"Modigliani was of a 'furious nobility' to borrow a phrase from Baudelaire that suits him so well. I was immediately struck by his extraordinary talent and I wanted to do something for him. I bought his drawings and canvases, but I was his only buyer and I certainly wasn't rich. I brought him into my family. He was already deeply convinced of his own worth. He knew that he was an instigator, not an imitator, but he did not have any orders yet. I had him paint a portrait of my father, my brother Jean and several portraits of me" (P. Alexandre, quoted in N. Alexandre, Modigliani inconnu, Paris, 1993, p. 59).
These lines from Paul Alexandre reveal the decisive role that he played in jump-starting the career of Amedeo Modigliani and reflect his profound admiration for his artist friend. When Alexandre, a young doctor, finished his training at Lariboisière Hospital in November 1907, he met Modigliani, a bohemian artist with the look of a dandy who had just arrived in Paris the year before. The relationship that formed between the two men was crucial to the artist and lasted until August 1914, when the doctor was called up and sent to the front. Painted in 1909, Portrait de Maurice Drouard, which was previously held in the prestigious collection of Paul Alexandre, serves a poignant testimony to the important friendship between Modigliani, Alexandre, and his family.
This painting is among the earliest works that Ambrogio Ceroni recorded in his catalogue raisonné of the artist, as no. 15. There are unknowable gaps in this artist's early production; paintings he abandoned or even destroyed, and because he was so obscure and unknown at that time, there are some which passed from his hands to unidentified others, perhaps as payment for a favor, only to be cast aside, forgotten and irretrievably lost. Portrait of Maurice Drouard is, however, a fortunate survivor of this period, and an especially distinctive work for the reason that here, Modigliani displayed for the first time the broad spectrum of stylistic inflexions that mark his entry into the modernist milieu of the Parisian art world. The present painting is moreover a storied work, involving an intriguing cast of characters, including Alexandre, who became the artist's close friend and his first advocate during his early years in Paris, and the painter's sitter, Maurice Drouard.
Together with his brother, Alexandre established a circle of artist friends known as the "Delta colony". In 1907, the group moved into an abandoned building at 7 Rue du Delta which, in exchange for a modest rent, Paul and Jean Alexandre transformed into a place where artists could exchange ideas and help one another. Regulars included sculptor Maurice Drouard, as well as Henri Doucet, Albert Gleizes and Constantin Brancusi.
Alexandre later described his first meeting with Modigliani: "It was Doucet who brought him to the Delta for the first time... Modigliani told Doucet that he had been evicted from the small studio he occupied on the Place Jean-Baptiste Clément and had nowhere to go. Doucet invited him to the Delta where he could stay if he wanted, and where he could live and keep his belongings. That is how my friendship with Modigliani began. I was 26, Modigliani was 23, and my brother Jean was 21” (op. cit., pp. 53-54). Although Modigliani never lived in the Rue du Delta, he was a frequent visitor and the bonds he developed with this community would have a significant influenThe Delta was a hotspot in bohemian Montmartre and it was here that Modigliani met one of its lodgers, Maurice Drouard (1886-1915), the model for the present work. Famous for his many portraits and decorative medallions, Drouard studied sculpture at the École des Arts Décoratifs, and at the Beaux-Arts, with Brancusi, in the workshop of Antonin Mercié, the official sculptor of the Third Republic. His name also recalls the amiable atmosphere he nurtured at the Delta thanks to his many talents, including his gift for playing the violin. Just like Henri Doucet and Gaston Coustillier, Drouard's life was cut short by World War I. A veritable tour de force, the present work depicts a key moment in the lives of these two artists as they scrutinized and understood one another. The work, a symbol of the friendship between the two men, hung on the wall at the Delta colony for several years.
This portrait is imbued with an undeniable modernity and is unique within Modigliani's oeuvre; the stylized forms, the speed of execution, the spontaneity of touch, and particularly the free, bold treatment of color exemplify Modigliani's deep commitment to the most avant-garde explorations of the early 20th century. Here, the Italian artist fully embraced the modernism of his era, embracing the lessons of Fauvism with the use of pure, unmodulated colors, painted with a vigorous, expressionist touch.
While the tones of the background evoke the untamed audacity of Matisse and the range of colors characteristic of Picasso during his Blue period, this composition also appears to be a homage to Cézanne. Drouard is still recognizable, but the geometric treatment of his face, with its frontal perspective marked by a vertical axis, and the sparing use of colors, point clearly to the lessons of the master of Aix: a clear, detailed face that contrasts with the darker, more roughly sketched background. This quasi-geometrization of the facial features also heralds the minimalist lines of Modigliani's stone sculptures, especially the caryatids produced between 1910 and 1913.
Over the seven years spent at the Delta, Paul Alexandre played not only the role of friend and confidante to Modigliani, but served, even more importantly, as his sole financial backer, acquiring hundreds of drawings and several major paintings in just a few years. Alexandre was in fact Modigliani's sole source of financial support and his only buyer during the artist’s first years in Paris. The profound relationship between the two men also enabled Alexandre to assemble the most incredible collection of this artist's oeuvre, keeping virtually all of Modigliani's drawings from before the war and purchasing several major paintings. This collection was meticulously conserved, out of sight, until his death in 1968, prompting Jeanne Modigliani to say: "He was the increasingly rare type of collector who was a lover of art in the deepest sense of the word, to the joy and despair of researchers: joy because he had kept intact works of unquestionable authenticity, dating from Modigliani's formative years, but despair because he jealously hoarded those works, denying everyone the claim of having seen the entirety of his collection" (J. Modigliani, Modigliani, Une Biographie, Paris, 1990, p. 64).
This portrait was purchased by Dutch merchant L.E. Van Leer, who in turn sold it to Roger Dutilleul in 1922. It was probably nostalgia for this period of intense artistic discovery at the Delta that drove Paul Alexandre, after the war, to acquire this painting from Dutilleul, another ardent defender of Modernism.