Paul Guillaume is one of four portraits that Amedeo Modigliani painted of the art dealer who represented him between 1914 and 1916. Of these four portraits, this is the only example in private hands: the others are in the Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris, in the Museo del Novecento (formerly the Civico Museo d'Arte Contemporanea) in Milan and in the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio. This picture has an impressive history, having been in the possession of the sitter himself, before entering the formidable collection of Roland Leten in Ghent, who owned a range of works by artists as diverse as Pierre-Auguste Renoir and James Ensor, some of which are now in museum collections. Paul Guillaume was subsequently owned by the American real estate mogul and philanthropist Harold Uris and his wife Ruth, generous benefactors of the Metropolitan Museum of Art as well as other causes, before being part of the collection of the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art in Las Vegas.
Modigliani's portraits are celebrated in part for their combination of idealised beauty and apparent perspicacity, and this appears to be the case in Paul Guillaume, which is the most intimate and least formal of the group of pictures showing the dealer. Here, the head of the sitter is tilted to the side, as he gives a quizzical yet relaxed look to the artist and, by extension, the viewer. In this composition, with the head and shoulders alone shown, rather than the three half-length portraits which feature more of the body and clothing, Modigliani has suppressed Guillaume's dandy-ish flair, elsewhere more in evidence. Instead, the focus is on the head itself, and on the expression, relaxed, possibly to the point of self-contentedness. Within the broad, planar mask of the face, the mouth and moustache are shown pursed and diminutive, an exaggeration that appears to reflect Guillaume's character as much as his appearance.
Guilllaume had been introduced to Modigliani through the poet Max Jacob in 1914. At the end of the period during which Modigliani was focussing largely on his sculptures; Jacob advised Modigliani to refrain from discussing this aspect of his work and instead promoted him as a painter, despite the fact that he had but seldom explored that medium during the past few years. Nonetheless, Guillaume was suitably impressed by Modigliani's works and began a business relationship that lasted for much of 1914, all of 1915 and a part of 1916, before he handed on responsibility for the artist to the Polish emigré Léopold Zborowski.
Before Guillaume met him, Modigliani had hoped to be a sculptor rather than a painter, studying for some time with the Romanian artist Constantin Brancusi. Reluctantly, because of his poor health, he had to give up sculpture: his interest in direct carving involved a physical toll that was too much for him. Apparently, Guillaume himself helped to persuade Modigliani to abandon sculpture, not just because of the duress that resulted from carving, but also because paintings were essentially easier to stock and to sell (see M. Restellini, ed., Modigliani, The Melancholy Angel, exh. cat., London & Paris, 2002, p. 17). Modigliani's paintings appear to have been informed by his short-lived experiences as a sculptor: they now assumed a plastic character that is clearly in evidence in the almost carved appearance of the features in Paul Guillaume.
Guillaume's enthusiasm for Modigliani's work was reflected in the fact that he very soon rented the artist a room in the legendary Bateau Lavoir, the Montmartre building which had been the haunt of a range of artists over the years. This enthusiasm was reciprocated by Modigliani in the string of portraits he painted of Guillaume, the first of which was inscribed with the words 'Novo pilota' and 'Stella maris', implying that the dealer was a new pilot in the world of contemporary art, a guiding light - the 'star of the sea'. That first portrait had been painted in the home of Beatrice Hastings, Modigliani's lover, with whom he had been involved in a turbulent relationship that helped to lay some of the foundations of the legend of the artist. Modigliani, at that time, was on a path filled with self-destruction, be it through alcohol, drugs or his tumultuous fights with Hastings. Even his productivity was severely dented during that time. Within a short time, Guillaume had rented the new studio for Modigliani in the Bateau Lavoir, and soon Hastings left the scene, resulting in a new period of productivity and development for the artist. Guillaume, then, had been Modigliani's dealer during a period of significant change, both in his art and his life.
