In the hours before dawn on 20 May 2010, Vjeran Tomic, a veteran Parisian cat burglar, stole five paintings from the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (MAM), masterworks by Braque, Léger, Matisse, Picasso, and Modigliani, valued at more than $125 million. First, he removed from its frame the Léger, the picture which the instigator of the heist, a small gallery owner, had coveted and expressly requested for himself. Tomic next took down Matisse’s fauve Pastorale, 1905.
Then, as Jake Halpern has recounted in The New Yorker, “he noticed Modigliani’s ‘Woman with a Fan,’ a portrait of the artist’s muse and obsession, Lunia Czechowska. Tomic fixated on the image, which depicted Czechowska in a yellow dress, her eyes a cloudy white [Ceroni, no. 321]. ‘The woman in the picture was worthy of a living being, ready to dance a tango,’ he wrote to me. ‘It could have almost been reality.’ He stole the Modigliani, too.” Tomic went on to add the Braque and Picasso to his cache; he hesitated over a second Modigliani, Femme aux yeux bleus, but passed up the opportunity (“A Night at the Museum: France’s most daring art thief,” The New Yorker, 14 January 2019, p. 34).
Tomic and two accomplices were apprehended, convicted, and are currently serving their prison terms. The five paintings, however, were never recovered, and are believed to have been well-hidden away or possibly destroyed. The perpetrator claimed to possess a special instinct for detecting and appreciating quality in art, and perhaps even his critical opinion may count when understanding the universal appeal of a great Modigliani painting, moreover the beguiling mystique inherent in certain portraits—especially one depicting Lunia Czechowska, who may well possess the most distinctive and memorably haunting visage among all the many women whom the artist painted.
Lunia was 25 when she sat for the present portrait, which Joseph Lanthemann praised for its qualities “de noblesse, de beauté et de communion” (op. cit., 1970, p. 133). Her fine, delicate features bespeak a discerning intelligence, a rare sensitivity, and a compassionate nature. While we know that she and the artist loved each other, and they appeared to have been soulmates such as two people may experience only once in a lifetime, we can only speculate at the extent to which they may actually have been lovers, in the most complete, physical sense of such a relationship as well.
The best-known female face in Modigliani’s oeuvre, from early 1917 to his death on 24 January 1920, is that of Jeanne Hébuterne, the artist’s companion and mother of his daughter, also named Jeanne. Hébuterne immortalized the legend of an impassioned and tragically fated amour bohème, when two days after the artist’s passing, pregnant with their second child, she leapt to her death from a fifth-floor window. Modigliani frequently painted two other women in his innermost circle, on whom he often relied during this period: Anna (“Hanka”) Zborowska, the common-law wife of the artist’s devoted dealer Léopold Zborowski, and Lunia Czechowska, married to a close friend of Léopold. All were Polish émigrés in Paris. Modigliani painted Léopold five times, and created ten portraits each of Hanka and Lunia, featuring in sum the two women on canvas nearly as often as he did his companion Jeanne during the same three-year period.
“Happiness is an angel with a serious face,” Modigliani wrote to Paul Alexandre, his earliest patron, on a postcard from Livorno, dated June 1913 (quoted in D. Krystof, Modigliani: The Poetry of Seeing, Cologne, 2006, p. 88). Lunia’s ethereal features perfectly suited the artist’s fascination with this type; her serious demeanor and youthfully lithe, feminine figure moreover lent themselves well to the primary influences the artist liked to incorporate and show off in his portraits. The plunging “V” of Lunia’s cylindrical neck and her blade-like décolleté, stark against the blackness of her robe in the present painting, allude to the hallmark swan-like neck and tilted head in the Mannerist practice of the 16th century Italian masters Parmigianino and Pontormo.
The modernist fascination with African tribal art is manifest in Lunia’s ovoid facial features; the broad, high forehead, the subtle lift of her Slav cheekbones, the tiny, lozenge-shaped mouth contained with the narrowing curves of her jawline, down to the pointed tip of her chin, mirrors the serene, “classical” symmetry of Baulé masks from the Ivory Coast, believed to be the secular portraits of living persons. The eye slits in these masks appear as the blank eyes in Modigliani’s carved stone heads during 1907-1913, and again as the “cloudy white eyes”—which had intrigued the thief Tomic at MAM Paris—in many of the subsequent oil paintings. “This gives the paintings an aloofness,” Alan Wilkinson has written, “a kind of distancing from the model, that echoes the mysterious character of his sculptures” (Primitivism in 20th Century Art, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1984, p. 423).
