Jeune fille aux cheveux noirs oil on canvas 65 x 49.4cm (25 9/16 x 19 7/16in). Painted in the winter, circa 1918-1919
PROVENANCE Galerie Zborowski, Paris. Acquired from the above by Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., 19 May 1931. Loaned to Mrs. Laurance S. Rockefeller by Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, 2 March 1936. Gift from Mrs. John D. Rockefeller to Mr. and Mrs. Laurance S. Rockefeller, 22 December 1939 and thence by descent.
EXHIBITED Bourgeois Galleries (arranged by Galerie Zborowski), New York, 1931.
LITERATURE The Art News, New York, 7 March 1931, p.6, (illustrated). The Art News, New York, 16 May 1931, unnumbered page (illustrated).
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.
Gifted to himself and his wife by his mother as a generous Christmas present in 1939, Laurance S. Rockefeller counted this stunning Modigliani portrait amongst his extensive art collection. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller had bought this work from Galerie Zborowski in Paris, 1931. As one of the original founders of The Museum of Modern Art in 1929, she passed her love of art onto her six children, of whom Laurance was the fourth.
As the grandson of the famously wealthy oil industrialist, John D. Rockefeller, Laurance could have chosen to lead a relaxed life of privilege, but instead became a leading venture capitalist, philanthropist, conservationist and financier.
An anticipator of trends, he developed a lasting interest in aviation whilst serving in the Navy in World War II. Sensing a potential boom in commercial air travel, he would go on to invest heavily in Eastern Airlines, which became the most profitable airline to emerge after the war.
Laurance S. Rockefeller similarly led the way for eco-tourism, opening environmentally friendly hotels in Hawaii, the Virgin Islands, Vermont and Puerto Rico. This sincere passion for conservation led to him founding the Jackson Hole Preserve, Inc. in 1940 and the American Conservation Association in 1958, through which he played an instrumental role in developing several national parks. His work was recognised in 1991 when he received the Congressional Gold Medal from President George Bush for his contributions to conservation and historic preservation.
His philanthropic nature was well-known and amongst many other causes, he supported the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center for fifty seven years, contributing to its success as the leading cancer centre in the world.
Deeply committed to his business and charitable causes, Laurance S. Rockefeller extended his discerning eye to his personal collection of ceramics, Native American objects, European paintings and Asian art.
'...He always regarded sculpture as his real métier, and it was probably only lack of money, the difficulty of obtaining material, and the amount of time required to complete a work in stone that made him return to painting during the last five years of his life.' (Nina Hamnett quoted in A. Werner, Modigliani the Sculptor, New York, 1962, p.XIX.)
Amedeo Modigliani matured first as a sculptor but it was his curvilinear figurative drawings, inspired by those carved forms, which forged the path for painted portraits such as Jeune fille aux cheveux noirs. From a technical point of view, this painting is a powerful example of the way in which Modigliani was able to use the tools of sculptural composition in order to create portraiture with a high degree of plasticity and expression. Beyond technique however, Jeune fille aux cheveux noirs provides fresh insight into the penultimate year of the artist's life and, poignantly, evidence of the importance of Modigliani's work to Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and her personal art collection in which it previously hung.
Modigliani was the quintessential peintre maudit: an immigrant in Paris who was doomed by his vices whilst simultaneously breaking new ground in Modern art history alongside Picasso, Matisse and Gauguin. But rather than re-representing classical ideals of beauty, Modigliani preferred the elegant yet expressive linearity he could achieve through carving (N. Benezra, A Study in Irony: Modigliani's 'Jacques and Berthe Lipchitz', Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, 1986, vol.12, no.2, pp.189), and his entire oeuvre translates his interpretations of classical Egyptian, African and Asian design.
We know that African masks and carvings inspired Modigliani in the making of his sculpture, and it is well recorded that he visited the Musée Ethnographique du Trocadero in Paris to observe them in the flesh. However, the effect that these artifacts had on his painting is less explored. In fact, he looked outside the European tradition to non-Western art as a way to revitalise and reinvigorate his works on paper and canvas and Jeune fille aux cheveux noirs reflects the high drama and spirituality of the Baule sculptures that he witnessed at the Musée Ethnographique.
The Baule carving tradition, from the Ivory Coast, embraces functional objects, mask forms and sculptures with the intention of facilitating relations with the spirit world. Nevertheless, the aesthetic success of the carvings goes beyond the symbolic. The female Diviner's Figure, depicted in Figure 1 is, at first glance, a carving of primitive simplicity but, on closer inspection, it reveals a formula for creating aesthetic presence and poise that informed Modigliani's own work. Most notable, is the juxtaposition of shapes between the rod-like neck and oval face, as can also be observed in Modigliani's Jeune fille aux cheveux noirs. This curvilinear effect creates compositional balance and harmony, and was a key attribute of the artist's work throughout his career (an irony, given the temperament of the man himself). Furthermore, the horizontal, almond-shaped eyes are complemented by the vertically linear nose; whilst the exaggerated form and shading of the brow line of both Jeune fille aux cheveux noirs and Figure 1 bring plasticity to the mask-like simplicity of the subject's face.
