Throughout his short life, Amedeo Modigliani had an insatiable desire to depict the human form. Nowhere is this deep and enduring fascination more evident than in the profusion of portraiture that constitutes his oeuvre. Fusing elements of tradition with modernism, with his portraits, which most frequently depict a single, frontally posed figure, Modigliani forged a style that was completely his own, capturing the idiosyncratic physiognomic features of his sitters while rendering them in his own highly distinctive artistic vocabulary.
La jeune femme à la rose (Margherita) exemplifies this novel and unique form of portraiture. Painted in 1916, this work dates from a pivotal and highly productive moment in the artist’s career, which saw his mature figurative style–characterised by sinuous lines and stylised, elongated forms–truly emerge and his portraits from this year are some of the most perceptively characterised and formally compelling of his entire career. Against a dark, richly impastoed background, the figure of a young girl emerges, her head tilted slightly as she gazes out of the painting, her flushed cheeks illuminated by dazzling pink strokes of colour. Although her facial features are stylised, her large, heavily lashed, almond-shaped eyes have a striking intensity, dominating her oval face and creating an enigmatic expression. At once highly individualised yet conforming completely to Modigliani’s quintessential female "type"–the long neck and oval face, large eyes and small, pursed lips–this painting epitomises the artist’s extraordinary ability to balance the generic with the unique, the abstract with the naturalistic, and capture the very essence of the figure seated in front of him, or as the poet and friend of the artist, Max Jacob described, "the splendour of the soul" (M. Jacob quoted in ibid., 1967, p. 298).
La jeune femme à la rose (Margherita) is the finest of a series of three paintings from 1916 recorded by Ambrogio Ceroni that takes this beautiful dark haired and brown-eyed young woman as its subject (Ceroni, nos. 128-130). This sitter is identified in one of the paintings, titled Marguerite assise (Margherita), as Margherita–her Italian name emblazoned at the top right of the portrait. While the other two paintings of this series–Marguerite assise (Margherita) and Marguerite assise–depict this young woman clothed in a white apron and seated on a chair in an indescript interior, La jeune femme à la rose (Margherita) presents a more striking and intense frontal portrayal of this sitter in which all narrative attributes are eschewed save for the small floral corsage that embellishes her black dress. One of these paintings was exhibited in the now notorious one-man exhibition of Modigliani’s work that was held at Berthe Weill’s gallery in Paris in 1917, listed in the catalogue simply as Marghareta.
It has been suggested that the model for these three works is Modigliani’s older sister who was called Margherita. However, if this is the case, Modigliani would probably have painted her from memory, as he made the last recorded trip to his native Italy in either 1912 or 1913. By many accounts a temperamental and argumentative woman, Margherita never married and, after the tragic death of Modigliani and his wife, Jeanne Hébuterne, she became the adopted mother of their daughter, also named Jeanne. Modigliani it seems did not have a particularly amicable relationship with his sister making it unlikely that he painted her, in Jeanne’s own words: “Margherita Modigliani admitted to me that there had been very little sympathy between her and her brother and that Amedeo had steadily refused to discuss painting with her” (Modigliani: Man and Myth, trans. E.R. Clifford, London, 2012, pp. 30-31). Throughout his career, Modigliani painted a host of different women, from the wives of his friends and dealers to his lovers, as well as anonymous young, working-class women whom he met on the streets of Montparnasse. Unable to afford professional models, these women frequently served as the subjects for Modigliani’s portraits, and it seems more likely that the sitter in the present work is one such woman. With her dark hair and dark features, the subject of La jeune femme à la rose (Margherita) conforms to a Mediterranean “type” that Modigliani often painted; women who were, like the artist himself, most likely Italian and or Jewish migrants in Paris.