Known in his day and admired among his circle of friends primarily as a portraitist, Modigliani prided himself on his skill as an acute observer of the variety and nuances in human character, especially among men, and in his paintings of women, his ability to evoke the serene, beatific beauty of l’éternel féminin. “To do any work, I must have a living person,” he explained to the painter Léopold Survage, “I must be able to see him opposite me” (quoted in J. Modigliani, Modigliani: Man and Myth, New York, 1958, p. 82). Modigliani was keen on capturing the essence of his sitter, not as a naturalistic likeness, but as an abstract, depersonalized representation stemming from his own pictorial synthesis of seeing and style.
Lunia was born Ludwika Makowska in Prague in 1894. Her father was a Polish patriot who actively opposed the Russian and Austrian partition of the Polish homeland. In 1907, after serving two years of a fifteen-year prison sentence for his role in a workers’ strike in Warsaw, then under Czarist rule, Makowski moved his family to Krakow in the Austrian zone. Upon graduating from the gymnasium in 1913, Lunia followed her father’s wishes and moved to Paris. There she met Kazimierz Czechowski, another recent Polish émigré, also a patriot, with whom she fell in love; they married on 21 June 1915. Zborowski and Czechowski had known each other since childhood; when Léopold arrived in Paris in 1913 to study modern art at the Sorbonne, he moved in with his old friend. Anna (“Hanka”) Sierzpowska had been living in Paris with her sister since 1910. She met Léopold at the Café de la Rotonde on 2 August 1914, at the beginning of First World War. Although they never formally married, Hanka always referred to Léopold as her husband.
The painter Moïse Kisling, also Polish-born, introduced Zborowski to Modigliani in 1916. The aspiring dealer first saw the Italian artist’s paintings later that year, in a group show at the Lyre et Palette, the Montparnasse atelier of the Swiss painter Émile Lejeune. Zborowski attended the event with Hanka, Lunia, and Kazimierz. In the recollections—“Les Souvenirs”—that Lunia wrote in 1953, which Ambrogio Ceroni published in his 1958 monograph Amedeo Modigliani, Peintre, she dated the event to June; the show actually opened in mid-November. Various discrepancies with known circumstances may be found in Lunia’s Souvenirs. When William Fifield interviewed her during the early 1970s for his biography of Modigliani, she complained that Ceroni “failed to reproduce” what she had told him. “We went to the exhibition,” she recounted for Fifield, “it was the Lyre et Palette, and Modigliani was present… He said he hadn’t time for Léopold, but seeing that we women were with him he returned and said we should perhaps meet in an hour. And we went to the Rotonde” (Modigliani: The Biography, New York, 1976, pp. 222 and 274).
“He came and sat next to me,” Lunia wrote in Les Souvenirs. “I was struck by his distinctiveness, his luminosity, and the beauty of his eyes. He was at once very simple and very noble.” Modigliani began to sketch Lunia. “I was quite young and very shy”—she continued—“and I became frightened, when Modigliani asked, after several minutes, in the presence of my husband, to go out with me that very night. Because to Modigliani, I was alone. He felt so strongly towards me he would have liked me to abandon everything to follow him. Confused, I responded that I was not free. Poor dear friend, what seemed so natural to him seemed to me so strange! Zborowski came to my rescue, saying that plans for the evening had already been made, and he invited Modigliani to join us. He refused. Turning towards me, he asked, while offering the drawing he had made of me, to come pose the next day for a portrait” (“Les Souvenirs de Lunia Czechowska,” in A. Ceroni, Amedeo Modigliani, Peintre, Milan, 1958, pp. 20 and 21; all excerpts here translated by Lara Abouhamad).
Based on Lunia’s June dating of the 1916 Lyre et Palette group exhibition, Ceroni ascribed that year to the first portrait that Modigliani painted of her, listing it as no. 73 in his 1958 catalogue. When it became clear that the show actually opened in mid-November, pushing back subsequent related events, Ceroni re-dated Modigliani’s first portrait of Lunia to 1917, and listed it as such in his final Modigliani catalogue (I dipinti di Modigliani, Milan, 1970, no. 169).
