Depicting the sculptor Oscar Miestchaninoff, the present painting is one of an important group of several dozen portraits by Modigliani that record the artists, writers, dealers, and collectors who frequented bohemian Montparnasse during the war years. Taken together, these works constitute a veritable visual history of Left Bank culture in the second decade of the twentieth century. Werner Schmalenbach has written, "In his portraits, without ever setting out to be so, Modigliani was a chronicler of the vie bohème of Montparnasse, the district where in his time the artistic life of the French capital was being transformed. He painted so many people from this world that one is almost impelled to ask whom he did not paint. Modigliani was part of this bohème in a highly personal and indeed an exemplary way. In the eyes of his contemporaries, he was--as he has remained--its epitome" (in exh. cat., op. cit., Paris, 2002, p. 33). Coinciding with Modigliani's return to painting after concentrating almost exclusively on sculpture for several years, the portraits of 1915-1916 also occupy a preeminent place in the artist's stylistic development. As Schmalenbach has declared, "These are the works with which Modigliani has earned his place in the history of art" (ibid., p. 33).
When Modigliani moved to Montparnasse from Montmartre in late 1908 or early 1909, the neighborhood had already earned a reputation as the center of avant-garde artistic life in Paris. Lively, cosmopolitan, and sophisticated, Montparnasse was home to hundreds of artists and writers from dozens of different countries. The Café de la Rotonde, situated on the Boulevard du Montparnasse, functioned as the principal gathering place for this group, which included Picasso, Juan Gris, Diego Rivera, Chaïm Soutine, Jacques Lipchitz, and Max Jacob, among many others. An article on the Rotonde from the June 3, 1917 issue of Le Cri de Paris described the atmosphere there: "It is a very welcoming establishment and a good place to sit down. It has been chosen as the headquarters by those men, the cubist painters. That is where they gather. That is where we can see their pope, Monsieur Picasso, surrounded by his cardinals, Messieurs Kisling, Modigliani, Ortiz de Zarate, etc. That is where their prophets Messieurs Guillaume Apollinaire and André Salmon establish their attack plans against the bourgeois spirit and debate between them the most abstruse questions of pyramidal, spherical, cylindrical, and conical aesthetics" (quoted in K. Wayne, op. cit., p. 21).
The highly charged environment of Montparnasse, with its broad range of cultural stimuli, was essential for the development of Modigliani's art. Born into a Sephardic Jewish family in the thriving Italian port of Livorno, a thoroughfare for traders from all around the Mediterranean, Modigliani had a cosmopolitan background that made him especially open to the rich inspiration of Montparnasse. His mature style, which crystallized in 1915-1916, incorporates a vast array of artistic influences, from the Renaissance painting of his native Italy to the African and Egyptian art on display in the celebrated Montparnasse shop of the dealer Joseph Brummer. Kenneth Wayne has written, "The internationalism of the Montparnasse artist's community is its single most defining characteristic and a key point to consider when evaluating the art that developed there in the early twentieth century... Of the many distinguished artists who worked in Montparnasse, Modigliani had perhaps the widest range of discernible sources, making him the ultimate Montparnasse sophisticate and the quintessential figure of this extraordinary time and place" (op. cit., pp. 16-17). Using this signature hybrid of Western and non-Western styles, Modigliani painted the cultural melting pot of Montparnasse, creating what Emily Bran has called "a portrait of otherness within modern Europe" (in Modigliani: Beyond the Myth, exh. cat., The Jewish Museum, New York, 2004, pp. 25-26).
Oscar Miestchaninoff, the subject of the present portrait, was the son of a Jewish shopkeeper from the Russian town of Vitebsk. Born in 1886, Miestchaninoff studied sculpture briefly at the Odessa School of Fine Arts before moving to Paris in 1909. He took an apartment in the Cité Falguière, an important artists' residence in Montparnasse, with numerous ground-floor studios that appealed especially to sculptors. Modigliani, who devoted himself almost exclusively to sculpture between 1909 and 1914, was already living at the Cité Falguière when Miestchaninoff arrived, and it is likely that the two artists met shortly thereafter. Miestchaninoff worked in a classicizing style and was one of the few non-Cubist artists whom Modigliani painted. He briefly attended classes at the École des Arts Décoratifs and the École des Beaux-Arts before enrolling in the Académie Russe, an independent artists' academy in Montparnasse that catered especially to Russian émigrés. In the evenings, the Académie hosted open sketching sessions from a live model, which both Modigliani and Miestchaninoff's close friend Soutine are known to have frequented. Although his work is little known today, Miestchaninoff enjoyed a degree of professional and financial success during his lifetime, frequently exhibiting with other Jewish artists. He moved to the United States during World War II and remained there until his death in 1956.
The present painting is striking character study of the Russian sculptor, depicted at the age of thirty. It shows him seated with his hands firmly planted on his lap, a pose that recalls both Ingres's Monsieur Bertin (fig. 1) and Picasso's famous 1906 portrait of Gertrude Stein (the latter painted while both Picasso and Modigliani were living at the Bâteau Lavoir in Montmartre). In contrast to his predecessors, however, Modigliani has positioned his sitter frontally, pushing Miestchaninoff's body close to the foreground plane and aligning him with the vertical and horizontal axes of the picture. The hieratic presence of the figure is relieved only by the slight tilt of the head and neck and by the subtle torsion of the shoulders and hips. The positioning of the hands suggests both confidence and a casual awkwardness on the part of the sitter. Miestchaninoff is clad in a blue mechanic's shirt, a garment that was favored by many artists in the Montparnasse circle. In 1916, the same year as the present work, Modigliani painted two portraits depicting the Polish artist Moïse Kisling, one of his closest friends, in a closely comparable pose and similar attire (fig. 2; see also Christie's New York, 1 November 2005, Lot 44).
