“Your real duty is to save your dream,” Modigliani wrote to Oscar Ghighlia, a fellow aspiring artist, in 1901. “Beauty has painful duties: they create, however, the most beautiful labors of the soul. Every obstacle overcome signals a growth of our will, produces a necessary and gradual renewal of our aspirations... Search to challenge them, to perpetrate them, these fertile stimuli, because only they can encourage intelligence to its maximum creative potential. For this we must fight” (letter in A. Ceroni, Amedeo Modigliani, Milan, 1958, p. 14; trans. Vanessa Fusco).
Having dreamed that his destiny as an artist might only be fulfilled in Paris, Modigliani arrived in the French capital from his native Livorno in January 1906. Although he showed paintings in the 1907 Salon d’Automne and 1908 Salon des Indépendants, he was unable to attract attention from critics or make sales to collectors, save one, Dr. Paul Alexandre, who in late 1907 became his very first advocate and supporting patron. Indeed, Modigliani was most fortunate to have the good doctor on his side, for Paul Alexandre, as well as his younger brother Jean, would act as steadfast keepers and watchful guardian angels during this especially trying period at the outset of the artist’s career.
Only several years older than Modigliani, Dr. Alexandre was the scion of a well-placed Parisian family. He specialized in dermatology, but did not hesitate to help the poor and needy, whom he treated in a clinic he ran on the rue Pigalle in a working-class neighborhood of Montmartre. He held an avid interest in the arts, and was keen to extend his good will and beneficence to impecunious artists as well. Leaving his parents’ home on the fashionable rue Malakoff, he moved into an old but spacious building at 7, rue du Delta in Montmartre; because the property had been slated for demolition, he was able to rent cheaply from the municipal government. He opened the large, high-ceilinged rooms of the Delta, as he called his new address, to artists who could not otherwise find decent and affordable studio space.
When the sculptor Henri Doucet, a Delta resident, met Modigliani in late 1907 at Frédé Gérard’s ‘Au Lapin Agile’, he learned his new acquaintance had been recently evicted from his hovel of a studio on the rue Jean-Baptiste Clément. Hoping to induce Modigliani to live and work at the Delta, Doucet arranged for him to meet Dr. Alexandre. Modigliani arrived in the company of Maud Abrantès, a married American woman who was on an extended holiday in Paris. She had hired a car to transport the artist’s few belongings and a painting he had recently done of her, La Juive (Ceroni, no. 9). “Modigliani charmed everybody immediately, and was completely open, with no pretenses, inhibitions or reserve,” Dr. Alexandre later recalled. “There was something proud in his attitude... I was struck straightaway by his extraordinary talent and I wanted to do something for him” (quoted in N. Alexandre, op. cit., 1993, pp. 54 and 59).
Rather than moving into the Delta, Modligliani decided to take a room in a hotel on rue Caulaincourt; within easy walking distance, he was a frequent visitor to the Delta, as was Maud Abrantès. She and Modigliani were probably lovers, and perhaps Dr. Alexandre became interested in her as well. The doctor admired how the artist portrayed Maud as La Juive, and acquired this painting from Modigliani, either before or soon after it was shown in the Salon des Indépendants, during March-May 1908.
La Juive was Modigliani’s first sale in Paris. “His mother sent him small sums of money almost every month, but apart from that he wanted to live by his art alone,” Dr. Alexandre wrote. “When no one showed interest in his works...Modigliani suffered real privations, which were made worse because he was both generous and totally improvident. As soon as he had any money he would spend it. Crippled by debts, having nothing to eat, paying neither his rent, his restaurant bills nor for his paints, he would try unsuccessfully to pay with his drawings and he was supported by his mistresses...he was very handsome and had great success with women” (ibid., pp. 59 and 60).
Dr. Alexandre arranged for Modigliani’s first commissioned pictures. During 1909 the artist completed portraits–in addition to three of the doctor himself (Ceroni, nos. 13-15)–of the family patriarch Jean-Baptiste (no. 12), and his brother Jean (no. 16; the present painting). Dr. Alexandre persuaded Jean’s girlfriend, the Baroness Marguerite de Hasse de Villers, to also sit for Modigliani. An accomplished equestrienne, she would appropriately pose in her riding habit. The Alexandre brothers called this picture L’Amazone, (Ceroni, no. 21), a term frequently used for this subject, derived from the female warriors of antique legend who were famously feared for their skills in fighting on horseback.
In early 1909 Dr. Alexandre left Paris, intending to spend most of the remaining year doing medical research in Vienna. He entrusted to Jean the responsibility of looking after Modigliani, who was already at work on Jean’s portrait and would soon begin that of his girlfriend. Jean was two years younger than Modigliani, and deeply engaged in his studies to become a pharmacist while working part-time. He and the artist became close friends.
“I see Modi quite often,” Jean wrote on 26 March 1909 to Dr. Alexandre in Vienna. “However, last week I let three or four days go by without going to his studio. On the fifth day I found my Modi in desperate straits, three sous in his pocket and nothing in his stomach. I could just imagine the rest, so I lent him 20 francs against the portrait of the Amazon. This is barely sketched onto the canvas, yet it looks as if it should be very successful... As for my portrait, it would be better if Modigliani didn’t attach such importance to it. I had great difficulty preventing him from chucking it on the fire. For the time being we left it as it is, and he’s planning to do a study of me for an hour or two at Easter, which I shall take away immediately. To keep me happy, he very sweetly gave me his painting of a beggar woman [Ceroni, no. 20]. He’s working quite hard at the moment, particularly on that picture of two beggar-women...really one of his best works... But I’m afraid he doesn’t use his time very well, and without counting the times he’s completely broke (like last week) and can’t get anything done, there are others, like yesterday, when he spends the whole day out of doors” (quoted in ibid., p. 75).
