A portrait of refined elegance and graceful femininity, Madame Hanka Zborowska depicts one of Amedeo Modigliani’s favourite and most frequent sitters: the beautiful, dark-featured Hanka or Anna Zborowska, wife of the artist’s dealer, loyal companion and ardent supporter, Léopold Zborowski. One of the earliest depictions of Hanka, Madame Hanka Zborowska is one of eleven portraits recorded by Ambrogio Ceroni that Modigliani painted of her between 1916 and 1919 (Ceroni, nos. 159, 160, 177, 179, 228, 229, 311-314). Other than the artist’s wife, Jeanne, and one of his former lovers, Beatrice Hastings, no other woman features more frequently in Modigliani’s work, a reflection of her crucial and constant presence in his now legendary bohemian life. Painted in 1917, Madame Hanka Zborowska dates from a time of optimism and increased productivity in the artist’s short life, which saw the emergence of his quintessential figural style. With her long, stylised oval face and exaggerated, swan-like neck, this portrait perfectly exemplifies this mature style; a work of calligraphic elegance that captures the innate beauty and poise for which Hanka Zborowska was renowned. Never before seen at auction, Madame Hanka Zborowska has remained in the same private collection since 1937.
Léopold and Hanka Zborowski first entered Modigliani’s life in 1916, the year before he painted Madame Hanka Zborowska. Hailing from a wealthy and aristocratic Polish family, Hanka Cirowska, or Sierpowska as it is also spelt, arrived in Paris before the outbreak of the First World War to study teaching. It was here that she met Léopold Zborowski, a young man with aspirations of becoming a poet who, like her, had recently emigrated from Poland, drawn to the beguiling and exciting City of Lights that was Paris at this time. Born in 1889 in Galicia, close to Lvov near the Austro-Hungarian border, Zborowski had arrived in Paris in the early 1910s (some accounts state that it was 1910, others say 1913 or 1914). Having attained a degree in Cracow, Zborowski was enrolled to study French Literature at the Sorbonne, however the outbreak of war put an end to his studies and, regarded as an enemy by the French state, he was briefly interned but released a few months later.
Living first with Lunia Czechowska, the wife of a childhood friend, Zborowski subsequently took rooms at the Hôtel Sunny on the Boulevard du Port-Royal, living with Hanka, with whom he had fallen in love, and Lunia, whose husband was fighting at the Front. Though they were always considered husband and wife, there is no evidence that Hanka and Zborowski were formally married, instead the pair most likely entered into a common-law agreement. Zborowski was said to be ‘devoted and faithful to his lovely distinguished wife’ (P. Sichel, Modigliani: A Biography of Amedeo Modigliani, London, 1967, p. 334), and Hanka, by all accounts a capable and independently-minded woman, was likewise devoted to her husband, assisting in his endeavours in the art world and involved with all aspects of his small stable of artists.
Zborowski quickly immersed himself in the bohemian world that was Montparnasse at this time. Although the outbreak of war had caused a great exodus of artists, writers and poets, the vibrant life of this corner of Paris remained in many ways unchanged. He frequented many of the notorious cafés and bars of this area, fascinated by various members of the bohemian milieu that he met there, including the likes of Moïse Kisling, Jean Cocteau, Francis Carco, Jacques Lipchitz and Max Jacob. With his plans to become a poet scuppered by war, in order to make a living, Zborowski or ‘Zbo’ as many knew him, began buying and selling rare books, manuscripts and engravings, and occasionally selling the works of his friends, Kisling and Maurice Utrillo.
There are a number of different recollections that tell how Modigliani and Zborowski first met. It has been stated that it was the Kisling who introduced the pair in 1915, while Fernande Barrey, the first wife of Tsuguharu Foujita, said that it was due to her encouragement that Zborowski became Modigliani’s dealer. Zborowski first saw Modigliani’s work at an exhibition in 1915 arranged by his then dealer Paul Guillaume at the studio of Emile Lejeune at 6, rue Huygens, a renowned meeting place for artists. Lunia Czechowska, who states that this exhibition took place a year later, in mid-1916, recalls Zborowski telling her: ‘[Modigliani] is a very great painter. I am sorry that I don’t have enough money to allow him to work without having to draw on café terraces’ (Sichel, ibid., p. 326). Upon seeing his work, he was immediately enthralled and deeply moved by the plight of the struggling artist. He made it his mission to help this poverty-stricken artist and became staunchly devoted to promoting and selling his work.
With barely enough money to support himself and his wife, in 1916 Zborowski offered Modigliani a contract: he agreed to pay him a salary of fifteen francs a day, as well as providing him with materials and accommodation, in return for the entirety of the artist’s output. Modigliani started to paint in the Zborowskis’ rooms on the Boulevard Port-Royal and when they moved into an apartment on the rue Joseph-Bara later this year, he used their dining room, the largest room, as his studio. It was here that he most likely executed the present work as well as the great series of nudes that he painted in 1917.
This was a period of increased productivity for the artist. Supplied with materials, models, as well as the alcohol he supposedly needed in order to paint, and earning a regular wage, he settled into a somewhat more ordered routine than he had been previously used to, painting each day in the afternoon from two until six o’clock. Hanka Zborowska recalled, ‘…contrary to what others have pretended, Modi always behaved toward us in the most correct fashion. He never once came to the hotel drunk. He got up late, went to have lunch at Rosalie’s in the Rue Campagne-Première, then came to our room and set right to work. In a sitting of several hours, he usually managed to finish a painting of medium size. The others took him double or triple the time’ (H. Zborowska, quoted in Sichel, ibid., p. 335-336).
