Painted in 1919, Frans Hellens is a powerful example of Modigliani's mature portraiture. It was executed during the artist's stay on the French Riviera (fig. 1), where he moved from Paris in April 1918 with his companion and muse Jeanne Hébuterne, in order to spend the rest of the war in relative safety. Modigliani stayed on the Riviera until May 1919, dividing his time between Nice and Cagnes, and was in contact with a number of Parisian artists and intellectuals who had moved to the south of France for the same reason. Among the people he encountered during his stay in Nice was the Belgian novelist, poet and critic Frans Hellens, the sitter in the present portrait.
Born Frédéric Van Ermenghen (1881-1972) and writing under the pseudonym Frans Hellens, the subject of this work played a prominent role in Belgian and French literary circles at the time. After the outbreak of the First World War, Hellens spent long periods of time at the Côte d'Azur and in Paris, and it was during one of his sojourns in Nice that he met Modigliani, as well as the French poet Jules Romains and the sculptor Alexander Archipenko. He also frequented Russian émigré circles where he encountered and fell in love with Maria Marcovna Miloslawski, with whom he returned to Brussels in 1920 and later married. In 1921 Hellens and the celebrated French writer and art critic André Salmon founded the Signaux de France et de Belgique, a magazine which had great influence in Belgian literary circles.
Hellens wrote about his encounter with Modigliani and his experience of sitting for the present portrait: 'It was in Nice that I met Modigliani, a strong and charming character, completely in his own world. He was already ill at that time. Immediately, I sensed a terrible mystery to him. Modigliani wanted to paint my portrait and he executed it within several hours, with an agitated brush. On a table next to us were three litres of wine, which he drank alone, whilst painting. He only stopped working once, "to take a walk and get some air", he said. But on the way he brought me in a bistro where he absorbed a few small glasses of alcohol. I had already heard much about the lucid spirit of this painter and I was reassured, in various circumstances, of his penetrating judgement. A real talent as a draughtsman turned this artist into a sort of magician' (F. Hellens, op. cit., p. 78, translated from French).
In an interview given in 1970, the writer Vladimir Nabokov, who had met Hellens in Belgium in the 1930s, described him as 'a tall, lean, quiet, very dignified man'. A similar sentiment is beautifully expressed in this poignant portrait painted by Modigliani in 1919. Hellens' delicate features, such as his slim, bony face, melancholic eyes and slender shoulders, certainly would have appealed to Modigliani's mannerist style. Set against a neutral, monochrome background and executed in earthy tones, Frans Hellens is a tender and moving portrait that reflects the artist's interest in the personality and psychology of his model.
By the time he painted Frans Hellens, Modigliani had developed his mature style, and the portraits of the last three years of his life are among his most refined and accomplished works. Together, Modigliani's portraits of many individuals from the artistic and bohemian circles of Montparnasse, and later from the south of France, create a chronicle of the intellectual milieu of his time (figs. 2 & 3), as observed by Werner Schmalenbach: 'They are unequivocally portraits and, contrary to all the artistic precepts of the age, they possess a documentary value. Even a portrait such as that of Max Jacob [fig. 3], for all its formalization and stylization, is still a likeness – incontestably so, since it is actually based on a photograph. At the same time, however, the sitter's individuality is reduced to the extent that the stylization creates the effect of a mask. This brings African masks to mind, but here there is nothing alien, mysterious or demonic about the mask; it masks nothing. On the contrary, the sitter has sacrificed to the form some of his individuality, his emotions, his affective life, just as the painter, for his part, keeps emotion well away from that form. He looks at his fellow man with great coolness. The warmth of the painting lies solely in its colour. This combination of cool detachment with painterly warmth lends the painting – like many other works by this artist – its own specific 'temperature'' (W. Schmalenbach, Amedeo Modigliani: Paintings, Sculptures, Drawings, Munich, 1990, p. 35).
Fig. 1, Modigliani and Paul Guillaume with Madame Archipenko on La Croisette in Nice, winter 1918-19. Archives Paul Guillaume
Fig. 2, Amedeo Modigliani, Léopold Zborowski, 1919, oil on canvas, Museu de Arte de São Paulo
Fig. 3, Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait de Max Jacob, circa 1920, oil on canvas, Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati
Oil on canvas
Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Rétrospective Modigliani, 1933, no. 78
Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique, Frans Hellens, 1957
Paris, Galerie Charpentier, Cent tableaux de Modigliani, 1958, no. 32 (as dating from 1916)
Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Ecole de Paris dans les Collections Belges, 1959, no. 112 (as dating from 1916)
Brussels, Musée des Beaux-Arts & Mons, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Modigliani, 1965
Liège, Musée Saint-Georges, Modigliani, 1980, no. 22, illustrated in colour in the catalogue (as dating from 1918)
Paris, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Amedeo Modigliani, 1981, no. 78, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Martigny, Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Modigliani, 1990, no. 99, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
46 by 34cm. 18 1/8 by 13 3/8 in.
Arthur Pfannstiel, Modigliani et son œuvre, Paris, 1956, no. 312, catalogued p. 158 (titled Le Poète Franz Hellens and as dating from circa 1917)
Frans Hellens, Documents Secrets, 1905-1956. Histoire sentimentale de mes livres et quelques amitiés, Paris, 1958, p. 78
Jean Lanthemann, Modigliani. Catalogue raisonné, Paris, 1970, no. 351, illustrated p. 252 (titled Portrait d'homme)
Leone Piccioni & Ambrogio Ceroni, I dipinti di Modigliani, Milan, 1970, no. 285, illustrated p. 103
Dr Frans Delporte, Brussels (acquired by 1933 and until at least 1956)
Georges Daelemans, Brussels (acquired by 1958)
Sale: Christie's, New York, 13th November 1984, lot 128
Acquired directly from the above