The present picture is an elegant and evocative example from an important series of portraits that Modigliani made of his mistress, the English writer Beatrice Hastings, between 1914 and 1916. As a group, the portraits constitute a remarkable memoir of a deeply unconventional woman (fig. 1), whose passionate and turbulent affair with Modigliani oscillated between extremes of joy and anguish. Coinciding with Modigliani's return to painting after concentrating on sculpture for three years, the depictions of Hastings also occupy a preeminent position among the artist's early portraits and represent a crucial stage in his artistic development.
Born Emily Alice Haigh in South Africa in 1879, Beatrice Hastings came to Paris in April of 1914 to write a column entitled "Impressions de Paris" for a London literary journal, The New Age. She took an apartment at 53 rue de Montparnasse, across the street from Brancusi and Lipchitz, and quickly became a celebrated figure in this legendary artists' quarter. Max Jacob described her as "a great English poet...drunken, musical (a pianist), bohemian, elegant, dressed in the manner of the Transvaal and surrounded by a gang of bandits on the fringe of the arts" (quoted in J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso, New York, 1996, vol. II, p. 368). She gained notoriety for attending a Quat'z' Arts ball wearing a trompe l'oeil dress that Modigliani had painted on her naked body, and was rumored to make notches in her headboard to keep tally of her numerous lovers, including Picasso, Apollinaire, André Breton, Wyndham Lewis, Katherine Mansfield, and Ezra Pound. Describing her Parisian exploits to Mansfield, Hastings declared, "Of course, the people here simply love me for it. There hasn't been a real woman of feeling here since the war..." (quoted in P. Sichel, Modigliani, New York, 1967, p. 283).
The details surrounding the start of Hastings' affair with Modigliani remain uncertain. The sculptor Ossip Zadkine and the English painter Nina Hamnett both claimed to have introduced the pair at the Café Rotonde in Montparnasse, probably in June of 1914. The American sculptor Jacob Epstein is also said to have had a hand in their meeting, according to an anecdote later published in the journal Paris-Montparnasse:
One day in London a friend of Modigliani, an American sculptor, met an English society woman, a cultured writer who was at loose ends...'Go to Paris, Mrs. H...' said he. 'In Paris there is a painter who is a beautiful man and a genius.' Mrs. H... arrived without a word of warning and, coming to Montparnasse, saw an excited blue devil doing Negro dances on one of the tables of the Rotonde. 'Modigliani!' she cried. He jumped to the ground...They left arm in arm... ("Anecdote..." Paris-Montparnasse, 13 February 1930, p. 19; quoted in ibid., p. 266).
Hastings herself, however, left quite a different account of her first encounter with Modigliani, which she recalled having taken place at Rosalie's, a crémerie owned by a former model of Bouguereau and a favorite hangout for artists:
A complex character. A swine and a pearl. Met him in 1914 at a crémerie. I sat opposite him. Hashish and brandy. Not at all impressed. Didn't know who he was. He looked ugly, ferocious and greedy. Met him again at the Café Rotonde. He was shaved and charming. Raised his cap with a pretty gesture, blushed and asked me to come see his work... (quoted in ibid., p. 267).
Soon, according to one of her columns, Hastings was "quite shook on the pale and ravishing villain," and by September, their affair was in full swing (B. Hastings, "Impressions de Paris III," New Age, 4 June 1914; quoted in B. Klüver and J. Martin, Kiki's Paris: Artists and Lovers 1900-1930, New York, 1989, p. 68).
By all accounts, the relationship was one of fervent passion, reckless debauchery, and violent quarrels. Zadkine recalled "the drugtaking, the many whiskies drunk at the Rotonde and the Dôme...the terrible arguments with the drunkard [Modigliani], the blows..." (quoted in P. Sichel, op. cit., p. 264); the poet Blaise Cendrars described Hastings as "an hysteric... accosting all males and intoxicated from nine o'clock on. She was infatuated with Modigliani, who was libidinous, like all Italians. There were frightful scenes of jealousy. They drank together, they fought, they beat each other. Modigliani used to push her out the windows into a patch of briars..." (quoted in ibid., p. 281). Hastings herself later recounted a particularly dramatic incident, "Once, we had a royal battle, ten times up and down the house, he armed with a pot and me with a long straw brush..." But, she added, "How happy I was..." (B. Hastings, "Madame Six II," Straight Times, 2 June 1932; quoted in ibid, p. 68).
The stormy relationship also proved to be a source of profound artistic inspiration for Modigliani. During the two years that he spent with Hastings, Modigliani made at least eleven paintings of her, including some of his largest and most fully worked pictures of the period. The portraits vary widely in their characterization, reflecting the ups and downs of the couple's liaison. In some, Hastings appears maternal, warm-hearted, gentle, and charming; in others, she is cool, arrogant, witty, and powerful. The present portrait shows her as poised and elegant, with thin arching brows, a long graceful neck, and a stylish plumed hat. At the same time, however, there is something haunting and vulnerable in the flush of her cheeks and the inclination of her head, recalling Katherine Mansfield's description of Hastings a few months into her Paris sojourn, "Strange and really beautiful though she is, still with the fairy air about her and her pretty little head so fine, she is ruined. There is no doubt of it..." (quoted in P. Sichel, op. cit., p. 283).
Critics have long recognized the power and sensitivity of portraits like the present one; as Werner Schmalenbach has commented, "These are the works with which the artist has earned his place in the history of art (W. Schmalenbach, Amedeo Modigliani: Paintings, Sculptures, Drawings, Munich, 1990, p. 25). In 1951, on the occasion of the present picture's exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, James Thrall Soby declared, "In the intensity of his individual characterization, Modigliani holds a fairly solitary place in his epoch. One senses in his finest pictures a unique and forceful impact from the sitter, an atmosphere of special circumstance, not to recur..." (J.T. Soby, in op. cit., exh. cat., 1951, p. 8). And three years later, the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, a close friend of Modigliani, wrote a short book on the painter that includes a poignant analysis of his portraits:
His own art was an art of personal feeling. He worked furiously, dashing off drawing after drawing without stopping to ponder. He worked, it seemed, entirely by instinct--which, however, was extremely fine and sensitive...He could not forget his interest in people, and he painted them, so to say, with abandon...He could not permit abstraction to interfere with feeling, to get between him and his subjects. And that is why his portraits are such remarkable characterizations... (J. Lipchitz, Modigliani, New York, 1954).
Modigliani's extraordinary portraits of Beatrice Hastings are now housed in major museum collections around the world, including the Barnes Collection, The Art Institute of Chicago, and the Art Gallery of Ontario (figs. 2-4).
(fig. 1) Beatrice Hastings in November 1921.
Photo by Man Ray.
(fig. 2) Modigliani in his studio at the Bateau-Lavoir in the winter of 1915-1916. On the wall in the foreground is a portrait of Beatrice Hastings, now in the Barnes Collection.
(fig. 3) Amedeo Modigliani, Beatrice Hastings, 1915.
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.
(fig. 4) Amedeo Modigliani, Madame Pompadour (Beatrice Hastings), 1915. The Art Institute of Chicago.