For Modigliani, the presence of the model was essential to his working process. “To do any work,” he explained to the artist, Léopold Survage, “I must have a living person, I must be able to see him opposite me” (Modigliani quoted in Modigliani and his Models, exh. cat., Royal Academy, London, 2006, p. 38). He intensely scrutinised his sitters’ physiognomy, taking the physical features and expressions of a person as the impetus for his painting, before transposing their likeness in accordance with his own, personal conception of the female form. Emile Schaub-Koch who knew Modigliani and watched him working, described his methods, which Pierre Sichel has detailed:
“When [Modigliani] found himself in front of someone he was going to paint, he concentrated on the expression of the feelings he saw in his sitter’s face, not on the features themselves. It was part of the process of creation. Then Modi began painting, paying no attention to his model, preoccupied with conveying through his drawing the essence of what he had discovered. This approach produced an unexpected result that not only had nothing to do with the subject but was also disconcerting. Through a series of recalls, retouches, and improvements through successive comparisons between the model and his first rough sketch, Modi always succeeded in capturing something powerful and moving in his subject. He caught a manner or resemblance that was the subject” (Sichel, op cit., p. 323).
1916–the year that La jeune femme à la rose (Margherita) was painted–was in the words of Modigliani’s daughter, Jeanne, “a fortunate one” (J. Modigliani, op. cit., p. 79) for the artist. His turbulent, impassioned and in many ways toxic relationship with the South African journalist, Beatrice Hastings came to an end. Recovering from the effects that his hedonistic and wild lifestyle with Hastings had caused to his already poor health, Modigliani started painting with a renewed intensity and this was aided enormously by his association with the Polish poet-turned-dealer, Léopold Zborowski. Zborowski had been a great admirer of Modigliani’s work before they met in the latter part of 1916, but he had not had the funds necessary to represent the artist. However, recognising the artist’s innate talent, Zborowski, with scarcely enough money to support himself and his family, offered Modigliani a deal, paying him a monthly stipend, as well as providing his materials, models and living costs in exchange for all his works, becoming his exclusive dealer. After years of living in dire poverty-stricken conditions, this deal gave Modigliani a new form of security, a renewed optimism and saw the artist’s production increase. He wrote to his mother in November of this year telling her of his newfound contentment: “Everything is going well. I am working and if I am sometimes worried, at least I am not as short of money as I was before” (Modigliani, 16 November 1916 in J. Modigliani, ibid., p. 80).
This period of relative stability saw the increasing refinement of Modigliani’s quintessential style and the creation of some of his greatest works. By this time the artist had assimilated a range of artistic sources and influences: from African and Oceanic art, to works of the early Italian Renaissance and the contemporaneous avant-garde. Having more or less given up sculpture two years earlier in 1914, due in part to his ill health, Modigliani had subsequently developed a strongly sculptural and volumetric pictorial idiom. La jeune femme à la rose (Margherita) demonstrates the influences that Modigliani’s beloved medium had over his pictorial language at this time. The mask-like, stylised face of the woman had developed from Modigliani’s majestic carved heads. Enigmatic and deeply elegant, these hieratic stone heads were inspired by a range of sources, particularly African sculpture–the elongated facial features and sinuous lines of these works incised with the same simplified and flattened vocabulary of forms that can be seen in these tribal objects. Against the dark background, in La jeune femme à la rose (Margherita) the cylindrical, columnar neck and face of the woman are painted with a rich opacity that is so unique to the artist, imbuing her body with a sculptural sense of three-dimensionality. Moreover, Modigliani appears to have taken the tip of his brush handle and pulled it through the still wet oil paint to create the wavy strands of his sitter’s short, dark hair, an effect similar to the incised lines that signify the stylised hair of the carved heads. The accentuated line of the woman’s long nose echoes and complements the gentle curve of her neck, creating a sinuous and flowing ‘S’ shape turn that governs the composition. This lyrical conception of the female form would become a defining characteristic of the artist’s work throughout 1917 until his untimely and tragic death in 1920 and is encapsulated in his graceful portraits of the great love of his life and mother of his child, Jeanne Hébuterne.