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Art and Images in Psychiatry
October 2005

Lapin Agile in Winter

Author Affiliations

James C.HarrisMD

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2005;62(10):1070. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.62.10.1070

Ah, Montmartre, with its provincial corners and its bohemian ways . . . I would be so at ease near you, sitting in my room, composing a motif of white houses or all other things. Utrillo to César Gay from the Villejuif asylum, 19161(p6)

Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955) was born on December 26 in the Montmartre quarter of Paris, France. He began to paint as occupational therapy under the tutelage of his mother to divert him from alcoholism.2 Reluctant at first, he gradually began to paint what he saw around him. His cityscapes (city streets, favorite parts of Montmartre, and churches) delighted the man in the street and intrigued the connoisseur. Although he was surrounded by the founders of modern abstract art, he recreated the city around him by realistically presenting simplified images of familiar scenes. His work has a certain calmness and a nostalgic vitality about it, suggesting that there might indeed be something therapeutic in his painting.

Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955), French. Lapin Agile in Winter, c 1930-1932. Oil on canvas, 46 × 55 cm. Galerie Daniel Malingue, Paris, France; Bridgeman Art Library. © 2005 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris; © Jean Fabris 2005, Sannois, France.

Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955), French. Lapin Agile in Winter, c 1930-1932. Oil on canvas, 46 × 55 cm. Galerie Daniel Malingue, Paris, France; Bridgeman Art Library. © 2005 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris; © Jean Fabris 2005, Sannois, France.

Yet his life was anything but peaceful. He was the offspring of a liaison between a teenage model and artist, Suzanne Valadon,3 and, it is proposed, a young clerk, amateur painter, and chronic alcoholic named Maurice Boissy. However, his paternity is not known, and others propose that his father was Pierre Puvis de Chavannes or Auguste Renoir. Boissy is suggested when his alcoholism is discussed, in keeping with the belief at the time that alcoholism is hereditary,4 but when his talent is at issue, the proposed father is Puvis or Renoir. Yet Maurice was named Utrillo after the Spanish critic and writer Miguel Utrillo, another of his mother’s lovers. In an act of kindness, Miguel Utrillo accepted paternity, after being assured that Maurice would maintain his French citizenship, when his mother’s fiancé, Paul Mousis, refused to adopt him.

Maurice was an immature, moody child with a difficult temperament who was indulged by his mother and grandmother, who largely raised him. Described as docile, conscientious, studious, and uncommunicative, he cowered before bullies, which provoked them into beating him.5 At other times, he was capricious and violent, smashing whatever he could lay his hands on during his outbursts. His grandmother used the peasant remedy of red wine to calm him when he was disruptive as a child.

Maurice was 8 years old when his name was formally changed to Utrillo. He objected to being named for someone who was never part of his life, at one point writing a plaintive letter to Miguel about never seeing him. Maurice adored his mother and initially insisted that he was a Valadon and refused to use the name Utrillo. As an adult, he compromised and signed his work Maurice Utrillo V (for Valadon). Issues about his identity persisted throughout his life. After his mother settled down to a routine life with Paul Mousis, Maurice was well cared for and had no material worries; however, he remained immature and temperamental. In his early teens, he was successful in school, but later in adolescence, he began to drink and was abusing alcohol by age 15 years. He was withdrawn from school the following year and failed in a succession of jobs as an apprentice in several banks and business firms, hitting a supervisor over the head with an umbrella at his last job.

At age 18 years, he was admitted to St Anne’s psychiatric hospital for his alcoholism. Discharged home with supervision, he did not drink but was idle and uninterested in any activity. His physicians suggested to his mother that he might paint to distract him from future use of alcohol. Initially he refused, but under the threat of readmission, he relented. With persistence, his mother won him over, offering him her palette and providing art instruction, and he began to demonstrate real talent. Relieved, and considering him cured, his mother took him back to Montmartre, thinking that she could return to her own work as an artist. Soon Maurice was drinking again and getting into fights, often returning home beaten and bruised.

As his talent was recognized, rather than serve as a distraction from alcohol, his paintings were often exchanged for drinks. Each day he would vow to remain sober, yet by day’s end, he would be overcome by a craving for alcohol. He would drink alone and become agitated and threatening. His mother continually rescued him after his bouts of drinking and brought him home, seeking hospital admission as a last resort. When he painted outside on a Montmartre street, children taunted him, calling him Litrillo because of the liters of wine he drank. Workmen and their families thought him mad, and he would respond emphatically, “I am not mad; I am an alcoholic.”2 He was repeatedly admitted to psychiatric hospitals or private clinics at Sannois, Villejuif, Pincus, and Ivry, among others. His mother sought out supervisors, but he would escape their care. He attempted suicide on at least one occasion, pounding his head against a wall in prison. Finally, after several aggressive outbursts and sexually exposing himself to women who were passing on the street, he was admitted to the hospital and told that he would be permanently committed to a mental institution. He was released only with the understanding that he have permanent supervision. His last admission was in 1924, but the supervision was maintained for the rest of his life.

Utrillo painted the Lapin Agile (“nimble rabbit”), a popular cabaret in Montmartre frequented by artists, hundreds of times. Lapin Agile in Winter(cover) depicts the popular cabaret at the corner of the rue Saint Vincent and the rue des Saules, on the northern slope of the Butte Montmartre, in the colors of the rainbow. Unlike Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, he painted city scenes, never the inside of the cabaret. The buildings instill a sense of solidity and calm. The wall on the right is that of St Vincent’s cemetery, where Utrillo was later buried in his beloved Montmartre.

As Utrillo grew older, religion became a critical part of his life. He had been preoccupied with Joan of Arc as a child, and his interest grew as he aged. He was baptized at age 50 years and, when he married at age 52, built a chapel in his home. He spent the last years of his life carefully supervised by his wife in a suburban Paris residence. His days were spent painting or praying in his chapel. When interviewing Utrillo at the end of his life, the interviewer found that he kept a life-size photograph of his mother in his studio. Utrillo said that no day went by without his thinking of her and of his longing to return to Montmartre.

Coughlan  R The Wine of Genius: A Life of Maurice Utrillo.  New York, NY Harper & Brothers1950;
De Polnay  P Enfant Terrible: The Life and World of Maurice Utrillo V.  New York, NY William Morrow & Co1969;
Harris  J The Hangover (Gueule de Bois).  Arch Gen Psychiatry 2005;62824PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref
Bynum  WF Alcoholism and degeneration in 19th century European medicine and psychiatry.  Br J Addict 1984;7959- 70PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref
Warnod  J Maurice Utrillo V.  New York, NY Crown Publishers1983;