“He did my first portrait in a black dress (this painting is now in the Musée de Grenoble),” Lunia wrote in her memoir. “I knew from Zbo already that he liked to drink while he painted. Never will I be able to forget the first sitting session. After several hours passed, I was no longer scared of him. I can still see him in his dress shirt, all tousled, trying to fix my features on the canvas. From time to time, he would reach his hand towards the bottle of Vieux Marc. I would see the alcohol take its effect: he got excited, I didn’t exist anymore—he saw only his painting. He was so absorbed that he would speak to me in Italian. He painted with such violence that as he was leaning in closer to see the canvas, it fell over on his head. I was terrified; confused at having scared me, he looked at me tenderly, and started singing to me songs in Italian to make me forget the incident… We became really great friends from then on. He was a charming being, refined and delicate. I knew he loved me, but I felt for him just a profound friendship. We went out together a lot, vagabonding around Paris” (ibid., p. 21).
Paul Guillaume had been acting as Modigliani’s dealer, but with hardly any sales to show for his efforts, and having grown impatient with the artist’s difficult behavior, the gallerist was amenable to passing him on to Zborowski—a dreamy novice who worked out of his home only, but was fired with an absolute passion for the painter’s work. Zborowski gave Modigliani a daily stipend of fifteen francs, and covered the costs of art supplies, the painter’s requisite wine and spirits as well. Having reserved a room in his and Hanka’s new apartment at 3, rue Joseph-Bara for use as a studio, he set Modigliani to work on a series of salable nudes. The artist completed twenty such canvases in all (Ceroni, nos. 184-203). Fifield stated that Lunia “almost certainly” posed for Le grand nu (no. 200; The Museum of Modern Art, New York), “though she would never admit it” (op. cit., 1976, p. 160).
Modigliani painted four, fully clothed portraits of Lunia in 1917 (Ceroni, nos. 169-172). Despite all signs that she would remain faithful to her marriage with Kazimierz Czechowski, the artist persisted in seeking a romantic liaison with her. “I was always the mysterious woman to him”—Lunia told Fifield—“the Sphinx, Cleopatra, there were things he did not know” (ibid., p. 222). Modigliani must have felt especially encouraged in 1917, when in the wake of the February Revolution in Russia, which resulted in the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, Czechowski decided to return to his homeland and agitate for independence. He joined Lenin’s Red Army following the October Bolshevik Revolution. He had entrusted Lunia to the care of Léopold and Hanka, who took her into their apartment. Modigliani saw her often, when he regularly arrived to paint during the afternoon. Czechowski did not live to see Poland freed from foreign hegemony. In 1918, while in a hospital recovering from wounds, his Russian comrades learned he was a Polish revolutionary—someone who would eventually turn against and fight them—and had him summarily shot. Lunia did not learn of her husband’s fate until 1921.
“Although she was a married woman,” Pierre Sichel wrote, “Lunia was impressionable, and her writings betray that she instantly fell in love with Modi, although she was always to insist that theirs was an exalted spiritual attachment, of the soul alone” (Modigliani, London, 1967, p. 327). The stress of a love thwarted by circumstance would have surely become unbearable for both Modigliani and Lunia, had not Jeanne Hébuterne, newly turned nineteen in April 1917, caught the artist’s eye, likely at the Académie Colarossi, where she was a student. Within a month they became lovers, and in July they moved from the artist’s tiny hovel of a hotel room which Zborowski had been paying for, and with the bounty from a few sales, into a relatively spacious two-room apartment (but without amenities) at 8, rue de la Grande Chaumière, next door to Jeanne’s art school.
“Hanka and I cleaned the studio and painted it light gray,” Lunia wrote in Les Souvenirs, although she misdated this development to the summer of 1919. “We installed a stove…. Since we did not have enough money for curtains, we color-washed the glass with blanc d’espagne. A sofa, a table and a few chairs, those were the furnishings. This kingdom was quite modest but it belonged to him…he could now cook and host his friends. I will never forget the day he took possession of his new domain; his joy was such that we were all deeply moved. He finally had his own little corner for himself, my poor dear friend” (op. cit., 1958, p. 33).
