William Utermohlen’s Self-Portraits
Artist documents his descent into dementia
In 1996, 61 year old American Artist William Utermohlen was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. As his final contribution to art, Utermohlen began painting a series of self-portraits, and continued this series from his time of diagnosis to 2000 when his condition took its full course. The portrait that he aimed to replicate each year since 1996 was based on an earlier self-portrait he painted in 1967. Already, a stark contrast between the paintings created by his younger self and by his diagnosed self showed early effects of his mental deterioration. He created this series as a powerful documentation of his painful descent into dementia, as well as with the hopes to better understand his condition.
Through the years, the deterioration of the Utermohlen’s memory and technical skills prevented him from creating a recognizable portrait of himself. His works became flatter and more abstract- like contour drawings. It got to a point where he couldn’t paint and his only depiction of himself was a scribbled skull with a deformed nose-like shape.
“In these pictures we see with heart-breaking intensity William’s efforts to explain his altered self, his fears and his sadness,” Utermohlen’s widow, Patricia, wrote in a 2006 essay on her husband’s work. After his death in 2007, Patricia recalled, “Even the time he was beginning to be ill, he was always always drawing, every minute of the day. I say he died in 2000, because he died when he couldn’t draw any more. He actually died in 2007, but it wasn’t him by then.”
View the Artist’s artwork and read more about this inspiring story of resilience here
1996 to 2000