Drawn in 1910-1911, Cariatide is a striking example of Modigliani’s practice during the early period of his artistic career in which he focused primarily on sculpture. One of only a small number of drawings which explore the form of a sculpted caryatid, the present work illustrates the complex working process that lay behind each of the artist’s three-dimensional projects in stone. Creating countless drawings and sketches before ever taking his hammer to a block, these studies offered Modigliani a forum in which to experiment and visualize his ideas before translating them into sculptural form. In its fusion of these two strands, sculpture and drawing, Cariatide stands as an intriguing crossover work, straddling the intersection between Modigliani’s two principal creative impulses.
In the early stages of Modigliani’s career, he aspired to be a sculptor. Though he experimented with stone carving in Carrara at the age of 18, he could not afford to fully commit himself to the medium. Modigliani was a long-time admirer of Constantin Brancusi, and in 1909, Paul Alexandre introduced him to the Romanian artist, who would become a significant influence on and mentor to the young Italian. Brancusi’s impact can be most clearly witnessed in Modigliani’s return to working with stone. From 1910 to 1913, he dedicated himself to sculpture, of which only 25 examples have survived. With the high cost of limestone, the material was precious and thus drawing became integral to his process, with the walls of his studio punctuated with the architectural studies of heads. Modigliani’s unreliable income also required him to move frequently from one studio to another and each time the drawings would be rehung.
As a draughtsman, Modigliani focused on a narrow range of themes including idol-like heads, kneeling caryatids and a single standing figure. His intense preoccupation with sculptural form was the dominant force in his work. He became obsessed with the caryatid both as a sensual figure and as a functional architectural element. The figures transform from expressive and emotional to austere and geometric. With Cariatide, he unites natural form with sculptural artifice to create a seductive yet hieratic form. Modigliani’s streamlined aesthetic dealt away with decoration and setting in his drawings. From his formative years spent in Florence and Venice, Modigliani was familiar with medieval Italian sculpture. His inspiration for sculpture derives from the Etruscans but also from African and Asian art—all of which were fashionable artistic trends in Paris in the early decades of the 20th century. As early as 1909 through the influence of Alexandre, he discovered African Art and Khmer sculpture in the Trocadéro, becoming enchanted by such figures and turning to them for his own artistic innovation.
Alexandre, a close friend of the artist and the first owner of the present Cariatide, explained, “In his drawings, there is invention, simplification, and purification of the shape. This is why African primitive art had seduced him. Modigliani recreated in his own way the lines of the human figure by inserting them in the negroid canons. He experimented all attempts of simplification of the lines and was interested in these for his own personal research" (quoted in N. Alexandre, Modigliani inconnu: Témoignages, documents et dessins inédits de l’ancienne collection de Paul Alexandre, Paris, 1993, pp. 43-44).