Maurice Utrillo 1883-1955
N04780 La Porte Saint-Martin
Inscribed 'Maurice Utrillo V.' b.l.
Oil on millboard, 27 1/4 x 31 1/2 (69 x 80)
Presented by the family in memory of the late Alfred and Esther Sutro 1935
Prov: With Louis Libaude, Paris (purchased from the artist); with Galerie Barbazanges, Paris, 1924; through Bignou, Paris; with Lefevre, London; Alfred Sutro, London; Esther Sutro, London
Exh: Oeuvres anciennes de Maurice Utrillo, Galerie Barbazanges, Paris, January 1925 (2); Important Pictures by Maurice Utrillo, Alex. Reid, Glasgow, October 1925 (1); Lefevre Galleries, London, November 1925 (1)
Lit: Tabarant, Utrillo (Paris 1926), pp.52, 218, 220, repr. p.117; Ronald Alley, 'Notes on Some Works by Degas, Utrillo and Chagall in the Tate Gallery' in Burlington Magazine, C, 1958, pp.171-2, repr. p.173; Paul Pétridès, L'Oeuvre complet de Maurice Utrillo (Paris 1959), No.237, Vol.1, p.290, repr. p.291 as 'Porte Saint-Martin à Paris' c.1911; Van Deren Coke, The Painter and the Photograph from Delacroix to Warhol (Albuquerque 1964), p.209, repr. p.208
Repr: L'Amour de l'Art, VI, 1925, p.144 John Rothenstein, The Tate Gallery (London 1958), p.145 in colour
The Porte Saint-Martin is a triumphal arch erected by the City of Paris in 1674 in honour of Louis XIV. This picture shows it from the centre of the Rue Saint Martin, a very busy street, which suggests that it was not painted on the spot but from a picture postcard; and there is a half-tone picture postcard which resembles it very closely [reproduced p.734; not reproduced here]. They are seen from an identical viewpoint, the scene through the arch corresponds, the composition is cut at the same points on either side and there are even shadows in the same places. If Utrillo used this card to work from, as seems very likely - Tabarant says that he was in the habit of working from picture postcards as early as 1909 - then this would account for certain peculiarities in the picture itself, for example that the arch appears to be partly embedded between the buildings at the back whereas in fact it is free-standing and has a main road passing behind it. This is the kind of distortion which could easily come about when working from a photograph, which tends to flatten the space, but is rather unlikely to be produced by an artist like Utrillo when working from nature. Moreover the picture is deeper in format than the card and Utrillo has enlarged one of the chimney pots at the top and filled in the foreground, rather clumsily extending the lamp-post in the left-hand corner. One might even see a relationship between the way the figures disappear at the bottom of the card and fade away from the waist downwards in the picture itself.
But, above all, this is a demonstration of Utrillo's power to transform his subject into a work of art with a very strong personal flavour. He has eliminated ornament and accessories throughout, such as the advertisements for Dubonnet and the Cours de Danse, so that forms like the windows and the shelter on the right become very stark and simple; they take on a new note of melancholy grandeur. The dark, blank windows give the impression that the buildings are empty and have been abandoned. And whereas the postcard shows the subject on a bright sunny day, the streets filled with the bustle of carts and passers-by, the painting has an overcast sky and the streets are almost deserted; the three or four figures only serve to emphasise the loneliness of the scene.
There is a later, much sketchier painting of the Porte Saint-Martin probably done from the same picture postcard (Pétridès No.1293, as c.1930), as well as two paintings of c.1908-9 which show the arch from oblique positions (Pétridès No.90 and a picture in the Bührle collection, Zurich, not in Pétridès).
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.733-5, reproduced p.734