Immensely authoritative in its hieratic elegance and strict economy of palette, this sophisticated painting of a russet-haired young man--dated to 1919, just months before Modigliani fell victim to the ravages of tuberculosis and alcoholism--displays the consummate realization of the signature portrait style that the painter had developed during the previous three years, which represents his most powerful legacy to the history of art. The image is undeniably that of a specific individual, whom Modigliani also depicted in a second, bust-length portrait, housed today in the Guggenheim Museum (fig. 1). The sitter is slender young man, past adolescence but still on the brink of adulthood, his clothing understated but elegant, his hair carefully parted and coiffed, his gaze inscrutable, his posture upright and confident. His head and hands, painted in warm orange tones, stand out in vivid contrast against the muted gray-green that otherwise dominates the painting, his handsome visage emerging from the cool stillness of the background like the sun burning through a lifting morning fog. "To do any work, I must have a living person. I must be able to see him opposite me," Modigliani proclaimed (quoted in Modigliani and His Models, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2006, p. 31).
At the same time, Modigliani has translated the sitter's likeness into his own distinctive pictorial idiom, which fully integrates a host of disparate sources: the sinuous contours and elongated proportions of Italian Mannerist painting, the exquisite linear stylizations of African and Oceanic masks, the abstract refinement of sculpture by Brancusi, and the incisive firmness of line that comes from Modigliani's own experience of stone carving. All the elements of the signature facial type that distinguishes Modigliani's late portraits (figs. 2-4) are evident: the elongated oval face, graceful swan-like neck, delicately spatulated nose, small pursed mouth, and impenetrable almond-shaped eyes, rendered here in the most piercing and vivid cerulean blue. The resulting portrait is simultaneously a sensitive, individualized characterization of the sitter and an archetype of Modigliani's unique conception of beauty. True to reality, Modigliani drew forth and preserved the essential likeness of the person who sat before him; no less true to himself, he described his sitter in a personal language that was compellingly subjective and intuitive.
In an eloquent paean to his long-time friend, the poet Jean Cocteau penned the following account of this extraordinary achievement: "It was not Modigliani who distorted and lengthened the face, who established its asymmetry, knocked out one of the eyes, elongated the neck. All of this happened in his heart... His drawing was a silent conversation, a dialogue between his lines and ours. We were all subordinated to his style, to a type that he carried within himself, and he automatically looked for faces that resembled the configuration that he required, both from man and woman. Resemblance is actually nothing more than a pretext that allows the painter to confirm the picture that is in his mind. And by that one does not mean an actual, physical picture, but the mystery of one's own genius" (quoted in D. Krystof, Amedeo Modigliani: The Poetry of Seeing, Cologne, 2000, p. 54).
What is certain about Jeune homme roux assis is that it numbers among the most serenely balanced and exquisitely sensitive characterizations of Modigliani's late career; what is less certain are the exact circumstances of its creation--specifically, where it was painted and whom it depicts. In 1919, the year that he produced this portrait, Modigliani lived and worked in two very different locales. During the opening months of the year, he was still safely ensconced in the south of France, where he had gone the previous April to escape the German bombardment of the capital; in May, he returned to Montparnasse, which had been his home for almost a decade. The move to the Midi had been orchestrated by Léopold Zborowski (fig. 3), an entrepreneurial young art lover and aspiring broker of modern pictures who had signed a contract with Modigliani in November 1916. Although Zborowski was little better off than the perpetually impoverished painter, he had agreed to provide a small room in his apartment for Modigliani to use as a studio, to find (and fund) models and steer portrait commissions his way, to cover the cost of paint and canvas, and to pay the artist a stipend of twenty francs a day, along with unlimited drink--all in exchange for Modigliani's entire artistic output.
