PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTION
This majestic portrait, exemplary of Amedeo Modigliani’s final works, pays homage to his patron Roger Dutilleul (1873-1956). Not having sufficient means to acquire the Post-Impressionist canvases he loved – such as those by Cézanne – Dutilleul turned towards young contemporary artists whose prices were more affordable. He began his collection when the Galerie Kahnweiler was first opening its doors in 1907 and from this young dealer purchased Fauve artists such as Braque, Derain, Vlaminck, Othon-Friez and Van Dongen, before turning to Cubism and assembling one of the most important ensembles of his time, with over a hundred works by Braque, Picasso and Léger. A visionary connoisseur and a man of great discretion, he became one of the five or six pioneering collectors who endorsed this avant-garde painting that had been rejected by the public and the establishment, providing the material and moral support it needed to survive.
With his limited resources, he managed to construct the most important French collection of modern art of the first half of the twentieth century, acquiring works the same year they were painted year if not the year after, at very reasonable prices, since there was not yet an established market for them.
His collection, whose most significant section was acquired from 1907 to the end of the 1920s, takes its place among the greatest collections of the era, such as the Russians Serguei Chtchoukine, Sawa Morosov, the Americans Gertrude, Léo and Michael Stein, the Swiss Hermann Rupf, the Czech Vincenc Kramar and the German Wilhelm Uhde.
In an interview in 1955, Kahnweiler recalled that during the heyday of Cubism, “a gallery, its artists and the gallery owner could survive with very few collectors, three of four perhaps, but they were truly loyal friends. Chief among them in France was Roger Dutilleul who was from the outset a fervent connoisseur.”
As Dutilleul himself summed up in 1948 in a rare interview given to the review Art Présent: “By living for so many years with this collection, never being separated from it, enriching it little by little, I came to feel how much paintings can, especially in difficult times or when faced with loneliness, be an uplifting presence, a means of escape, particularly during a period when even purchasing a book became a luxury”.
Roger Dutilleul approached art by beginning with the works themselves, their individual qualities and his subjective judgement. This was his principal guiding force. He relied on his eye and the emotion he felt before the works. As Kahnweiler recalled “No one had yet formulated Cubist theory for the simple reason that there was no such theory. Picasso carefully avoided theory in all that he did”.
Roger Dutilleul used to say that when faced with a painting, one must allow our impressions to form as on a blank photographic plate. Kahnweiler reiterated, “Dutilleul was a connoisseur guided by instinct. He wasn’t a methodical buyer. He bought Cubist paintings and not Cubism and he remained free to follow his own feelings.
This is why, in spite of Kahnweiler’s best efforts, he was never interested in Juan Gris, to whom he preferred Braque, Picasso and Léger. He did not limit himself in his choices and constructed an eclectic ensemble that drew from the most important artist of his time from the Fauves, the Cubists and Modigliani to Soutine, Klee, Miro, Kandinsky, Masson, Torres-Garcia, not forgetting Lanskoy for whom he was the only buyer for fifteen years.
Jean Masurel, one of his nephews and his only direct heir, played his part in enriching the collection before donating a large part of it to French public collections in 1979. In order to pay homage to his native region in Northern France, Masurel wanted a museum to be constructed in the new town of Villeneuve-d’Asq: the LaM (Lille Metropolitan Museum of Modern & Contemporary Art), which opened in 1983.
Roger Dutilleul was a passionate collector of Modigliani. His acquisitions began in early 1918 with the canvas Tête de jeune fille, purchased from the framer and dealer Constantin Lepoutre. He succeeded, chiefly between 1918 and 1925, in assembling 34 paintings and 21 drawings by Modigliani, equivalent to around ten per cent of the artist’s entire output. By the end of spring 1919, the dealer Zborowski had no more works by Modigliani to offer Dutilleul and so he advised him to agree to pose for a portrait. Dutilleul was already the owner of a dozen works by Modigliani; however he was reticent to the idea of having the artist paint his portrait, as he had never before commissioned a painting. Like Cézanne and the collector Victor Choquet, Van Gogh and Docteur Gachet or Picasso with Gertrude Stein and Wilhelm Uhde, this portrait of Dutilleul by Modigliani is testimony to the privileged relationship between the painter and his model. We have no way of knowing whether they had previously had the opportunity to meet but it is certain that the artist knew from Zborowski of the collector’s great interest in his work. He paid five hundred francs for the finished portrait, which Zborowski divided into five parts: three for himself and his family, one for his business partner and one for the painter.
