‘Jeanne Hébuterne made history as one of Modigliani’s muses but also because of her tragic and premature death,’ explains Valerie Didier Hess, Impressionist and Modern Art specialist at Christie’s in Paris. ‘Sadly, it overshadowed her abilities as an artist.’
Certainly the story of the beautiful, but unstable painter who committed suicide at the age of 21 is an infinitely compelling one, and made all the harder by the lack of information surrounding her life and work. ‘To my knowledge there are only around 25 Hébuterne paintings in the world,’ says Hess. ‘She died so young, before she could establish any kind of reputation as a painter.’
This, of course, makes this singular self-portrait all the more fascinating: ‘It was difficult to price the painting because there are so few examples of her work on the market,’ the specialist explains. ‘Nothing of this quality has been seen at auction and there are only a couple other self-portraits out there.’
Born into a middle class family in Paris in 1898, Hébuterne displayed a remarkable gift for drawing at a young age. Encouraged by her abilities, her parents allowed her to study at the Académie Colarossi in Paris and it was here, in the febrile atmosphere of rue de la Grande Chaumière in Montparnasse, that she met the self-destructive Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani, a charismatic sybarite whose reputation as the enfant terrible of the Belle Époque was already well established.
‘They began a great love affair,’ says Hess, ‘but you can imagine her parents reaction, to watch her go off with someone 14 years older who was sick and led such a turbulent lifestyle. She defied everything to be with him.’
Until she met Modigliani, Hébuterne had been inspired by the artists of the Fauves and Nabis schools. ‘To some extent, she was more experimental than Modigliani. You can see the influence of Matisse in this self-portrait, the daring blue contours on the face and the very flat background,’ says Hess. ‘But what’s most daring is her gaze, looking straight out at the viewer. She is making a statement to assert that she is an artist in her own right.’
There is no question that the painting displays a remarkable self-assuredness, not only that, but she appears to be wearing a kimono, suggesting a state of undress may have been shocking at the time, and which she is thought to have sewn herself.
It was no surprise Modigliani was attracted to young and intriguing Hébuterne, with her pale complexion framed by her dark auburn hair which she often wore in long braids. Her fellow art students nicknamed her ‘Noix-de-Coco’ (coconut). According to the specialist, Modigliani’s paintings must have impacted Hébuterne’s style, but there was most probably a deeper artistic dialogue between the two as Hébuterne as a woman, as a mother and as an artist undoubtedly fuelled Modigliani’s artistic production.
Friends described her as quiet, almost melancholic, yet she could be ruthless in her character assassinations. Take, for example, a painting she made of the artist Soutine (above), which was sold at Christie’s in 2008 for €73,000. It utterly strips him of his worker-day pretentions and reveals him to be a self-serving dandy.
The grand passion that was Hébuterne and Modigliani’s love affair was cruelly cut-short on 24 January 1920 with the death of the tubercular artist from meningitis. Devastated and eight months pregnant with their second child, Hébuterne returned home to her parents. The next morning her brother André discovered she had thrown herself from the window of their apartment, less than 48 hours after Modigliani’s death.
‘To die at such a young age, just when her skills as an artist were beginning to reveal themselves, was a tragedy,’ says Hess. ‘Who knows what she could have done had she lived, with or without Modigliani.’