In 1995, William Utermohlen was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. His last self-portraits are unique artistic and medical documents that have been exhibited to great international acclaim. They portray a man doomed, yet fighting to preserve his identity in the face of an implacable illness.
William Utermohlen was born in 1933 in Philadelphia, the only son of first generation German immigrant parents. He won a scholarship to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1951. After military service in 1953, William travelled through France, Spain and Italy where he discovered and developed a lifelong love for the work of Giotto, Piero della Francesca, Andrea Mantegna and Nicolas Poussin. In 1956, he enrolled in the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford. In 1962, William returned to England, where he met the future art historian Patricia Redmond; they settled in London and were married in 1965.
In 1964, William began his first major cycle of paintings, based on Dante’s 33 cantos of the Inferno. In their medieval literary references, these jarred with the optimistic and superficial mood of the mid-60s. By the end of the cycle, William had emerged as a mature and committed figurative painter.
His next great cycle, The Mummers Parade (1969-70), combined childhood memories of the Philadelphia New Year’s Day Parade with media and television imagery alluding to the violent conflicts of late 1960s America.
In 1990-91, William painted the last great cycle of his career, the Conversation Pieces. In 1995, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and, in Blue Skies, his last large painting, William expresses his reaction to this knowledge: a devastated figure holding on to a table as on to raft in the blue bleakness of an empty studio. William’s case and his drawings were the subject of a now-famous article in the British medical monthly The Lancet published in June 2001.
William Utermolhen made his last drawings in pencil in 2000-02; he died on March 21 2007. His works have been the subject of numerous exhibitions in the USA, Britain, France and Italy since 2001, including Wellcome Trust, London; Fogg Museum, Harvard University; New York Academy of Medicine; Philadelphia Academy of Medicine, Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles; Cité des Sciences in Paris, The Chicago Cultural Center and the Permanente in Milan.
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