo agreed to acknowledge Maurice as his son but to this day several other candidates are thought just as likely to have been Utrillo’s real father.

The three names most frequently given being Jean Renoir, Edgar Degas and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes – the man who years earlier had volunteered to adopt the 12-year old Élisée Maclet as his student and artistic heir.