We would like to thank Guy-Patrice Dauberville and the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune for their assistance in the research of this work.
Painted in 1923, Les anciens moulins de Montmartre et la ferme Debray is one of Utrillo's most ambitious paintings of the subject and the largest format to be offered at public auction since 1971. The work depicts three windmills on the hill of Montmartre and the maison Debray, most likely seen from the rue Lepic. The three windmills that stand on the hill in the present work are the Blute-Fin, the Radet and the Debray (or Poivre), of which the first two still stand today. In the second half of the 19th century the mills became confused with the Moulin de la Galette, the name given to the group of fashionable café-concert buildings around them. The sign 'Hôtel Restaurant du Moulin de la Galette' can be read on the side of the Debray building. As with many of Utrillo's paintings, his compositions were often taken from old postcards or photographs, and the title given this picture by Arsène Alexandre in 1930, Les moulins de Montmatre avant la naissance du peintre, suggests that the view dates from before 1883. On the reverse of the canvas the artist has numbered the painting "no. 1" which suggests that either there may be a pendant work or that this was the beginning of a series, but no such works are recorded by Pétridès. However, the year before Utrillo executed a gouache of the same view titled Les trois moulins de Montmartre (P. AG78), the success of which may have inspired him to expand upon the theme.
At the time Utrillo executed this exceptionally ambitious work, the artist's paintings were highly sought after by dealers and collectors alike. Two well-received exhibitions with his mother, Suzanne Valadon, at Galerie Berthe Weill in 1921-1922 and a thirty-five painting exhibition organized by the dealer-collector Paul Guillaume, secured Utrillo's success and attracted the attention of serious collectors. The distinguished provenance of this work includes three of these collectors.
Josse and Gaston Bernheim-Jeune, who acquired the painting directly from the artist, were the first owners of Les anciens moulins de Montmartre et la ferme Debray. A photograph of the present work, taken in March 1925, is preserved in the Bernheim-Jeune photographic archives. According to Guy-Patrice Dauberville, the painting formed part of the personal collection of Josse and Gaston Bernheim-Jeune and did not pass through Galerie Bernheim-Jeune's stock but was sold directly to the collector Henri Canonne, whose collection of exceptional Impressionist pictures the brothers were instrumental in forming. The most impressive in scale of the four Utrillo paintings Canonne owned (P. 1055, 1130, 988 and Eglise de Clignancourt, 1939), the present work joined a collection which boasted forty-four works by Monet, ten works by Renoir, three works by Sisley, two works by Cézanne, and seven works by Bonnard. The breadth and importance of this collection was recorded in the prestigious Editions Bernheim-Jeune catalogue, La Collection Canonne, Une histoire en action de l'impressionnisme et de ses suites, published in 1930 with text by the celebrated art critic Arsène Alexandre.