Painter and writer Santiago Rusiñol (Barcelona, 1861—Aranjuez, Madrid, 1931) was a leading figure in the Catalonian Modernist movement. Although not particularly prolific in the genre, his portraits are nevertheless of high quality, as is abundantly clear from the "Portrait of Miquel Utrillo", one of the finest of all his production. In the portrait Utrillo, a highly versatile character who lived in Paris with Rusiñol and fellow painter Ramón Casas, is set, full-length and in profile, against the park at Moulin de la Galette. Utrillo clutches a sheaf of papers in one hand, in allusion to his activity as a journalist. Here Rusiñol employs a very sober palette, the whites directing the spectator’s gaze from the foreground of the painting towards the background.
Bearing in mind that Santiago Rusiñol produced relatively few portraits, most of the ones he did paint are, surprisingly perhaps, amongst the finest works in his oeuvre. And the Portrait of Miquel Utrillo can certainly be classed as one of the majority.
So who was Miquel Utrillo, portrayed by Rusiñol on three different occasions? Rusiñol himself left a word portrait of the man: "Utrillo, a writer from the gang at La Vanguardia, compulsory gossip of all the misfortunes and fights and hardships of that Paris neighbourhood, recounting his stories in wire, or goose-quill pen, or steel, on illustrated parchment; scholar, chemist who cut his teeth in the classrooms and Sorbonnes of this city; ingenious and most civil engineer, of mines and market gardens; a most lettered and pictured man; and, if weak on the outside, inside full of words and sciences well chosen and better digested, with sieves and filters of cheerful erudition" (La casa de París, Fulls de la Vida, Barcelona, 1898). In short, a versatile, brilliant character with whom Rusiñol and Ramon Casas shared an apartment in Paris in Moulin de la Galette, during the 1890-1891 winter. This accounts for the work being dated to that time; the portrait was presented in public for the first time in the Paris Salon of 1891 with the title of "Michel", subsequently being shown in Barcelona as part of the first exhibition Rusiñol, Casas and their friend the sculptor Enric Clarasó held at the city's Sala Parés gallery.
As in other pictures from around this time, Rusiñol used the park at the Moulin de la Galette, as long as there was nothing going on there, as the background to the composition. Here, shown full length in profile, Utrillo is the undeniable protagonist. The sheaf of papers in his left hand is a clear allusion to his journalistic activities. Taking a position slightly above the scene he is painting, the artist manages to integrate his sitter into the powerful setting perfectly. Finally, one feature that needs mentioning is the inclusion of plants, minutely detailed, in the foreground, something Rusiñol liked to add to many of his paintings from this period. This time he also uses archaeological motifs, like the capital and part of a sculptured bust portrait of a woman, which had always awakened his interest. Black predominates in the picture, together with the strategic use of whites to direct the spectator's eyes in a zigzag movement from the foreground to the background.
Collection of Modern Art, MNAC
In the image:
Santiago Rusiñol (Barcelona, 1861—Aranjuez, Madrid, 1931)
Portrait of Miquel Utrillo(fragment), 1890-1981
Oleo sobre lienzo, 222,5 x 151 cm.
Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Barcelona (MNAC)