Paul Guillaume dates from the final year of the direct arrangement between the artist and the dealer and perhaps charts the course of their relationship during that time. Some critics, looking at the Milan portrait of Guillaume, feel there is a coolness in evidence between them by 1916; however, the aloof air that Guillaume has achieved in that work in particular appears to be a reflection of his general character. Certainly, there is little sense of distance in Paul Guillaume, which has an immediacy that is accentuated by the tight composition and the sensation of physical proximity. There exists a number of photographs that provide an insight into the friendship and collaboration between Guillaume and Modigliani, including a sequence taken in the studio in the Bateau Lavoir. Two of these showing Modigliani appear to have been taken by Guillaume, who is conversely the sitter in the third, apparently taken by the artist himself. Guillaume was photographed on a number of occasions with some of the works by Modigliani which he owned in the background. In addition, after the cessation of their direct business relationship, they were nonetheless shown smiling together in photographs taken on the promenade in Nice towards the end of the First World War. Similarly, Guillaume continued to buy and sell works by Modigliani, often working with Zborowski. Thus some of the tales of distance between the two appear perhaps over-stated.
Exaggerated as those hints at rupture may be, in financial matters their relationship was certainly strained. While Modigliani benefitted from Guillaume's support and had his works widely promoted and sold, tales constantly filtered back of buyers approaching the painter directly and buying works for prices way below those that the dealer had set. Indeed, sometimes Modigliani would make a gift of his pictures in return for meals and drink. The fact that neither had managed to sign a formal contract enabled Modigliani to continue to act in this way, which doubtless frustrated Guillaume.
By the time that they entered their loose business arrangement in 1914, Guillaume had only been acting as an art broker for a few years. He was essentially self-taught, having picked up some of his connoisseurship regarding modern art in the cafés of Paris. This informal training was combined with a good eye and a shrewd head for business. His great chance is almost the stuff of legend. It was while working in a high-end garage, in essence to make ends meet, that he had come across some African sculptures sent in a shipment of rubber. Guillaume had asked for permission to place one of these sculptures in the window of the establishment; it in turn had caught the eye of Guillaume Apollinaire, who introduced himself to the young garagiste and who would subsequently give him, as a budding art broker, access to a range of artists and other characters of the time.
Apollinaire himself was one of the few people in the Parisian avant garde who had already shown an interest in African art at that time; it was still a rarefied field. However, Guillaume would continue to collect in that area and indeed became a published authority. The love of African sculpture was shared with Modigliani, who looked at a great deal of non-Western art, often taking inspiration from its rigour, its stylisation and its spirituality. Looking at Paul Guillaume, these factors are all at play in the mask-like face with which Modigliani confronts us; the eyes appear all the more striking for their contrast with the sheen of the chiselled, smooth face - they are inlets revealing the character behind. His earlier patron Paul Alexandre spoke of his drawings in terms that are equally apt here: 'In his drawings, there is invention, simplification and purification of form. That is why African art appealed to him. Modigliani had reconstructed the lines of the human face in his own way by fitting them into primitive patterns. He enjoyed any attempt to simplify line and was interested in it for his personal development' (Alexandre, quoted in ibid, p. 144).
Guillaume's fascination with African art had essentially served as his letter of introduction to the Parisian avant garde, bringing about his meeting with Apollinaire and many successive characters. Within a short time he had set up a gallery, initially on the rue de Miromesnil, near the Palais de l'Elysée. This was a bold strategy: he was at the heart of the establishment in terms of galleries and dealers, away from many of the new Left Bank avant garde dealers. Guillaume also had the pioneering idea of forming his own collection for posterity. More and more of the objects that came into his possession stayed in his hands, forming the core of the collection which is now housed at the Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris - including the first Modigliani portrait of him. Guillaume was a trailblazer amongst dealers in his ambition to have a permanent collection that would be displayed to the public after his death. The collection which today bears his name is in fact the result of a further evolution: after his untimely death in his early 40s, his widow sold some of the avant garde works, replacing them with more conservative pictures by Impressionists and other artists, dispersing some of the cutting-edge acquisitions that Guillaume had earlier made. However, the traces of the dealer's avant garde spirit are evident in the purity of form and depth of penetrating expression of Paul Guillaume.