William Utermohlen, 1933–2007

William Utermohlen 1933-2007-dementia

untermohlenfotoself portrait 1967 Self Portrait 1967


Portrait of Hat 1997 (4).tif
Portrait of Hat 1997 (4).tif

American artist William Utermohlen received a diagnosis of probable Alzheimer’s disease in 1995, at the age of 61. For the next five years, as his dementia worsened, he used his art to track the disintegration of his mind. Utermohlen’s self-portraits, such as the sketches above from 1996, offer a window into the artist’s experience of the progression of Alzheimer’s. Many of the stylistic changes in the depictions are likely the result of the quick decline of Utermohlen’s visuospatial and motor skills over the course of a few short years. Yet the portraits are also heartbreaking in that they expose a mind trying against hope to understand itself despite deterioration.

20120307202835-William_Utermohlen_-_Self_Portrait__split___1977__oil__charcoal__photograph_on_gesso_on_canvas__25.5_x_20_cm Self Portrait 1977



Alzheimer’s disease begins with short-term memory disorders. Often there is therefore anger and misunderstandings with fellow human beings. Mistrust and alienation are the result. Little by little, one’s own traces of long-term memory also disappear, and memories of encounters, events, learned and beloved disappear. Things are losing their original meaning, the language is becoming more meager, the red thread is lost, the personal expressiveness diminishes, social contacts become impoverished.


The artist William Utermohlen, in his self-portraits, depicts how his ego disappears. He becomes depressed and paints grief, fear, resignation and helplessness. His perspective, his gaze on the world, is changing. Details are losing importance. Visual information can be interpreted increasingly badly. His own reflection is alien, frightened and frightened. The loss of sense of space and depth perception, as well as disorientation, is accompanied by disquiet or indifference, and sometimes by an entanglement which frightens the environment. The world disintegrates into fragments. With the diminishing communication ability, the loneliness and loneliness increase. People close to the house and familiar items are no longer recognized.

The world is losing colour. Blue and green are hardly perceived anymore, become a background colour. Only yellow and red as well as the emotional experience survive almost to the last. Thus the images of Utermohlen become more and more abstract, almost surrealistic. They evolve from a living, spatial representation to a stylized, dull representation without depth. A shadow lies over the face. Eyes and mouth are more prominent. The pictures are sad, suggesting endless suffering and pain. In the end there remains only a skeletal, colourless dashed envelope.



Some Workmen Can Blame Their Tools: Artistic Change in an Individual with Alzheimer’s Disease. Sebastian J. Crutch et al. in Lancet, Vol. 357, pages 2129–2133; June 30, 2001.

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