William Utermohlen: the artist who documented the progression of Alzheimer’s disease with harrowing self-portraits.2 min read
In 1995, at the age of 61, the American artist William Utermohlen was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
In response to his illness, the artist, who lived in London, began a series of self-portraits that depicted him as he saw himself.
This is a difficult diagnosis and illness for anyone, and the artistic skills of the painter visibly deteriorated until it disappeared almost completely in the last self-portrait, made in 2000.
The self-portraits of Utermohlen allow you to have an objective look at the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s symptoms not only include memory loss or dementia and personality changes but it also affects the part of the brain, which is responsible for visualizing capabilities, so crucial for a painter. With Alzheimer’s progressing, the art becomes visibly more abstract, blurrier and vague, with a progressive loss of details and spatial sense.
By 2000, Utermohlen’s memory and technical skills had vanished to the point where his self-portrait was simply a scribbled skull with some shadows that resembled, from a distance, the facial features.
The widow of Utermohlen, Patricia, wrote an essay in 2006 about her husband’s work: “In these pictures we see with heart-breaking intensity William’s efforts to explain his altered self, his fears and his sadness. It’s hard to say whether the changes in his portraits came about due the loss of his artistic skills or due to changes in his psyche but, in either case, they document the emotional turmoil of an artist watching his mind slip away from him bit by bit.”
After his death in 2007, Patricia remembers: “Even during the initial period of his illness, William continued to draw every minute of the day. In 2000, when he stopped painting his paintings, he died definitively, continuing a life without joy until 2007, when his heart stopped beating “.