Beyond African sculpture, Jeune fille aux cheveux noirs references the Egyptian goddesses and queens portrayed in the sculptures and paintings that Modigliani and his lover Anna Akhmatova visited together at the Louvre during the summer of 1911. Akhmatova was a sensual and cerebral obsession for Modigliani between 1911 and 1912, whilst the Louvre, as a melting pot of Napoleonic war loot, Spanish and Italian masterpieces, was a tremendous influence on the great artists of the period. The artist shunned the Realist expressions that he would have witnessed in works by Rodin, for example, and was inspired by to the highly stylised 'realist' busts of Ancient Egypt. The Egyptian works were a sort of blueprint for the efficacy of primitive composition and inspired Modigliani greatly. Akhmatova herself noted:
'...Modigliani was infatuated with all things Egyptian. He used to take me to the Louvre, to the Egyptian wing, assuring me that everything else toute le reste, was unworthy of attention. He sketched my head in the style of decorative motifs portraying Egyptian Queens and dancers. He seemed completely enthralled with the splendour of Egyptian art...Egypt was the last big step in his development.' (Anna Akhmatova quoted in A. Akhmatova and U. Austin, Modigliani, 'The Threepenny Review', 1989, no.38, p.29)
Figure 2 depicts the Goddess Karomama and would have been witnessed by Modigliani in the 1911 exhibition. She is unmistakably a woman with poise but is, at root, a stylised impression of femininity using the tools of structure, symmetry and curvilinearity. The face of Karomama is constructed with only four key features: stark, almond eyes; an elongated angular nose; full lips and pointed chin; and these contours interplay with light in order to give the viewer an impression of the Goddess's powerful physical presence. The structural tools one can observe in this antiquity are reflected in Modigliani's works on canvas, despite their inevitable two-dimensionality, and perhaps his success lies in managing to manipulate the boundaries between sculpture and painting by applying subtle rules of one to the other. For example, the symmetry and structure of the sitter's bobbed hair in Jeune fille aux cheveux noirs reflects the effect of Karatoma's headdress in framing and providing focus on the Goddess's face; whilst the meta-physical strength suggested by the monochrome eyes of the statue is reflected by the filled pupils in Jeune fille aux cheveux noirs. Lastly, Modigliani manages to overcome the limited amount of textural effects that are achievable on canvas, versus using stone or wood. Whereas the Karomama figure is accentuated by the embellishment of precious metals and metal polishing finishes, Modigliani's Jeune fille aux cheveux noirs juxtaposes stippled brushwork, as if hammered, to create the background of the picture plane against smooth, flesh-like brushstrokes to emphasise the clarity and flesh of the subject's face. The result is the illusion of plasticity.
Jeune fille aux cheveux noirs, painted in 1919, captures the zeitgeist of the age in terms of socio-economic factors as well as the popularity of ethnography with Modern artists of the period. In fact, by capturing the 'bobbed' hairstyle of the Jeune fille, Modigliani has succeeded in presenting the viewer with a capsule of French post-war socio-economic history.
The bob (or cheveux courts) was an extremely popular hairstyle in Paris at the time this painting was created, and serves to reflect Modigliani's understanding of style and fashion as well as its compositional use. A Parisian hairdresser named Emile Long, writing in May 1919, noted:
'The fashion of short hair for ladies has become so general in Paris, that all the French papers, even the most serious, are dealing with the question at the present time...it is in Paris and principally in the eccentric quarter of Montmartre, that these coiffures should be seen! I should never have supposed that short cut hair would lend itself to such a large variety of fancy head-dresses. Ladies with dark hair generally adopt the sea-lion style of coiffure, with large pointed, heavy and shiny locks, or a few large rolls right at the extremities.' (S. Zdatny, Hairstyles and Fashion: A Hairdresser's History of Paris, 1910-1920, Oxford and New York, 1999, p.170)
The significance of this 'short cut hair' on a woman is partly a reflection of French society's wartime experience, which had shaken up pre-war gender certainties. The war presented women with an opportunity for financial autonomy whilst at the same time providing lower-class families with better wages and government subsidies, thereby opening up unique economic opportunities for women (Ibid, p.53). Lower paid women now had the means and inclination to visit hairdressing salons more frequently. Improvements in the technology required to create 'perms' allowed short hairstyles to remain stylish and feminine even if it was not being styled by a professional. The craze for cropped haircuts swept through middle and lower classes (as well as the likes of Coco Chanel) and amounted to a 'cultural revolution' in that it 'emphasised the democratic principle that every woman could be well turned out' (Ibid, p.71). Femme assise a la robe bleue, depicted in Figure 3 from the Moderna Museet collection at Malmo in Sweden, echoes Jeune fille aux cheveux noirs in its representation of the modern Montparnase woman of 1919. But furthermore, both paintings invite the viewer to share close proximity to the sitter by virtue of their narrow picture planes. This composition ensures that the viewer shares a moment of space with a fashionable woman of the post-Belle Époque era.
