Portrait de femme signed 'Modigliani' (upper right) oil on canvas 61 x 38cm (24 x 14 15/16in). Painted circa 1917-1918
PROVENANCE Leopold Zborowski, Paris. Private collection, Europe, 1925. Galerie Bing, Paris. Mr. and Mrs. William D. Vogel, Milwaukee, 1950 (Mrs. William D. Vogel was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Booth). Grace Vogel Aldworth, Santa Fe (acquired by descent from the above). Thence by descent to the present owners.
EXHIBITED Tokyo, National Arts Center, Modigliani et le Primitivisme, March - June 2008, no.36 (illustrated p.139); this exhibition later travelled to Osaka, The National Museum of Art, July - September 2008.
LITERATURE J. Lanthemann, Modigliani, 1884-1920: Catalogue raisonne: Sa vie, son oeuvre complet, son art, Barcelona, 1970, p.122, no.221, p.219 (illustrated). Y. Taillandier, 'Modigliani', Connaissance des Arts, 15 April, 1955 (illustrated p.65).
This work will be included in the forthcoming Amedeo Modigliani catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre peint being prepared by Monsieur Marc Restellini under the sponsorship of the Wildenstein Institute.
These portraits, often begun at a table in a café or as the result of a casual invitation back to his studio, "are the works by which the artist has earned his place in the history of art" (from Werner Schmalenbach's, The Melancholy Angel, 2002, p.34).
At first, the Portrait de femme appears, simply and satisfyingly, to depict those features that are synonymous with Modigliani's portraits: the elongation of the sitter's face, her asymmetrical almond-shaped eyes and sculptural pronouncement of the nose, together with the overall effect of the painting having been pieced together like a patchwork to form the whole. However, this portrait reveals some further truths about the artist himself, this period of his work and the wider, surprising influences on this portrait.
In the early days of his career, in 1909, Modigliani met Constantin Brancusi, which was to prove a key encounter. Brancusi encouraged him to investigate Cycladic sculpture with the idea of distilling human faces into their intrinsic features and for a number of years Modigliani took up Brancusi's challenge and only produced sculpture. Head of a woman, in Figure 1, depicts a limestone bust of a woman in the style that Modigliani adopted. This sculpture expresses a pure geometric harmony and balance of composition, in contrast to the two-dimensional Portrait de femme and its playful curvaceousness. Nevertheless, there is a lucid comparison between the two works that reveals why Modigliani's portraits of women are so successful. The elongated forms, the sharply defined noses and the blank eyes of his stone sculptures persisted in his mature painting style, although in modified form, but furthermore Modigliani managed to maintain the subtle balance between the stylized coolness of his busts and naturalism in his painted portraits.
In both Head of a woman and Portrait de femme, the subject's hair is used to add structure, compositional balance and texture. The roughness of the curls within the sharp edges of the hairline give a framework to the face in the limestone, whilst the thick extension of stone dedicated to the subject's hair, far beyond the bust's ear, provides poise in relation to the base. Modigliani's depiction of the subject's hair in Portrait de femme fulfils a very similar role: the structure of it balances the shape and width of the shoulders of the sitter, whilst its waviness juxtaposes and thereby emphasises the geometry of the woman's facial features. Even in terms of workmanship, there is an overlap between the small hammering technique employed to carve the limestone and the stippled brushwork of Portrait de femme.
This being a female portrait, it is not unsurprising that we do not know her identity. Had the portrait been of a man it would have been much more likely to have been identifiable as one of Modigliani's friends, dealers or fellow artists. Aside from his partner, Jeanne Herbuterne, Modigliani's female sitters were much less likely to be named by him or known by us. Painted in the years that preceded his death from tubercular meningitis at the age of 35, this painting is one of Modigliani's renowned recordings of the medley of European faces who surrounded him in the bohemian Montmartre and Montparnasse neighbourhoods of Paris.
What places Portrait de femme within a distinctively smaller group of Modigliani's female portraits, nevertheless, are the subject's eyes. Not only are they more realistic than some other of his female portraits but the shape of the eyebrow area is quite specific. In Portrait de femme, the artist has refined the subject's pupils and created an impression of glints of light within both irises. His portrait entitled Renée, Figure 2, was painted at around the same time and not only depicts a similar technique for the eyes, created by leaving a small area unpainted, but has a similar uninterrupted line forming nose and eyebrow.
In Renée, the subject's hair plays a compositional role to the degree that has already been described with reference to Portrait de femme. But additionally, the subjects give a similar impression of being thoroughly modern women. Via his compositional framework and Expressionistic painting style, Modigliani manages to communicate the self-assuredness of both sitters, whose waved hair and clothing wraps voluptuously around their otherwise sharp features. In fact professionally styled hair and fashionable clothing in post-war Paris was the requirement of a well-heeled woman, consequent upon the nascent (but flourishing) coiffeur and fashion industry at the time, of which Modigliani was very much party to.
A fascinating article for the journal Social History, published in January 1993, reveals that waved, short hair was at the height of Paris fashion immediately after the war, and that around 1919, the trend-setter Coco Chanel attended a luxury salon that was adorned with paintings by Modigliani. Fashion and art were combining at the turn of the 1920s and although Modigliani may have been at the edges of society in some senses, he had full grasp of the modernism that was taking place.
All this, together with the frontal positioning of the woman in Portrait de femme, provides an expectation that we as viewers might be able to become a little closer to the female subject of this painting, psychologically, than is possible with Modigliani's gaze-less subjects. However, that is a false expectation because the woman in Portrait de femme wears a mask, namely make-up. It is simply a mask of femininity, but it also serves to give her anonymity. Modigliani's Renée, depicted in figure 2, gives a comparable insight into Modigliani's understanding of femininity and the use of make-up to create a metaphysical mask for his subjects.
Models often look alike in Modigliani's painting and this invokes the "generic quality of his portraits, their abstracted anonymity, orchestrated simplicity" (Tamar Garb, "Making and Masking," Beyond the Myth, op. cit., p.43). Modigliani pushed and pulled his sitters into position, stretching, elongating, distorting and disrupting their contours to suit the exigencies of picture making and the imperatives of his imagination.