For a while after he met Zborowski, it seemed that Modigliani might have reached the end of his long run of bad luck. The dealer managed to arrange Modigliani's very first one-man exhibition, which ran in December 1917 at the Galerie Berthe Weill--and quickly turned into one of the great scandals in the history of early modernism, when the local police commissioner demanded that Modigliani's forthright female nudes be removed from view. Although the Weill show itself was a financial failure, Modigliani's newfound notoriety generated a spike of interest in his work, and Zborowski made several sales early in 1918.
The artist's hopes were quickly dashed, however, when a whirlwind of troubles blew in with the month of March. His girlfriend Jeanne Hébuterne announced that she was pregnant, his own health took a frightening turn, and worst of all, the Germans decided to launch their last-ditch, all-out offensive to bring the First World War to an end, lobbing massive shells into Paris every twenty minutes. People fled the capital in droves, and the bottom fell out of the art market. Hoping that he might find better business prospects (to say nothing of greater safety) outside of the capital, Zborowski assembled an odd entourage--Modigliani, Jeanne, Jeanne's mother Eudoxie (who disliked Modigliani and constantly harangued him), Foujita and his wife, and Chaïm Soutine--and relocated in April to the south of France, where they would remain for just over a year.
In the south of France, separated from his sophisticated Parisian coterie of artists, poets, and patrons, Modigliani relied for his models principally on Jeanne (figs. 2 and 4) and Zborowski's wife Hanka, along with a bevy of working girls and local children, their hair tousled and their clothing often threadbare (fig. 5). He painted these humble young sitters as solid and heavy-limbed, their poses frontal and artless, occasionally even a bit awkward, with none of the slender, serpentine elegance that characterizes his Paris portraits. "It was at this time that Modigliani became the painter of simple unknown, nameless people," Werner Schmalenbach has written. "Their portraits convey a reticent but forcefully expressed inner sympathy, and they achieve great poignancy. It is as if, in order to do justice to these simple people, the painter had renounced his aesthetic eloquence; as if he were approaching his sitters quietly, almost shyly. All Modigliani's works in this vein have the same quiet tonality, the almost vegetative presence of the sitter and a human understanding that is more intense because nothing is mannered" (Amedeo Modigliani, Munich, 1990, pp. 43-44).
The russet-haired young man in the present portrait almost certainly does not form part of this humble coterie of working-class sitters. His clothing is too elegant, the wide white collar of his shirt crisply starched and laid neatly atop the lapels of his charcoal gray jacket. His hair is too intentionally coiffed, parted just to the right of center and left a touch long over the ears. And his poised, graceful demeanor--shoulders square, legs confidently crossed, head held high and inclined the slightest bit as he meets the viewer's gaze head-on--suggests a sitter of some means, accustomed to shaping his own self-presentation. Moreover, the dominant tonalities of the painting suggest the cool, gray light of the north, in contrast to the warm, ochre palette that Modigliani often chose in the sun-baked Midi; although it is impossible to be certain, it seems most likely that Modigliani painted the present portrait in Paris, following his return from Nice in May 1919.
So who is the Jeune homme roux in that case? Marc Restellini has suggested that he might be a member of the family of Dr. Raymond-Jacques Sabouraud (1864-1938), Modigliani's first known landlord in the south of France and the earliest recorded owner of the bust-length portrait of the same sitter in the Guggenheim (op. cit., p. 352). Sabouraud was a renowned dermatologist at the Hôpital Saint-Louis in Paris, as well as an accomplished painter, sculptor, and musician. He owned at least nine canvases by Modigliani during his lifetime and was a close friend of Odilon Redon, who painted his portrait. Could the present portrait perhaps depict Sabouraud's son Emile, who was nineteen years old in 1919? Emile--who would go on to a long, successful career as an artist--had recently begun to study with Othon Friesz at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris and would no doubt have jumped at the chance to sit for the notorious Modigliani, who since the succès de scandale at Weill's could claim the virtually unique distinction among his colleagues of having had his work banned by the police.
