Having developed and refined style and technique, Modigliani confidently imbued his portraits of Jeanne with an emotional and psychological dimension unique within his work, as described by Claude Roy: “In most pictures of Jeanne we find a very discreet, deliberately subdued color orchestration […] in the softness of the colors, the fragile delicacy of the tones and the exquisite discretion with which relationships between the picture elements are stated, we cannot fail to sense the expression of a love no less discreet than ecstatic. Modigliani is speaking here almost in a whisper; he murmurs his painting as a lover murmurs endearments in the ear of his beloved. And the light bathing the picture is the light of adoration” (Claude Roy, Modigliani, New York, 1958, pp. 112-13). While the present portrait is one of his boldest in scale and execution, the softness that Roy described is present in the gently curved figure of the sitter. In 1919, when this work was executed, Jeanne was pregnant with their second child. The physical and emotional connotations of her state are beautifully captured in the contrast between the full shape of her skirt, and the elongated, delicate features of her face and upper body.
This elegant three-quarter length portrait synthesizes the bold stylistic traits which Modigliani developed in his post-1916 portraits: the geometric simplification of the female form; the S-shaped curve of her body; the elongated neck; the head tilted to one side with almond shaped eyes that prevent the viewer from communicating with the sitter, enveloping her in an enigmatic and impenetrable mood; the stylized, accentuated line of her nose; and the pursed, small mouth with sensuous lips (see figs. 2 and 3). This neo-mannerist style that characterised Modigliani’s painting is partly derived from the artist’s fascination with the Old Masters of his native Italy (see fig. 4). As Werner Schmalenbach wrote: “Historical associations impose themselves: echoes not only of the fifteenth-century Mannerism of Sandro Botticelli but of the classic sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Mannerism of Pontormo, Parmigianino and perhaps also El Greco. One work often mentioned in connection with Modigliani’s late portraits of women is Parmigianino’s Madonna dal collo lungo; Pontormo’s St. Anne Alterpiece is equally relevant. Modigliani had a sound knowledge of Italian art, and we must assume that he was well aware of all this, however direct or indirect the actual influence” (Werner Schmalenbach, Modigliani, Munich, 1980, p. 42).
Apart from these historical influences, Modigliani was acutely aware of the artistic developments of his own time. Although he never completely subscribed to the syntax of Cubism, he adopted some of its stylistic devices, such as the geometric simplification and break-up of forms, and was close to the sculptors Ossip Zadkine and Jacques Lipchitz, both of whom were strongly influenced by Cubism. Even more important, perhaps, was his relationship with Brancusi, whom he met in 1909. Brancusi not only encouraged him to carve directly in stone, causing him to virtually abandon painting for several years, but also gave the most convincing demonstration of how influences from the widest possible range of sources – tribal, archaic, Asian and African – could be transformed into a personal idiom of the greatest originality. Although Modigliani never developed a style as close to abstraction and as far removed from the world of natural appearances as that of Brancusi, he was strongly influenced by Brancusi’s simplified forms, reducing his sitters’ faces to a few highly stylised features (see fig. 4). What distinguishes Modigliani’s portraits is the balance between his unique mannerism and stylization on one hand, and a naturalism and interest in the personality and psychology of his sitters on the other.
The first owner of this work was Leopold Zborowski, who became Modigliani’s dealer after the collapse of the artist’s relationship with Paul Gauillaume. Zborowski, who had arrived in Paris in 1913, was introduced to Modigliani by Moïse Kisling who lived in the same building. Although he did not open a gallery until 1926, Zborowski began to deal in art from his apartment, where he installed Modigliani in one of the rooms and provided him with models and materials. After Zborowski had it, this picture belonged to the Baixeras family, relatively unknown yet important collectors of Modigliani's work who lived in Paris during the 1920s. It was then acquired by Stefa and Leon Brillouin, who exhibited it in the early 1940s after they moved to the United States at the beginning of the war. The first time that it was reproduced was in 1944 on the cover of a pamphlet accompanying an exhibition held at the American British Art Center in New York. In that publication, Lionello Venturi wrote the following of this picture: "The 'Portrait of Mrs. Hebuterne,' the wife of Modigliani, has never been published. It is a masterpiece, in the painter's last style, when he not only had definitely mastered his linear values, but knew how to construct space around his figure, thus creating a new balance and a new reality out of his abstract forms and colors. This painting unquestionably adds to our knowledge of Modigliani's art" (Lionello Venturi, Amedeo Modigliani, (exhibition catalogue), The American British Art Center, New York, 1944).
Fig. 1, Photograph, Jeanne Hébuterne dressed as a Russian on the occassion of the Carnival of 1917 in Paris
Fig. 2, Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne, 1918, oil on canvas, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, California
Fig. 3, Amedeo Modigliani, Jeanne Hébuterne in Yellow Jumper, 1919, oil on canvas, Kurashiki (Japan), Ohara Museum of Art
Fig. 4, Sandro Botticelli, La nascita de Venere (detail), 1484-86, tempera on canvas, Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence
Fig. 5, Amedeo Modigliani, Head, 1911-12, sandstone, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Chester Dale Collection
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