The canvas on which Modigliani painted the present Cézannesque portrait of Jean Alexandre already contained a seated nude figure, probably the same pre-pubescent girl the artist depicted in La Mendiante, 1909 (Ceroni, no. 20), the above-mentioned painting he gave to Jean. She may have also appeared in the painting of the two beggar-women, a work unknown today. Modigliani’s fondness for this lean gamine subject reveals his admiration for Picasso’s Blue Period. It's likely that having removed the canvas of the nude from its stretcher and turned it around, he then used the unpainted side for his portrait of Jean. Modigliani again resorted to this practice when he painted the Étude pour ‘Le Violoncelliste’, 1909 (Ceroni, no. 22a)–on the back is a study Modigliani made of the sculptor Brancusi (Ceroni, no. 22b), to whom Dr. Alexandre had introduced Modigliani in late 1908. Ambrogio Ceroni included the Brancusi portrait only in the final version of his Modigliani catalogue, published posthumously in 1972. The present verso painting was perhaps likewise unknown or overlooked until it was first exhibited and illustrated in the Paris retrospective catalogue of 1981 (op. cit.); since it was never included in Ceroni's catalogue it cannot be said with certainty to be by the hand of the artist.
Having recently left his room on rue Caulaincourt, Modigliani worked on the portraits in a studio at 14, Cité de Falguière in Montparnasse, a rundown grouping of adjoining artist’s spaces, where he was delighted to have as a neighbor his new friend Brancusi. On 23 April Jean updated his brother: “Modi is still managing on what he’s getting for the painting of the Amazon and what he receives from home. As for painting, he’s hardly done anything except this portrait, which is interesting... For the tenth time he did a sketch of me. He seems to be pleased with this one. If only he could finish it!” (ibid., p. 78).
Difficulties arose three weeks later during Modigliani’s sessions with Marguerite, as Jean related to Dr. Alexandre in a letter dated 12 May: “I gave him the rest of the money for the portrait of the Amazon, and the Baroness is a bit fed up with the way he’s been organizing things–he has also started something else with me, but all that has been left hanging in mid-air” (ibid.). On 28 May Jean wrote his brother: “Modi is coming to do the portrait of the Amazon in my room...[he] has decided to do it at the Delta. It’s far better in every way since she feels much more at home there... The portrait seems to be coming along well, but I’m afraid it will probably change ten times again before it’s finished. However, to overcome this real problem, Marguerite has told him she is leaving on 3 June and would like to have her portrait to be finished by that date.” Jean had good news for Paul: “I have my portrait at last, and he came to varnish it yesterday at home... I told him I was coming to pose for the last time. And in fact my portrait is none the worse for this” (ibid., pp. 78 and 80).
Although Jean was pleased with his portrait, the Baroness Marguerite de Hasse de Villers felt otherwise about hers. The result did not flatter her as she had wished. Modigliani had made, moreover, a final, last-minute alteration that completely scuttled any possibility of her accepting the picture; he painted over the original red hue of Marguerite’s equestrian coat with a wash of yellow, a willful choice the Baroness would not tolerate. Dr. Paul Alexandre cut short his stay in Vienna to attend to this crisis, and to take charge of the other issues his poor brother Jean found difficult to manage in their wayward bohemian painter. The doctor acquired L’Amazone for himself, Jean having already advanced portions of the fee. In his absence Jean had redecorated the walls of the great room in the Delta with “Modiglianis and photographs of Rafaels...quite stunning,” as he described to his brother. “Almost every panel has at least one Modi” (ibid., p.78).
Sadly, Jean Alexandre was diagnosed in 1911 as having contracted tuberculosis, and even after the best of care, died in June 1913, aged only 26–“Jean, the student [Modigliani] had drawn and painted, who emptied his pockets for him, encouraged him, his companion and friend,” Meryle Secreste has written. “Jean was as close as a brother and the Alexandres almost Modigliani’s second family” (Modigliani: A Life, New York, 2011, p. 168). A month later municipal authorities closed the Delta, where Modigliani had painted two more portraits of Dr. Alexandre during 1911-1913 (Ceroni, nos. 31 and 40). The doctor was called up for military service in 1914 at the beginning of the First World War, and was not demobilized until 1919. He and Modigliani never again saw each other. Modigliani had been consumptive as early as his late teens, and this condition led to his death in 1920.
Modigliani shortly after his arrival in Paris, early 1906. Archives of American Art.
Dr. Paul Alexandre, 1909. Collection Noël Alexandre, Paris.
Jean Alexandre, 1909. Collection Noël Alexandre, Paris.
Amedeo Modigliani, La Juive, late 1907. Formerly in the collection of Dr. Paul Alexandre, Paris; sold, Christie’s, New York, 8 May 2013, lot 2.
Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait de Paul Alexandre, 1909. Formerly in the collection of Dr. Paul Alexandre, Paris; Yamazaki Mazak Museum of Art, Nagoya, Japan.
Amedeo Modigliani, La Mendiante, 1909. Formerly in the collection of Jean Alexandre, Paris; Private collection.
Amedeo Modigliani, Étude pour un portrait de Constantin Brancusi, 1909. Formerly in the collection of Dr. Paul Alexandre, Paris; Private collection.
Amedeo Modigliani, Le Mendiant de Livourne, 1909. Formerly in the collection of Jean Alexandre, Paris; sold, Christie’s, London, 2 February 2004, lot 37.
Amedeo Modigliani, L’Amazone, 1909. Formerly in the collection of Dr. Paul Alexandre, Paris; sold, Sotheby’s, New York, 2 May 2013, lot 12.