Les deux filles is one of only five known double portraits painted by Modigliani to have been recorded by Ambrogio Ceroni in his 1970 catalogue raisonné. Throughout his entire oeuvre, Modigliani generally dedicated himself to the isolated figure, exploring no compositional device other than a single human being viewed face to face. For the most part, it was enough for the artist's intense observation of individual characterization to engage with a single model, yet his rare ventures into multiple figure arrangements are remarkable for their insight into human relationships and the energy communicated by different identities. Of Modigliani's five double portraits, two are portraits of bridal couples, the highly stylized Les époux of 1915 (formerly in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Ceroni no. 55) and the celebrated portrait of his close friend, the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz and his wife Bertha (1916, Art Institute of Chicago, Ceroni no. 161). These works celebrate the union between woman and man, whilst Modigliani's other double portraits would address the theme of mother and child (Femme assise avec un enfant, 1919, Musée d'Art Moderne, Villeneuve-d'Ascq, Ceroni no. 334; and Gitane avec un enfant, 1918, Ceroni no. 247, National Gallery of Art, Washington) - pictures that owe much to Modigliani's Italian inheritance and his enduring love of the early Renaissance masters. Les deux filles is a tender and perceptive painting that explores the connection between two young girls, possibly sisters, whom Modigliani has described in a refined visual language that is both compellingly subjective and intuitive.
Several of the early literature references to Les deux filles suggest that the composition was painted in 1917 when Modigliani was working in Paris, including Arthur Pfannsteil's 1929 monograph, in which he describes the sitters as 'two flowers growing from the paving stones of the big city' (op. cit., p. 119). However, the painting has since been attributed to 1918 in publications by Ceroni, Osvaldo Patani and Christian Parisot and is now considered to be part of a group of portraits dedicated to the portrayal of children that Modigliani painted whilst he was living and working in the South of France (Ceroni, op. cit., p. 100). Modigliani travelled to the Côte d'Azur in March 1918 and remained there for over a year. The deprivations of the First World War, the shortage of food and coal had weakened the painter's health and when the bombardment of Paris began, his dealer Léopold Zborowski decided to follow the vast numbers fleeing the perilous capital for the South, taking his contingent of artists and their closest companions with him. Chaïm Soutine, Tsuguharu Foujita and Fernande Barrey were all included in Zborowski's entourage, and Modigliani was accompanied by his pregnant mistress, Jeanne Hébuterne and her mother.
Part of Zborowski's plan in going to the South of France was to sell works, and especially pictures by Modigliani, to the rich clientele that he was sure still haunted the grand and fashionable hotels in Nice and Cagnes, having witnessed them on a prior visit. However, this plan came to nought, and he barely managed to scrape together enough to exist upon -- his costs only increased when the various elements within the group insisted upon staying under different roofs. This lack of fortune had a direct effect on the paintings of Modigliani, especially in terms of content, for the portrait commissions that Zborowski had optimistically assumed would materialise failed to do so and he was no longer able to pay for professional models as he had done in Paris. As a consequence, Zborowski's wife and Jeanne sat for many of Modigliani's pictures, but with tensions mounting within the family group, he found it increasingly necessary to rely on the local people around him. This is almost certainly one of the reasons that Les deux filles was painted. Yet, it was not only the lack of models that led him to paint so many pictures of young people during this period. In part, it may have been the prospect of imminent fatherhood that increased his interest in them as a subject, as well as his desire to capture their engaging characters and purity of spirit.
Modigliani's intelligent awareness of his sitter's personalities is the result of his long-standing search for a visual window into the soul and he was clearly interested in the persona of the brunette girl in this image as he also depicted her in a sister picture, Fillette debout en tablier noir (1918, Kunstmuseum, Basel, Ceroni no. 241). Both Fillette debout en tablier noir and the slightly larger Les deux filles have been exhibited together on numerous occasions to underline their close relationship, including exhibitions in Paris and Marseille in 1958 and Düsseldorf and Zurich in 1991. In his characteristic study of an isolated model rendered in three-quarter length, Modigliani depicts the delicately featured, dark-haired girl standing in an interior that shares the subtle and masterfully handled suffusion of green, greys and ochre hues. This painting contains an entirely different compositional dynamic to the asymmetry of Les deux filles, with its grid-like structure provided by the counterbalance of the horizontal lines of the chest of drawers and the strong verticality of the girl's pose. Modigliani enhances her sense of childishness and vulnerability in Fillette debout en tablier noir by depicting her with her hands hanging loosely by her sides and her head tilted at an inquisitive and somewhat awkward angle.
