This weary nicotine-stained lithograph-on-board has pride-of-place in my living room not because it is valuable (certainly not) or noteworthy. This print occupied a similar position in my grandparents’ home for as long as I can remember and likely before that, so it is a piece of my own history. This was my pop’s parents’ home, where I visited often as a child and lived briefly as a teenager. So many memories of meals and events and holiday gatherings in that space, I can still feel and smell the heat of the kitchen and the food and the family crowding in everywhere they could. So many great-aunts and -uncles and -cousins barely known.
The print was furniture rather than art, purchased at Eaton’s, the storied but now defunct department store chain. I vaguely remember the decoration section of the furniture department, with piles of area rugs, shelves stuffed with cushions, and flip-racks of framed “art”; think of the same from modern-day Ikea, but with more must and dust, less light, and a more dapper and elderly staff.
I imagine this piece being purchased primarily by or for my grandmother. Grandma was francophone, Winnipeg born and raised, and likely never saw Paris in her life. But I imagine the quiet morning feeling of this street scene, especially with the church at the centre – not big or garish, but part of the community, as common as the cobblers – appealed to her francophone heart. Grampa worked for Eaton’s for a time, so perhaps he picked it for her as a gift for their new home or a birthday.
When my grandpa died in 2000, I happened to be in Winnipeg shortly afterwards and my uncle asked if I wanted anything from the house. I met him there and walked through a place I hadn’t visited in many years. It was eerie being in such a familiar space that was so unchanged (although the print was now in the hallway, not in the living room as I had remembered). It felt a bit odd and despoiling, taking remnants from the past, but I was encouraged to take what I wanted as the rest was bound for a less dignified but necessary fate. In addition to some books from my childhood, the print came home with me.
The print is a murky, faded version of the original. 30+ years in the smoke-filled home in Winnipeg did the image no favours. However, I find the street perspective appealing, almost like looking out a window into a quotidian early morning aspect of a different time and place, and the reminiscences of family gatherings bring pleasant memories.
Here is the original in all its glory, along side a contemporary postcard of the scene (Postcard photo of the street La rue de Jean-Durand, c. 1902).
Learning more about the picture itself has only been possible in recent years. (The lack of information led to brief fantasies that the print was one of those lost treasures of the art world…BC woman find priceless painting in family trinket.) It has taken even the Internet a while to catch-up on the cataloguing of artists such as Maurice Utrillo. He’s much-lesser-known than almost any other artist you might think of from the early 20th century (despite Wikipedia’s effusive description of his glory and “international acclaim”).
While Utrillo has more famous pieces that are easier to find and reference, this particular one’s provenance eluded me for years. Even now, there is nothing in the way of story or background about the scene; the most relevant info is that it was painted in 1937, and the original is in a private collection with an estimated value of ~$100K. Additional sleuthing revealed the history of the church itself, and the modern view of that same street.
The provenance and value to me will always be priceless, and I count it among my own personal treasures.