In March 1918 the Germans began to bombard Paris with huge guns mounted on railway carriages sixty miles away. The following month, Zborowski, Hanka, Modigliani, Jeanne (who was two months pregnant), and her mother—together with Soutine, Foujita, and his wife Fernande Barrey—joined the exodus from the capital, and stayed first in Cagnes-sur-Mer. Lunia remained in the Zborowskis’ Paris apartment. Having no success with sales in Cagnes, Soutine and the Foujitas returned to Paris, while Léopold, Hanka, Modigliani, Jeanne, and her mother moved on to Nice, where the dealer hoped to find clients for his artist’s unusual but appealing style of portraiture. Jeanne and Modigliani’s daughter, named for her mother, was born 29 November 1918—the artist called her, in Italian, “Giovanna”.
Modigliani returned, alone, to his Paris studio on 31 May 1919, while Jeanne, her mother, and the baby remained five weeks longer in Nice. After a hiatus of more than a year, Modigliani and Lunia resumed their close friendship. They would eat together in the tiny restaurant run by Rosalie Tobia, once a model for successful Salon painters, on the rue Campagne-Première. “After dinner, we would go for a walk in Le petit Luxembourg; it was very hot that summer. Sometimes we would go to the movies, other nights we would leisurely stroll the streets of Paris… He had so much to say that it was difficult to separate when we arrived home. He would speak of Italy, which he would never see again, of the child he wouldn’t see grow up, and he would never mention a word about his art” (ibid., pp. 28-29). Modigliani signed and inscribed a drawing “homage à Madame Chakoska,” depicting Lunia dining at a café table, possibly in Chez Rosalie (Patani, Disegni, no. 498).
“This peaceful period did not last long,” Lunia lamented (op. cit., p. 29), but afforded Modigliani sufficient time to commence work on the final group of six portraits he painted of her that summer (Ceroni, nos. 317-322). The dark, grayish tonality in the present portrait, à la robe noire, suggests that it was done in Modigliani’s Grande Chaumière studio, which Lunia had helped to paint two summers earlier. This painting possesses a nocturnal aspect—golden lamplight illumines Lunia’s flesh, but barely suffuses the wall behind her, dark in shadow. Lunia sits on the edge of a bed, its wooden back-frame rising behind her right side. This somber setting contrasts sharply with the two portraits in which Modigliani posed Lunia before an Empire mantelpiece, the wall papered in the vivid garnet red that Zborowski chose to decorate his apartment (Ceroni, nos. 321-322; the former stolen from MAM Paris).
The present portrait is surely the most intimate of the ten pictures that Modigliani painted of Lunia. The artist depicted here an instant of absolute stillness, her passive visage in serene anticipation of some profoundly meaningful moment, an epiphany. One senses the heavy heat of the summer evening in the darkened room. Lunia has just slipped into her black robe, or may soon remove it. Her pale, translucent eyes observe the man with whom she shares this room, on whose bed she sits. Her wistful, self-absorbed expression tells everything, yet reveals nothing at all. Modigliani has seized the very essence of this elusive, enigmatic, angelically pure young woman. This is the “communion” that Lanthemann found so compelling, a moment of transfiguration, a mystery beyond words, yet so profoundly affecting in paint.
Upon the return of Jeanne and little Giovanna, until a nanny could be found, Lunia stepped in to care for the seven-month-old infant in the Zborowskis’ apartment. If Modigliani was not drunk or acting loudly with friends, the landlady Mme Salomon would allow him in at night. “He would come and sit next to his child,” Lunia wrote, “looking at her with such intensity that he would end up falling asleep; and I would watch over the two of them. My poor dear friend, these were the only moments when he had his daughter to himself” (ibid., p. 29).
