No matter who his models were or how conservatively they dressed, Modigliani reveled in exposing the sensuality of his female sitters. Sometimes his focus was more explicit than others. In this lovely portrait of an anonymous sitter from 1919, the artist achieves intimacy with this model by the very manner in which he applies his paint to the canvas. He renders her figure with semi-transparent, almost hesitant, brush strokes, evoking the innocence of this young girl. The formal qualities of the oil take on the luminescence of a watercolor, and the model is quite literally 'stripped' of any opacity.
Although his portraits are considered among the finest of the 20th century, Modigliani’s working methods were unorthodox. His good looks and bacchanalian temperament sometimes intimidated his models, and his unprofessional antics would make for a lively, if not unnerving, afternoon in the studio (see fig. 1). Lunia Czechowska, one of his most frequent models, described how the artist’s joie de vivre got the better of him the first time he painted her portrait: “Gradually as the session went on and the hours passed, I was no longer afraid of him. I see him still in shirtsleeves, his hair all ruffled trying to fix my features on the canvas. From time to time he extended his hand toward a bottle of cheap table wine (vieux marc). I could see the alcohol taking effect: he was so excited he was talking to me in Italian. He painted with such violence that the painting fell over on his head has he leaned forward to see me better. I was terrified. Ashamed of having frightened me, he looked at me sweetly and began to sing Italian songs to make me forget the incident” (quoted in Pierre Sichel, A Biography of Amedeo Modigliani, New York, 1967, p. 325).
Modigliani often had his various models strike similar poses -- a stylistic exercise that revealed how the pose of the individual sitter altered the meaning of a given gesture. With her hand raised to her chest, this young girl's gesture seems demure in comparison to a similar modeling in the stately Portrait of Lunia Czechowska (Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, see fig. 2). And the adolescent's gesture of timidity in this picture takes on a more sexually suggestive tone in Femme aux yeux bleus (Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, see fig. 3). What distinguishes Modigliani’s portraits is the balance between his unique mannerism and stylization on one hand, and a naturalism and interest in the personality and psychology of his sitters on the other. This neo-mannerist style that characterised his work is partly derived from the artist’s fascination with the Old Masters of his native Italy (see fig. 4). As Werner Schmalenbach wrote: “Historical associations impose themselves: echoes not only of the fifteenth-century Mannerism of Sandro Botticelli but of the classic sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Mannerism of Pontormo, Parmigianino and perhaps also El Greco. One work often mentioned in connection with Modigliani’s late portraits of women is Parmigianino’s Madonna dal collo lungo; Pontormo’s St. Anne Alterpiece is equally relevant. Modigliani had a sound knowledge of Italian art, and we must assume that he was well aware of all this, however direct or indirect the actual influence” (Werner Schmalenbach, Modigliani, Munich, 1980, p. 42).
Apart from these historical influences, Modigliani was acutely aware of the artistic developments of his own time. Although he never completely subscribed to the syntax of Cubism, he adopted some of its stylistic devices, such as the geometric simplification and break-up of forms, and was close to the sculptors Ossip Zadkine and Jacques Lipchitz, both of whom were strongly influenced by Cubism. Even more important, perhaps, was his relationship with Brancusi, whom he met in 1909. Brancusi not only encouraged him to carve directly in stone, causing him to virtually abandon painting for several years, but also gave the most convincing demonstration of how influences from the widest possible range of sources – tribal, archaic, Asian and African – could be transformed into a personal idiom of the greatest originality. Although Modigliani never developed a style as close to abstraction and as far removed from the world of natural appearances as that of Brancusi, he was strongly influenced by Brancusi’s simplified forms, reducing his sitters’ faces to a few highly stylized features.
Over a decade after this picture was finished, it was lent to the Venice Biennale by Roger Dutilleul (1873-1956), one of Modigliani's most important patrons. In a photograph of that exhibition, this picture hangs in the center, surrounded by other great works that are now in major museums throughout the world (see fig. 5).
Fig. 1, The artist, circa 1918
Fig. 2, Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait de Lunia Czechowska, 1919, oil on canvas, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris
Fig. 3, Amedeo Modigliani, Femme aux yeux bleus, 1919, oil on canvas, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris
Fig. 4, Simone Martini, Annunciation (detail of The Virgin Mary), 1477, tempera on wood, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Fig. 5, Installation view of the Modigliani room at the XVII Espozione Internazionale d'Arte di Venezia, 1930, showing the present work in the middle
Oil on canvas
Venice, XVIIe Esposizione Internazionale Biennale d'Arte, 1930, no. 1260
39 3/8 by 25 1/8 in. 100 by 64 cm
André Salmon, Modigliani -- sa vie, son oeuvre, Paris, 1926, no. 35, illustrated (titled Jeune fille en bleu)
Jean Cocteau, Modigliani, Paris, 1950, no. 17, illustrated
Ambrogio Ceroni, I Dipinti di Modigliani, Milan, 1970, no. 299, illustrated p. 103 (catalogued with incorrect measurements -- 116 by 73 cm)
Ambrogio Ceroni, Tout l'oeuvre complet de Modigliani, Paris, 1972, no. 299, illustrated p. 103
Osvaldo Patani, Amedeo Modigliani, Catalogo Generale, Dipinti, Milan, 1991, no. 310, illustrated p. 308 (catalogued with incorrect measurements)
Roger Dutilleul, Paris (acquired from the artist and until at least 1930)
Sam Salz, New York
Nate B. and Frances Spingold, New York (by at least 1955 and sold: Sotheby’s, London, November 29, 1976, lot 16)
Acquavella Galleries, New York (acquired in 1995)
Acquired from the above in 1995