The identity of Modigliani's sitter in La blonde aux boucles d'oreille is not known. One is likely inclined to be especially curious about her: while paintings of redheads and brunettes abound in Modigliani's oeuvre, blond women feature only occasionally. And she is undeniably an exceptionally pretty young woman. Nowhere among Modigliani's paintings can one find a model with such sparkling blue-gray eyes, flashing eyelashes (a seductive touch rarely seen in this artist's portraits), and features of such pleasingly balanced symmetry set within an ideally oval face. Her actual features might have been well suited to the flattened mask-like overlay that Modigliani was typically wont to impose on his sitter's visage. Her rosy complexion radiates health and well-being, and crowned as she is with a distinctive, radiant halo of bobbed reddish-blonde hair, she seems in every way a positive and appealing, absolutely stylish and modern young woman. Even the glint of light off her pearl earrings, the tiny accessories that lend this painting its title, exudes a lively charm. Lanthemann praised this picture as a "Portrait d'une grande pureté et d'une grande maestria" (op. cit., p. 127).
In their biographies of Modigliani, both Pierre Sichel (1967) and Meryle Secrest (2011) tell of a liaison that Modigliani had in 1916 with Simone Thiroux, a young woman who had been born into a well-to-do Canadian family and was staying in Paris with an aunt while studying. Sichel says she was "blue-eyed and fair-haired" and for this reason she might be a candidate for the subject of the present painting. However, by the time Simone became involved with Modigliani--following his breakup with Beatrice Hastings and before he met Jeanne Hébuterne--she had squandered most of her recently acquired inheritance on a bohemian life style in Montparnasse. Sichel has written that "she was a sickly child and, like Modi, tubercular from an early age... She did not seem to realize the importance of things, especially the importance of her health. She took no care of herself at all, and to the very end was negligent in the extreme" (Modigliani, London, 1967, p. 337). She became pregnant by Modigliani, and gave birth to a son, whom the artist refused to acknowledge. This description hardly suits the impression created by the primly attired young woman, brimming with health, in the present painting, which was done in 1917, possibly after Modigliani had already broken off with Simone. Perhaps this work is a second portrait of a model known only as Renée (not to be confused with Renée, Moïse Kisling's wife, whom Modigliani painted several times), a sitter also described as a blonde in the title of the first picture, painted in 1916 (Ceroni, no. 137; fig. 1). Modigliani painted a standing blonde nude in 1917 (Ceroni, no. 193; fig. 2)--could this be the same model, seen with long hair, before she had it bobbed? There also is a seated nude done in 1918, in which the model has curly reddish blonde hair, cut very short; there is also the suggestion of a pearl stud at the lower tip of her right ear lobe (Ceroni, no. 267; fig. 3).
Whether they were born to class, possessed genuine avant-garde or bohemian credentials, or were just ordinary working girls who posed for artists on the side, many of the women that Modigliani painted were without doubt very beautiful, each in her own way. Individual traits, a personality and a mood entirely of the moment almost always come across in these portraits, notwithstanding the consistent mannerisms which became characteristic of the painter's mature style. The most remarkable aspect of this blonde model's appearance is the shortness of her hair, at this time an uncommon look among French women, most of whom still favored traditional long styles. The Polish-born hairdresser Antoni Cieroplikowski ("Monsieur Antoine") is said to have bobbed the hair of the French actress Eva Lavallière as early as 1909, and Polaire, another actress, wore her hair very short in 1910. The dancer Irene Castle introduced short hair to America when she showed off the "Castle bob" in 1915. Women who worked in factories during the First World War found their long hair to be an encumbrance, and began to adopt shorter styles, but it was not until after 1920, during the "Flapper Era," that the bob became widely fashionable, as some of the public's favorite actresses--Clara Bow, Colleen Moore and Louise Brooks--sported their short styles on-screen. The young blonde woman in the present painting is very au courant, even avant-garde, in her choice of a hair-style. She would hardly look out of place on the streets of Paris or New York today.
Modigliani painted La blonde aux boucles d'oreille during the months in which he was preparing for his first one-man exhibition at Berthe Weill's gallery, which was scheduled to run during December 1917. The artist was known in his circle almost exclusively as a portraitist, and it was at the urging of Léopold Zborowski, his new agent and dealer, that he undertook a series of nudes to expand his appeal among potential collectors. Modigliani painted some twenty in all, seven or eight of which ultimately constituted the core of his upcoming show (fig. 2), together with some of his finest portraits. Anticipating the success he felt he had long deserved, Modigliani perfected during this crucial period all the facial traits characteristic of his mature style: the elongated oval face, the graceful swan-like neck, the sensuous pursed lips, and the impenetrable almond-shaped eyes. By this time Modigliani had fully assimilated into his art a host of disparate sources, ranging from Italian Renaissance portraiture (fig. 4) to African and Oceanic sculpture. The portraits that he was painting at this stage are among the most sensitively felt and characterful of his entire career. The painted surface, morever, as seen here, is exquisitely tactile; the artist subsequently adopted a leaner approach to handling his paints on canvas. Modigliani skillfully, and with apparent effortlessness, has balanced tradition and novelty, illusionistic volume and modernist flatness, to create an individual likeness that expressed his uniquely personal conception of beauty. Jean Cocteau wrote the following tribute to the artist, his long-time friend:
"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's successful formulation of a viable brand of painted portraiture is all the more significant following the development and popularization of photography, which should have rendered the painted likeness obsolete, and the destruction of the coherent, integral image of the human visage and figure as undertaken by the cubists and expressionists. Between this Scylla and Charybdis, Modigliani steered his own distinctive course. True to reality, he drew forth from and preserved an essential and characterful likeness of the person who sat before him. True to himself, he described his sitter in a pictorial language that was subjective, intuitive and all his own. Part classicist, part mannerist, Modigliani created what is perhaps the most famously recognizable look in 20th century portraiture, one that is quintessentially modern in his selective use of sources and style, which, despite meeting with only limited success in his lifetime, went on to manifest nearly universal appeal.
An important previous owner of La blonde aux boucles d'oreille is the businessman Georges Renand, who began his career working for the Credit Lyonnais, and thereafter joined the Samaritaine group, whose flagship enterprise was the landmark La Samaritaine department store in Paris. Ernest Cognacq, Samaritaine's founder, was one of the leading collectors in France during the late 19th century, and likewise in the 20th century was his son Gabriel, who took over the business in 1928 and named Renand his co-director. With advice from the younger Cognacq, Renand began collecting during the 1920s, and by the beginning of the Second World War he had assembled substantial holdings of 19th century, Impressionist and Modern paintings. He was especially noted for his first class selection of works by Corot, Cézanne and Seurat. The sale of Renand's collection took place at Drouot-Montaigne, Paris on 20 November 1987; chief among the offerings were two Modigliani paintings (the present painting having been sold some years previously) including Nu assis un divan (Ceroni, no. 192), which realized a record price for the artist then and again when it was resold last year in New York.
(fig. 1) Amedeo Modigliani, La blonde Renée, 1916. Museo de Arte, São Paulo.
(fig. 2) Amedeo Modigliani, Nu blonde debout, 1917. Private collection.
(fig. 3) Amedeo Modigliani, Nu blonde assise, 1918. Honolulu Academy of Arts.
(fig. 4) Parmigiano, Madonna with the Long Neck (detail), 1534-1540. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.