A beautiful mind

Portraits of Alzheimer’s: The Later works of William Utermohlen

William Utermohlen’s “Oil on Canvas 1988” showcases the private ravages of Alzheimer’s.

William Utermohlen’s “Oil on Canvas 1988” showcases the private ravages of Alzheimer’s.

At the age of 61, William Utermohlen learned that he had Alzheimer’s disease.

A renowned figurative artist, muralist and portrait painter, the disease had progressed in the usual way, first with forgetfulness, difficulty with calculations and withdrawal in social settings. His wife, Patricia, a professor of art history, says that August 1995 was about the time they first confronted the monster lurking in the gloom that Utermohlen would struggle with and eventually succumb to in the future.

At the time, Utermohlen had been working at his studio on a commissioned group portrait for close to a year. When Patricia and the client stopped by to view progress on the painting, they discovered, essentially, an empty canvas. For a year, Utermohlen had gone to and from the studio by rote, but once there had been unable to organize his thoughts and address the task at hand.

After MRIs and testing, there was little doubt about the diagnosis. Utermohlen continued to draw and paint. But now he focused on self-portraits, studying his own image in a mirror. These portraits became his visual narrative of the inner, frightening world of advancing memory loss and uncertainty.

I went to the Pennington Medical Education building on a sunny afternoon expecting to take a guided tour of William Utermohlen’s exhibit. I was the only person there, which meant that I had the undivided attention of the two docents sitting in the lobby. Ian, one of the docents, led me to some examples of Utermohlen’s work before his slow-motion death sentence set in. Utermohlen’s meticulous attention to detail was immediately striking. The Delftware on the tables sprang out more real than in a photograph.

In a portrait of his wife done two years after the diagnosis, the caption printed beneath the portrait explains that at this stage of the disease, he depended on her for all of his daily needs.

He gives her the blue eyes of lovers. Her lipstick smears as if he had just kissed her.

Fascinated, I prowled along the portraits and was touched by the poignant visions as Utermohlen tried to paint himself from disappearing. One portrait, 1997’s “Self-Portrait with Saw” shocks—the starkness of the saw’s blade hanging like a guillotine.

Utermohlen’s work shows his mental struggle with eloquent power. The final portraits show a man in final decline. They become grotesque and even frightening.

1996’s “Self-Portrait (With Easel-Yellow and Green)” stares back at the viewer; the eyes seem to follow one around the room. The caption reads: “The world has shrunk and he peers through it, as if trapped behind prison bars.” It is a haunting glare from a yellow windowpane. The glower appears both frightened and sad. There is a reflection of anger and resignation. He is still a man but slowly disappearing and aware of it. Utermohlen has succeeded in communicating the emotions of his terrifying death sentence.

The paintings before Utermohlen’s illness testify to the power of his art. His life covers the walls of the sunny gallery room.

For someone who was slowly losing everything, he was somehow able to leave so much.