For the execution of his portrait, hailed a “masterpiece” by Léonce Rosenberg in a letter to Roger Dutilleul in December 1943, the connoisseur had to pose for seven and a half hours spread over three sittings, from the 16th to 18th June 1919, in his apartment on Rue Monceau, surrounded by his collection. Dutilleul recalled that he was disconcerted when the artist entered accompanied by two friends carrying a large format canvas when he was expecting a small painting. At first unnerved by the sheer quality of the canvases by Picasso and Braque he discovered on his first visit to the collector, Modigliani exclaimed “Such genius!” regarding Picasso and lamented “I am ten years behind him”. Dutilleul took great pains to reassure him. The painter then requested that a still-life by Picasso (Poissons et bouteilles, 1909, see fig. 7) be placed within view while he worked on the portrait. The colour scheme of Portrait of Roger Dutilleul exactly replicates the Cubist work by the Catalan master that he had before him, centred around emerald green, with grey, ochre and black, conveying Modigliani’s unmeasured admiration for Picasso.
This portrait of Dutilleil was thus painted under the twin influences of Picasso and, without a doubt, Cézannem whom Modigliani had discovered upon his arrival in Paris in 1906 when he visited the galleries of Vollard and Bernheim Jeune. He always carried with him a reproduction of Garçon au gilet rouge and regularly took it out of his pocket during conversations about painting. The posture of the collector, sitting face-on with his legs crossed, recalls several seated portraits by the master from Aix including his portrait of Ambroise Vollard. So too does the use of shallow depth of field, which abolishes all perspective and in which we distinguish in the background on the right some green drapery. The unfinished nature of certain parts of the painting (the back of the chair, the model’s hands) is also a debt to Cézanne, replicated in numerous works by Picasso and Matisse, who often left empty spaces in their canvases; this practice is of course entirely deliberate and does not diminish the painting but rather adds a hierarchy to its internal structure. Above all it is the care taken in the execution of the figure’s face, in contrast with the background painted in long, rapid strokes, that evokes Cézanne. The delicate, pale complexion heightens the contrast with the black of the frockcoat, making the most characteristic aspects of the figure – such as the face and hands – stand out against the flat background. As for the gaze of Modigliani’s portraits, he himself admitted he borrowed eyes with no pupils from Cézanne’s portraits. He confided once to his friend Soutine: “Cézanne’s faces, like beautiful ancient statues, do not have a gaze. Mine, on the other hand, do. Mine are always looking even if I felt I should not give them pupils; however, like Cézanne’s faces, they only express a silent approval of all that they experience” (quoted by Walter Schmalenbach, “Portraits” in Modigliani L’ange au visage grave, exhibition catalogue p. 35).
The arrangement of Dutilleul’s eyes and nose also recall the influence of African art. Just like André Derain, Pablo Picasso and Maurice de Vlaminck, Modigliani had discovered tribal art at the Museum of Ethnic Art at Trocadéro. Not to mention the fact that his friend Paul Guillaume was one of the most important purveyors of tribal art in the capital, having notably organised an exhibition of his paintings juxtaposed with African masks. The analogy between the faces Modigliani painted from 1915 and the powerfully expressive forms of the Fang masks of Gabon is evident. More generally, his wide knowledge of Khmer, Cycladic and Egyptian art, also played a fundamental role in the conception of his elongated faces with their hollow eyes similar to impassive devotional masks.
The style of this painting can also be described as “mannerist”, evoking the influence of Italian Renaissance Art. From his childhood, Modigliani had travelled across Italy with his mother. In 1902, he studied in Florence and the following year in Venice. He also visited Sienna and Naples where he immersed himself in the Classical tradition. 16th Century Italian painting became his prime influence. This painting possesses the simplicity and purity of works from the Quattrocento such as those by Carpaccio, Sassetta and Simone Martini, marked by arabesques with fluid contours, elongated proportions and an extreme attention to facial details. L’Italianita or rather “the totally Tuscan elegance” that Severini saw in Modigliani’s portraits is particularly apparent in his late works such as Portrait de Roger Dutilleul. The forms are less sculpted, the shapes less geometric, the pictorial layer more fine and smooth than in works prior to 1917. “The eminently formal character that prevailed before gives way to a more natural, relaxed feel. Portraits feature more often the top of the bust and the arms, they are free from the constraints through which the painter had previously demonstrated his freedom and knowledge of forms (...) Formalism gradually disappears in favour of free, melodious and linear movement; from now on, unrestricted by touches that are too harsh or too accented, he is not disrupted and can attain a rare elegance (...) The greatest paradigm is therefore Ingres” (Walter Schmalenbach, Opus cit. p. 47-49).
Le Portrait de Roger Dutilleul is a masterful work from Modigliani’s later years. It possesses all of the iconographic elements unique to the final compositions of a painter whose art had never before attained such grace, such perfect fluidity of line, nor such harmony of contrasts. It is, along with those of Léonard Zborowski (1919) and of Mario Varvogli (1919-1920), one of the most accomplished male portraits of a period dominated by female nudes and portraits of women. This work also pays tribute to one of the most fruitful and loyal relationships Modigliani ever had with the group of people who were interested in his art. Roger Dutilleul would of course be one of the recipients of the handwritten announcements friends of the painter hastily penned in February 1920: Modigliani had just died of tuberculosis, at the age of 35.
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