It is not known whether the sitter in Figure 3 is the same as Jeune fille aux cheveux noirs, but certainly both portraits are painted with Modigliani's attention to simplicity of composition and palette in order to enhance the impact of the image, and with an unmistakable Modernism that sees the sitter placed centre canvas and surrounded by space, as if she were a sculpture.
The Jeune fille's clothing also makes a comment about the changes taking place in fashion at the time. As Zdatny notes, 'it was only after 1914 that working-class women got rid of their corsets and began to enjoy the certaine liberation du corps de la femme, that had already swept the upper classes before 1914' (Ibid, p.55).
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller acquired Jeune fille aux cheveux noirs from Galerie Zborowski in Paris in 1931. Although married to John D. Rockefeller Jr., only son of the wealthy oil industrialist John D. Rockefeller, Abby was a woman of means in her own right and had the insight to buy modern art such as this piece from her own funds (A. B. Saarinen, The Proud Possessors: The Lives, Times, and Tastes of some Adventurous Art Collectors, New York, 1958, p.349). Abby was regarded by contemporaries as having exemplary taste, as noted by Helen Appleton Read of Vogue in 1928:
'Quietly and without a fanfare of publicity, one of the most personal and therefore, one of the most interesting collections of contemporary art has been forming during these past four years. This is Mrs John D. Rockefeller's collection...' (Quoted in S. Loebl, America's Medicis: The Rockefellers and Their Astonishing Cultural Legacy, London, 2011, p.142)
Abby Rockefeller's interest in art went far beyond the habit of collecting. She was one of a triumvirate of women responsible for founding New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1929. Along with friends Mary Sullivan and Lillie Bliss she created, in the words of art critic Aline Saarinen, 'the most important taste making institution in the world' (Ibid, p.xii). Such an achievement reflected Abby's passion for art. As she wrote in 1928, 'To me art is one of the greatest resources of my life. I believe that it not only enriches the spiritual life, but that it makes one more sane and sympathetic, more observant and understanding, regardless of whatever age it springs from or what subject it represents' (Ibid, p.xii).
For Abby it seems that it was Modigliani's work in particular that inspired such sympathy and strength of feeling within her. In fact, she chose one of Modigliani's sculptures as a means of providing a permanent memorial in MoMA to her great friend Mary Sullivan and also, on another occasion, gifted a bronze cast of Modigliani's death mask to MoMA where it remains in the museum's Study Collection (N. Karumba, Projects: Ger van Elk, New York, 1975, pp.1-4).
Perhaps it is Jeune fille aux cheveux noirs however, that had some of the greatest impact on Mrs Abby Rockefeller and her family out of their wider personal collection. Laurance S. Rockefeller was her fourth child and he married Mary French in 1934, after which Abby lent the couple Modigliani's Jeune fille aux cheveux noirs. Just a few days after she bequeathed Modigliani's Head to MoMA, Abby wrote to her son and daughter-in-law on 22 December 1939 in the following terms:
'Dear Laurance I am giving you and Mary the Modigliani portrait as a Christmas present this year, - that is of course if you still like it and want it.... With a great deal of love from your devoted Mother' (as per correspondence sourced from the Rockefeller family papers, in reference to Jeune fille aux cheveux noirs).
This letter was written from the Rockefellers' apartment at 740 Park Avenue. Abby and her husband had moved there during the late 1930s from their previous, larger, home at 10 West fifty-fourth Street which had become 'too cumbersome' (quoted in S. Loebl, America's Medicis: The Rockefellers and Their Astonishing Cultural Legacy, London, 2011, p.12). In order to do so they had had to downsize their collection, so whilst it is clear from her letter of December 1939 that Abby was keen for Laurance and Mary to have the painting, her gift also had a practical consequence. By 1938, over half of Abby's collection had gone to museums and colleges (A. B. Saarinen, The Proud Possessors: The Lives, Times, and Tastes of some Adventurous Art Collectors, New York, 1958, p.367) but the fact that Abby chose to keep Jeune fille aux cheveux noirs within the family, as opposed to donating it to MoMA, may indicate her strength of sentiment towards this particular piece. The Polaroid image depicted in Figure 4 supports this notion, where it can be seen prominently hung above the Rockefeller family photos.
At the time this painting was completed, Modigliani was in a grave financial state and, as a result, he painted mainly as a source of earning money. However, 1919 was also the year within which he produced some of his best known and respected portraits, as if the clarity of his compositions emerged from the chaos with an even greater sense of self-assuredness than previously witnessed. Jeune fille aux cheveux noirs reflects the importance of ethnography and antiquity for Modigliani and Modern art, as well as serving as a primary source of socio-economic history. But moreover, this is a portrait that exudes emotion and, as should all great works of art, it has been treasured by the Rockefellers in the context of their own lives.