A noteworthy feature of the present painting is its delicate balance between generic qualities and signs of individuality. The physiognomic details of the portrait are unmistakably those of Miestchaninoff, especially the plump cheeks, high forehead, double chin, and slightly bulbous nose. These same traits are all apparent in a photograph of the sculptor dressed as a gypsy, taken at a costume party in Paris around 1914 (fig. 3). Modigliani himself stressed the importance of the specific individual, telling the cubist painter Léopold Survage, "To do any work, I must have a living person. I must be able to see him opposite me" (quoted in S. Fraquelli, Modigliani and His Models, exh. cat., London, 2006, p. 31). Yet Modigliani has subjected Miestchaninoff's facial features to a series of pronounced formal stylizations, translating them into his distinctive pictorial idiom. The eyes are asymmetrical, the lips pursed, and the nose spatulated; the contours of the face are sculptural and incisive, recalling Modigliani's lengthy experience as a stone-carver. The result is a series of unsettling disjunctions, most evident in the application of a rosy, life-like flush on the sitter's otherwise mask-like visage. Tamar Garb has recently proposed that these tensions represent the material trace of Modigliani's deliberate negotiation of the role of portraiture in the modern era:
"Portraiture in the first half of the twentieth century, having been dealt the double death-blow of Cubism on the one hand, with its radical refusal of mimesis and naturalism, and African sculpture on the other, with its highly conceptual representational strategies and its use of a coded shorthand of referents and symbols, struggled to find a means of incorporating these fundamental insights while remaining committed to the depiction of discrete, named individuals. 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" (in exh. cat., op. cit., New York, 2004, pp. 44, 53).
The tension between naturalism and abstraction that characterizes Modigliani's portraiture was noted even during his lifetime. The poet Jean Cocteau, whose portrait Modigliani painted in 1916, wrote, "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. And this is how he drew us at the tables in the Café de la Rotonde; this is how he saw us, loved us, felt us, disagreed or fought with us. 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, 1884-1920: The Poetry of Seeing, Cologne, 2000, p. 54).
Modigliani depicted Miestchaninoff on at least two other occasions. In 1917, he painted a second, smaller portrait of the sculptor (fig. 4), in which the round face, double chin, rosy cheeks, and full lips of the present version re-appear. This later portrait shows only the head and shoulders of the sitter, who is now clad in a black suit and tie and a white shirt. In the background of the picture, Modigliani inscribed the word 'Mechan', recalling the mechanic's smock that Miestchaninoff wears in the present portrait. In 1918, Modigliani made a delicate pencil drawing of Miestchaninoff in profile (fig. 5). Diego Rivera and Chaïm Soutine also painted portraits of Miestchaninoff during his years in Montparnasse. Rivera's portrait (fig. 6), which depicts the sculptor at work in his studio, is notable for its fragmented planes and spatial compression, Soutine's version (fig. 7) for its emotional intensity and expressive effects. Schmalenbach has compared the present portrait of Miestchaninoff with Soutine's rendering of the same sitter:
"Soutine's portraits, like all of his paintings, are the utterances of a man who seems driven to express an existential truth; they are full of disquiet and of powerful expressive distortion, in utter contrast to Modigliani's lofty formal discipline. Modigliani formalized his people in a totally unexpressive manner, whereas Soutine tests every sitter to destruction. In these two friends, Modigliani and Soutine, the two great evolutionary currents of early twentieth-century art meet: the currents that bear the names of Cézanne and van Gogh. The extreme contrast is particularly interesting in one pair of paintings in which both artists portray the same person, the sculptor Miestchaninoff. Modigliani, economical as ever in his deployment of color and of form, paints the man in all tranquility and objectivity. Soutine projects all his inner unrest onto his subject, although the latter faces him just as quietly and as frontally as he does Modigliani" (op. cit., p. 42).
(fig. 1) Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Portrait de Louis-François Bertin, 1832. Musée du Louvre, Paris. BARCODE 25249637
(fig. 2) Amedeo Modigliani, Moïse Kisling devant une fenêtre, 1916. Musée d'Art Moderne, Villeneuve d'Ascq. BARCODE 26000633
(fig. 3) Photograph of Oscar Miestchaninoff, circa 1914. BARCODE 26000596
(fig. 4) Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait de Oscar Miestchaninoff, 1917. Private Collection. BARCODE 26000602
(fig. 5) Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait de Oscar Miestchaninoff, 1918. Museum of Modern Art, New York. BARCODE 26000640
(fig. 6) Diego Rivera, Portrait de Oscar Miestchaninoff, le sculpteur, 1913. Property of the State of Veracruz. BARCODE 25249644
(fig. 7) Chaïm Soutine, Portrait de Oscar Miestchaninoff, 1923-1924. Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris. BARCODE 26000626