It was at this time that Hanka grew close to the artist. In 1916, early on in their relationship with Modigliani, Hanka recalled a particular anecdote to the writer Francis Carco. Zborowski had gone to Nice to recuperate from an illness and Hanka had remained behind in Paris to take care of her husband’s burgeoning art business. She agreed to pose for Modigliani in three portraits, with the understanding that she would receive one of them in return for her posing. However, when she returned the next day she found that Modigliani had sold the painting meant for her. ‘Modi was sorry,’ Pierre Sichel writes, ‘he shrugged and gave her a lamely truthful explanation… Hanka did not bother to argue with him. She went home, sold a painting of Derain’s and another of Kisling’s, and cleared enough to pay for her husband’s return trip to Paris’ (Sichel, ibid., p. 335). It was the middle of the war however, and Hanka did not have the correct identification papers to enable Zborowski to return to Paris. It was an apologetic Modigliani who came to the rescue and enabled Zborowski to get back home. From this time onwards, Hanka remained close the artist, completely devoted, like her husband, not just to his art, but also to his wellbeing.
Hanka became a frequent sitter for Modigliani, posing numerous times, each resulting in a portrait that is markedly unique in terms of appearance and sentiment. Hanka is also said to have modelled for two of Modigliani’s renowned, reclining nudes. In a work of 1917, which now resides in the Museum of Modern Art, New York (Ceroni, no. 177), Hanka is depicted in full length, seated in a chair, appearing at once deeply alluring yet coolly enigmatic. In another of the same year (Ceroni, no. 160), her expression is unreadable, her stylised face framed by a strikingly ornate and ostentatious white shirt. Mournful, inquisitive, reserved or understanding, her image is depicted by Modigliani in a multitude of different ways, yet there is always a respectful distance between the artist and his sitter. What unites these portraits is Hanka’s distinctive beauty and innate elegance. As Jeanne Modigliani, the artist’s daughter, recalled, Hanka was ‘a woman with a pale, perfect oval of a face, close-set black eyes, and a sinuous neck’ (J. Modigliani, Modigliani: Man and Myth, trans. E.R. Clifford, London, 2012, p. 77). These features are evidenced beautifully in Madame Hanka Zborowska. In this bust-length portrait, Hanka appears seated in a relaxed pose, her head slightly tilted as she gazes serenely out of the painting. Modigliani has exaggerated her long neck which, as Jeanne also recalled, was ‘the most flexible neck that I have ever seen’ (J. Modigliani, ibid., p. 77), depicting it with one unbroken, sinuous curve that leads up to her long, oval, hieratic face.
Yet, even though this painting displays traces of Hanka’s physiognomy, Modigliani has translated his sitter’s likeness into his own highly distinctive and stylised pictorial idiom. As Jean Cocteau described, ‘[Modigliani] adapted everyone to his own style, to a type that he carried within himself, and he usually looked for faces that bore some resemblance to that type, be it man or woman’ (J. Cocteau, quoted in M. Klein, ed., Modigliani: Beyond the Myth, exh. cat., New York, 2004, p. 43). By the time he painted Madame Hanka Zborowska, Modigliani had, after years of experimenting with both painting and sculpture, developed a style that was wholly his own. He had assimilated a wide range of sources, from African and Oceanic art, to works of the early Italian Renaissance and the contemporaneous avant-garde, to create a figural style that was both startlingly modern yet steeped in tradition.
With her exaggerated long features, empty, almond-shaped eyes, sweeping, almost sculpted nose, and small, pursed lips, in Madame Hanka Zborowska, the sitter conforms completely to Modigliani’s quintessential ‘type’. Unlike many of his previous portraits in which paint is applied with a vigorous impasto to create an almost sculptural opacity, in the present work, Modigliani has used thinner, softer brushstrokes, creating the luminous, radiant quality of her skin. This late style has often been likened to the Mannerist paintings of Parmigianino and Pontormo. Yet, the flatness of her stylised and symmetrical ‘Madonna-like’ face (D. Goldring, quoted in Sichel, op. cit., p. 333), and the gentle tilt of her head are also reminiscent of late 13th and early 14th century Renaissance works, which Modigliani had witnessed as a student travelling around Italy in the early 1900s, before he moved to Paris.
Modigliani painted Madame Hanka Zborowska while the First World War raged on around him, yet there is no trace in this serene and harmonious portrait, nor indeed in any of his paintings of this period, of the unfolding violence that was steadily engulfing his adopted home. In fact, his nudes and portraits of this time exude a radiant sense of plenitude and purity: a joyous celebration and affirmation of life in the midst of catastrophic destruction. They demonstrate an ideal and classical form of femininity, something Modigliani had been striving for throughout his short career. ‘He had,’ Marc Restellini writes, ‘rediscovered the “ideal face”, and with it his own style: a perfect synthesis of his research into the human soul, his quest for the true nature of the individual and the symbol of the mask… The face of his models becomes the mask of their soul’ (M. Restellini, ‘Modigliani: Avant-Garde Artist or “Schizophrenic Painter”?’, in Modigliani: The Melancholy Angel, exh. cat., Paris, 2002-3, p. 29).