In Les deux filles this same girl appears older, with a seductively heightened colouration and sophisticated hairstyle that contrasts with the natural and relaxed appearance of the younger child. This juxtaposition grants an almost maternal aspect to the older girl and creates a remarkably sensitive characterization of the transition from childhood to the threshold of womanhood. Although the relationship between these young models is unknown, it appears Modigliani deliberately chose them for their opposing characteristics; the fair hair, blue eyes and clean white pinafore of the younger girl contrasting with the elder's dark colouring and black smock. This same smock, with its discreet embroidery and scratched-in seam work is also worn by a different model in a bust portrait from this period, indicating this may well have been a local school uniform (Jeune fille blonde en buste, 1919, Ceroni no. 296). Whilst the model in the later portrait is depicted with blank voids for eyes, Modigliani clearly defines his sitter's irises in the present work to lend them an engaging presence that conveys a true sense of the girls' shy, yet candid nature and perhaps even their curiosity with the artist and the artistic process.
Modigliani's empathy towards his unknown sitters during this period has been evocatively described by his daughter, Jeanne Modigliani, who possibly refers to Les deux filles as being an image from Paris, indicating there was still some debate over its date at the time: 'At this time, Modigliani's attitude towards and the depiction of his models became calmer and more peaceful. The apprentice, the porter's son, the maid in Cagnes, little Maria, the two girls in Paris, all enter Modigliani's pictorial world with a sad dignity. Their interior vision, captured in a private dream, accentuates their solitude and at the same time enshrines their morality with a poetic halo. Their status in life is certainly not a happy one, but they possess nobility and moral values. They are the most convincing witnesses of the beauty and goodness of mankind' (J. Modigliani cited in 'Modigliani sans Légende', exh. cat., Amedeo Modigliani, 1884-1920, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, 1981, p. 89).
In their subtle psychological insight, pictures like Les deux filles owe a substantial debt to the portraits of Cézanne. Modigliani greatly admired the pictures of Cézanne and his move to the Midi, where the older master had painted throughout his life, may have intensified Modigliani's engagement with his work. Notably, many of Cézanne's portraits from the 1890s depict children and peasants and are rendered with the same sympathy and passive monumentality that Modigliani brings to his sitters a generation later. The complex sense of space and mass in Cézanne's portraits had a deep and lasting influence on Modigliani's own portrait style, as did the planar distortions of the primitive masks he so admired. These visual references contribute to the expressive energy and imbalance in Les deux filles, particularly in the rendering of the younger girl's face, which features a multidirectional analysis of space similar to that used by the Cubists. This deliberate distortion is used to heighten the tension between the two models, contrasting a sense of movement compatible with the unsettled temperament of a young child with the serenely feminine nature of the older girl to create an image that powerfully evokes the eventual path to maturity.
Les deux filles clearly displays Modigliani's virtuoso feeling for paint. His obsession for refining his subjects into simple, interlocking curvilinear forms is evident in the pentimenti visible below the hands of the younger child, where pencil lines chart out his method of perfecting the composition. Modigliani's handling of pigment varies across the canvas, from the thin scumbled brushwork used to diffuse the variegated hues of the background to the highly viscous textures on the figures and chair, the painting manifests a passionate involvement with the qualities and possibilities of his materials and represents the height of his technical development.
Les deux filles was first acquired by Léopold Zborowski, who had financed Modigliani's lifestyle and paid for his materials in exchange for all his paintings since 1916. The painting was subsequently selected and purchased by Jonas Netter, who devoted himself to accumulating a formidable collection of pictures by Modigliani, Kisling, Soutine and Utrillo. These he had bought from 1915 onwards, almost all with the help of Zborowski. Indeed, Netter is known to have purchased at least ten Modigliani paintings whilst the painter was based in Nice, including Fillette in blu (1918, Ceroni no. 245), and he may have acquired Les deux filles in this same group. Netter was one of the major collectors who, along with Roger Dutilleul, contributed to the growth in Modigliani's posthumous reputation and many of the pictures that he once owned are now housed in distinguished public collections such as the Musée d'Art Moderne, Paris, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, The Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Museu de Arte Contemporanea da Universidade, São Paulo.
Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920)
Oil on canvas
MASTERWORKS FROM A DISTINGUISHED EUROPEAN COLLECTION
Amedeo Modigliani , 20th Century, Paintings, oil, Italy, Modern, figures
Zurich, Kunsthaus, Modigliani, March - April 1930, no. 138.
Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Modigliani, November 1933 (illustrated p. 28; titled 'Les deux soeurs').
Basel, Kunsthalle, Modigliani, January - February 1934, no. 20 (illustrated pl. 3).
Paris, Galerie de France, Modigliani, 1884-1920, peintures, December 1945 - January 1946, no. 7 (dated '1917').
Paris, Galerie Charpentier, Cent tableaux de Modigliani, April - May 1958, no. 56.
Marseille, Musée Cantini, Modigliani, June - July 1958, no. 15 (illustrated).
Dusseldorf, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Amedeo Modigliani, Malerei, Skulpturen, Zeichnungen, January - April 1991, no. 67; this exhibition later travelled to Zurich, Kunsthaus, April - July 1991.
Chiba, Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art, Modigliani et son époque, Paris 1910-20, April - May 1997, no. 3 (illustrated p. 27); this exhibition later travelled to Osaka, Kintetsu Museum of Art, June 1997; Yamagata, Museum of Art, July - August 1997; Niigata, Museum of Art, September - October 1997; Miyazaki, Museum of Art, November - December 1997; Kitakyushu, Municipal Museum, December 1997 - January 1998 and Tokyo, Daimaru Museum of Art, January - February 1998.
Lugano, Museo d'Arte Moderna, Amedeo Modigliani, March - June 1999, no. 51 (illustrated pp. 120 & 198).
IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART
39 3/8 x 25 5/8 in. (100 x 65.1 cm.)
A. Salmon, Modigliani, sa vie et son oeuvre, Paris, 1926 (illustrated pl. 13; dated '1917', provenance listed as 'Collection Netter').
A. Pfannstiel, Modigliani, Paris, 1929, p. 20 (illustrated; dated '1917').
S. Taguchi, Modigliani, Tokyo, 1936 (illustrated pl. 14).
R. Franchi, Modigliani, Florence, 1944 (illustrated pl. 10).
N. Aprà, Tormento di Modigliani, Florence, 1945.
R. Franchi, Modigliani, Florence, 1946 (illustrated pl. XVII; dated '1917').
G. di San Lazzaro, Modigliani, Paris, 1947 (illustrated pl. VI).
J. Cocteau, Modigliani, Paris, 1950 (illustrated pl. 7; titled 'Les deux soeurs').
G. di San Lazzaro, Modigliani, Paris, 1953 (illustrated pl. VI).
A. Pfannstiel, Modigliani et son oeuvre, Paris, 1956, no. 130, p. 97.
B. Borchert, Modigliani, London, 1960 (illustrated pl. 5).
A. Ceroni, Amedeo Modigliani, dessins et sculptures avec suite du catalogue illustré des peintures, Milan, 1965, no. 212, p. 49 (illustrated; dated '1918').
J. Lanthemann, Modigliani, 1884-1920, Catalogue raisonné, sa vie, son oeuvre complet, son art, Barcelona, 1970, no. 292, p. 127 (illustrated p. 237).
L. Piccioni & A. Ceroni, I dipinti di Modigliani, Milan, 1970, no. 242 (illustrated p. 100 & pl. XXXIX).
F. Cachin & A. Ceroni, Tout l'oeuvre peint de Modigliani, Paris, 1972, no. 242 (illustrated p. 100 & pl. XXXIX).
C. Roy, Modigliani, Paris, 1985, p. 109 (illustrated).
O. Patani, Amedeo Modigliani, Catalogo generale, dipinti, Milan, 1991, no. 254 (illustrated).
C. Parisot, Modigliani, Catalogue raisonné, peintures, dessins, aquarelles, vol. II, Livorno, 1991, no. 21/1918, pp. 327-328 (illustrated p. 205).
Leopold Zborowski, Paris.
Jonas Netter, Paris, by whom acquired from the above before 1926, and thence by descent; sale Christie's, London, 4 February 2009, Lot 10.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.