One evening that summer, as Modigliani finished a painting session in the Zborowskis’ apartment and Lunia was waiting for the dealer to return home, “I lit a candle,” she recalled, “and proposed that he stay to have dinner with us. While I prepared our meal, he asked me to lift my head for a few seconds, and, in the candlelight, he sketched an admirable drawing, on which he inscribed: ‘La Vita è un Dono: dei pochi ai molti: di Coloro che Sanno e che hanno: a Coloro che non Sanno e che non hanno’” [Life is a gift, from the few to the many; from those who know and have, to those who do not know and do not have]” (ibid., pp. 30-32). This drawing reprises the pose in the present portrait, set instead in the Zborowski apartment, with Lunia clad in daytime attire (Patani, Disegni, no. 499).
Lunia later began to go out with another man—Modigliani assumed she had fallen in love with him. “Modigliani loved [Jeanne],” Lunia wrote, “but he could not stand that I ‘belonged’ to another man, because he thought I no longer wanted to be with him… He made such negative comments to me that I ended up feeling guilty towards him. I would remain his spiritual friend, as was my destiny. I was young and probably romantic; I had to abstract my feelings, because another person needed me as well. I had no life experience and acted only on pure intuition. I forced myself not to love the man I had met” (ibid., p. 32).
The war having ended months before, and Poland again an independent nation, there was still no word from nor about Kazimierz Czechowski. Tensions were running high between the Hébuterne family and Modigliani, of whom they disapproved. The artist had promised them in writing to marry Jeanne, who was again pregnant, but he failed to follow through. He seemed disaffected with his companion, unhappy that Jeanne appeared little interested in their child, whom she might visit only several times a week in a nursery. The artist had begun drinking more heavily to distract himself from—and thereby aggravating—the symptoms of his tubercular condition; the bacillus in his lungs, we now understand, had infected his brain and would soon lead to cerebral meningitis, which killed him. As Modigliani’s confidant, all these matters and concerns took their toll on Lunia as well.
“Autumn of 1919 was very sad,” Lunia recalled. “I had to leave Paris, as my health required me to leave for the South. My friends [the Zborowskis] were very insistent that Modigliani come with me and he also wanted to. But Jeanne Hébuterne was expecting a second child and the idea of leaving Paris saddened her. She had retained very bad memories from when Giovanna was born [in Nice]; and the idea of Modigliani leaving without her equally saddened her. I thus left alone, promising my friend that we would see each other again soon… I left in November… From time to time, I would send him flowers. I learned from Zbo that he was sick; then he made me believe that he had returned to Italy. No one was mentioning him. I had all sorts of premonitions and I was pained by his silence” (ibid., p. 33).
Lunia returned to Paris in September 1920 and visited the Zborowskis. “I asked for news of Modigliani right away; they told me that he was in Livorno and that his poor health no longer allowed him to paint. All the friends I ran into repeated the same thing. I noticed that they avoided talking about him; I found this strange and accused them of forgetting him. I spent my first night in the room [in the Zborowski apartment] where Modigliani had created a number of his masterpieces. I had a strange dream: I was at Bourbon l’Archambault in autumn… There was no one around; I was alone with Modigliani, walking along the park’s fence. He held something in his hand that looked like a magazine; he opened it and told me: ‘You see, Lunia, here they are announcing my death; don’t you find it a bit brazen! Look, I am not dead, as you can see yourself.’ I then saw Jeanne Hébuterne approaching us from the end of the street. I said to him: ‘There’s Jeanne, let’s call her.’ He refrained me: ‘No, no, in a minute.’ But moved by seeing Jeanne looking for him, I called her—and then woke up” (ibid., pp. 33-34).
“I, who never took notice of my dreams, was very impressed”—Lunia continued—“so much so that I still remember it perfectly today, after all these years. It was very early, but I hurried to Hanka’s room to tell her about my dream. I asked her when she had her last news from Modigliani. She reassured me, and I didn’t insist. That afternoon, I visited a Swedish friend who knew of my connection with Modigliani, but who did not know about my friends’ silence. It was she who revealed to me the death of my friend, and Jeanne’s suicide. I was so rattled that I didn’t hold it against my friends who didn’t tell me immediately and who didn’t have the courage to say anything later. I then learned that Modigliani’s death had rendered Jeanne so hopeless that she jumped from the fifth floor. Neither her daughter, nor the child she was expecting, could give her the will to live” (ibid., p. 34).
Lunia eventually remarried, and as Mme Czechowska-Choroszczo ran a small art gallery in Paris after the Second World War. She died in 1990, at age 96.