Another possibility is that Jeune homme roux assis depicts one of the four sons of Georges Menier, whose family owned the famous Chocolat Menier, the leading maker and distributor of quality packaged chocolates since the mid-1850s. The wealthy and worldly Menier purchased one of Modigliani's scandalous nudes early in 1918 and shortly thereafter (probably before the artist left Paris in April) commissioned Modigliani to paint a portrait of his wife Simonne, wearing an elegant black dress and a favorite emerald necklace, with her hair bobbed in the newly chic manner (Ceroni 1970, no. 233). Madame Menier's coloring is strikingly similar to that of the present sitter, and the overall tonality is closely comparable in the two portraits as well. The Menier family appears to have visited the Riviera during the summer of 1918 and to have resumed contact with Modigliani and Zborowski. A portrait from this time of a cherubic, strawberry blond boy dressed in short pants--identified in Ceroni and Patani simply as Ragazzo biondo--once belonged to Georges Menier and may depict his second oldest son Claude, who would have been twelve at the time (Ceroni, no. 255; fig. 6). Could the present portrait be the eldest Menier boy Antoine, not an impish and rumpled pre-adolescent like his brother Claude but a dapper young man of fifteen, a student at the esteemed Lycée Condorcet in Paris and eventual heir to the family company?
What Modigliani's portrait conveys to the viewer about this handsome, well-groomed young man, however, is ultimately more important, more compelling than simply his name, which may always remain a mystery. In Modigliani's sensitive portrayal, we feel the sitter's calm, contemplative nature and pervasive confidence, tinged perhaps with a bit of youthful arrogance; we sense at the same time that his composure and poise may mask a trace of insecurity, which comes across in the careful attention that he has paid to his self-presentation. "In the intensity of his individual characterization, Modigliani holds a fairly solitary place in his epoch. One senses in his finest pictures a unique and forceful impact from the sitter, an atmosphere of special circumstance, not to recur," James Thrall Soby has written. "But he was far from being simply a realist. On the contrary, he solved repeatedly one of modern portraiture's most difficult problems: how to express objective truth in terms of the artist's private compulsion" (exh. cat., op. cit., 1951, p. 8).
Modigliani's successful formulation of a viable brand of portraiture is all the more significant following the popularization of photography--which should have rendered the painted likeness obsolete--and the radical refusal of mimesis and naturalism under cubism. Defying this double death-knell, Modigliani steered his own course. Tamar Garb has concluded, "Modigliani's portrait practice internalized the iconoclasm of cubism and the liberatory power of primitivism at the same time that it affirmed its commitment to the conventional function of the portrait: the adumbration and celebration of the named individual. The power of Modigliani's portraits lies in their capacity to render the tensions between the generic and the specific, the mask and the face, the endemic and the particular--indeed, to thematize the problematic of portraiture for this generation. Composed from the materials of history and the parts of the body, they leave all their seams visible, awkward yet eloquent, on the painted surface" (Modigliani: Beyond the Myth, exh. cat., The Jewish Museum, New York, 2004, pp. 44 and 53).
Modigliani circa 1918. BARCODE: 28862055
(fig. 1) Amedeo Modigliani, Jeune homme aux cheveux roux, 1919. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. BARCODE: 28862048
(fig. 2) Amedeo Modigliani, Jeanne Hébuterne (devant une commode), 1918-1919. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. BARCODE: 28862062
(fig. 3) Amedeo Modigliani, Leopold Zborowski assis, 1919. Museu de Arte, São Paolo. BARCODE: 28862079
(fig. 4) Amedeo Modigliani, Jeanne Hébuterne (Au chapeau), 1919. Sold, Christie's, London, 6 February 2013, lot 16. BARCODE: 28862086
(fig. 5) Amedeo Modigliani, Le jeune apprenti, 1918. Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris. BARCODE: 28862093
(fig. 6) Amedeo Modigliani, Le garçon blond, 1918. Dallas Museum of Art. BARCODE: 28862109