More than any other artist of the early twentieth century, Modigliani concentrated on portraiture as his principal vehicle of creativity. Born in Livorno, Italy, into a prominent Sephardic family, Modigliani studied in Florence and Venice before leaving for Paris in 1906. He resided in Montmartre until 1912 when he moved to Montparnasse and joined the circle of Jewish artists there who gathered at the Caf de la Rotonde, on the corner of the Boulevard Raspail and the Boulevard du Montparnasse (fig. 1). Billy Kluver and Julie Martin have painted a colorful picture of the Rotonde:
Around 1910 Victor Libion bought the cafe and the butcher shop next door and expanded and remodeled the Rotonde. Libion welcomed the artists and created an atmosphere where all kinds of artists, poets, writers and critics could feel at home. He subscribed to foreign newspapers and let the artists sit for hours over a 20 centimes caf-crme. For the poorer artists, he accepted paintings in exchange for payment and looked the other way when they took rolls from the bread-basket. Thus the back room at the Rotonde became a meeting place where all nationalities mixed freely with each other, something that up till then had not happened in Montparnasse. (B. Kluver and J. Martin, "Carrefour Vavin," The Circle of Montparnasse, New York, 1985, p. 70)
Picasso, Chagall, Lipchitz and other luminaries of Montparnasse comprised Modigliani's intimate circle of friends. The present work, painted in 1916, is a masterpiece from Modigliani's first period of full artistic maturity. The picture reveals both the key sources of the artist's style, and the unique and original synthesis he made of them. The first influence manifest in the present work is Czanne. Modigliani adored the pictures of the French painter, and talked passionately of his admiration for them. It is perhaps not an accident that so many of Modigliani's sitters are posed in an armchair with their hands clasped in their laps in the manner of Cezanne's portraits of his wife (fig. 2).
The second major influence on Modigliani was the sculptor Brancusi (fig. 3), whom Modigliani met through Dr. Paul Alexandre. In response to the impact of Brancusi's art, between 1909 and 1912 Modigliani concentrated on sculpture; the older artist's emphasis on geometric form became a permanent part of Modigliani's aesthetic. John Russell has commented, "Where sculpture made a lifelong impact on Modigliani was in the example of Brancusi. As early as 1908 Brancusi was reducing the human head to a perfect oval--but that oval which...was capable of characterization. Brancusi loved to hammer his opinions home and it is safe to assume that Modigliani was firmly indoctrinated with his ideas as to what was, and, what was not, a valid method of presenting the human head and body in sculpture. Not merely did this introduce Modigliani to le moderne in one of its most radical and suggestive forms: Brancusi's simplifications, and his ferocious exclusion of the irrelevant, made sense in the context of Modigliani's experience of older art. Brancusi taught him, in short, that it was possible both to be dans le progs and to draw upon that immense repertory of simplified and meaningful forms which he had built up in Italy." (J. Russell, exh. cat., Modigliani, Tate Gallery, London, 1963, p. 7)
The third influence evident in the present work is African sculpture. The stylized head of the woman, with the almond shaped eyes, and the impassive and yet moving expression, was clearly based in part on masks from the Dan tribe (fig. 4). It is striking that Paul Guillaume, Modigliani's principal dealer before June 1916, was also the most important dealer of African sculpture in Paris, who organized a contemporaneous exhibition that paired Modigliani's paintings paired with African masks.
The emphasis on extreme elegance and powerful syltization in these contemporary influences resonated with Modigliani's life-long love of Italian primitives (fig. 5).
Jacques Lipchitz, the sculptor, wrote a short book on Modigliani. An intimate friend of the painter, he commissioned Modigliani to paint a wedding portrait of Lipchitz and his wife. He has left a fascinating account of Modigliani's working procedure:
He preferred painting on a closely woven canvas, and sometimes when he had finished the work he placed a sheet of paper carefully over the fresh paint to merge the colors. He worked without an easel and with the minimum fuss, placing his canvas on a chair and painting quietly. From time to time he would get up and glance critically over his work and look at his models. (J. Lipchitz, Modigliani, New York, 1954)
According to Lipchitz, Modigliani charged ten francs and a bottle of wine per sitting. Other artists and clients testify that Modigliani always drank as he worked. Lipchitz has written the best analysis of Modigliani's methods and style:
His own art was an art of personal feeling. He worked furiously, dashing off drawing after drawing without stopping to correct and ponder. He worked, it seemed, entirely by instinct--which, however, was extremely fine and sensitive, perhaps owing much to his Italian inheritance and his love of the early Renaissance masters. He could not forget his interest in people, and he painted them, so to say, with abandon. This is why Modigliani... admired African and other primitive arts as much as any of us... He took from them certain stylistic traits... His was an immediate satisfaction in their strange and novel forms. But he could not permit abstraction to interfere with feeling, to get between him and his subjects. And that is why his portraits are such remarkable characterizations. (Ibid.)
(fig. 1) Modigliani (second from right), circa 1914
(fig. 2) Paul Czanne, Madame Czanne au fauteuil jaune,
Fondation Beyeler, Basel (sale, Christie's, New York, 12 May 1997, lot 115)
(fig. 3) Constantin Brancusi, Baroness Rene Frachon (Tte de femme), circa 1909
(fig. 4) Dan mask , Ivory Coast
(fig. 5) Simone Martini, La Maddalena (detail of an altarpiece),
Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Orvieto
Femme en robe cossaise (Woman in Plaid Dress)
Oil on canvas
Signed 'Modigliani' (upper right)
Paris, Galerie Charpentier, Cent chefs d'oeuvres de l'art franais, 1957.
Paris, Galerie Charpentier, Cent Tableaux de Modigliani, April-May 1958, no. 92.
Paris, Galerie Schmit, Tableaux de matres franais, 1900-1955, May-June 1973, p. 52, no. 36 (illustrated in color).
Paris, Muse d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Amedeo Modigliani 1884-1920, March-June 1981, no. 33 (illustrated in color, p. 120).
36 x 23.5/8 in. (92 x 60 cm.)
A. Ceroni, I dipinti di Modigliani, Milan, 1970, p. 93, no. 112 (illustrated).
J. Lanthemann, Modigliani 1884-1920: catalogue raisonn, sa vie, son oeuvre complet, son art, Barcelona, 1970, p. 116, no. 131 (illustrated, p. 193).
R. Nacenta, The School of Paris, New York, 1981, p. 132, no. 34 (illustrated).
O. Patani, Amedeo Modigliani, Catalogo generale, dipinti, Milan, 1991, p. 135, no. 115 (illustrated in color).
Galerie Schmit, Paris
Acquired from the above by the present owner
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