In the spring of 1918, as the German army had launched an offensive aimed at Paris, Modigliani's dealer, Leopold Zborowski, moved a group of his protégés and their companions from the capital to the south of France, where they remained until the following year. Soutine, Foujita, and Fernande Barrey were among this troupe, and Modigliani was accompanied by his pregnant girldfriend Jeanne Hébuterne and her mother. Separated from his Parisian coterie of artists, poets, and patrons, Modigliani relied for his models during this period on the residents of Cagnes-sur-Mer and neighboring towns, particularly children and working girls (fig. 1). Although the year was a difficult one in Modigliani's personal life, marred by frequent disputes with Madame Hébuterne, it proved enormously productive for him creatively. Hanka Zborowski later recalled, "Indeed, he always worked passionately. Nobody could reproach him on that score. He would complete in a few days a picture that would take most men weeks or months to accomplish" (quoted in P. Sichel, Modigliani, London, 1967, p. 408). His portraits of the local citizenry of Cagnes are now considered some of the strongest and most haunting works of Modigliani's career. In her recent monograph on the artist, Doris Krystof has asserted, "In this year of turmoil at the end of the war, Modigliani painted like a man possessed. In the bright light of the Côte d'Azur, he produced most of the paintings which would later become his most popular works" (Amedeo Modigliani 1884-1920: The Poetry of Seeing, Cologne, 2000, p. 75).
By the time of his sojourn in the Midi, Modigliani had already begun to abandon some of the cubist-derived stylistic devices that characterized his earlier years. Although he retained until the end of his career some of the trademark mannerisms of his Montparnasse period--the geometric simplification of the head and body, for example, and certain physiognomic details such as the impenetrable almond eyes and small pursed mouth--the portraits from 1917 onward are marked by an increased naturalism in the artist's depiction of the human figure. This tendency gained momentum upon Modigliani's arrival in the south of France. While his sophisticated Parisian sitters had been portrayed in an elegant and mannered style, with swan-like necks, tapered fingers, and complex poses, the ordinary working people of the Midi lent themselves to a more straightforward, sympathetic presentation. Modigliani painted them as solid and heavy limbed, their poses frontal and static, their gazes direct and unwavering. Describing this group of pictures, Werner Schmalenbach has written:
"It was at this time that Modigliani became the painter of simple unknown, nameless people. He painted portraits of ordinary men and women: a gardener, an apprentice, a young peasant, a chambermaid, a woman druggist, and occasionally a child--people from a social background other and 'lower' than his own. This sprang not from any hankering after social comment but from an intensely 'human' interest. They convey a reticent but forcefully expressed inner sympathy, and they achieve great poignancy. It is as if, in order to do justice to these simple people, the painter had renounced his aesthetic eloquence; as if he were being more restrained in his use of color than usual; as if he were approaching his sitters quietly, almost shyly. All Modigliani's works in this vein have the same quiet tonality, the almost vegetative presence of the sitter and a human understanding that is more intense because nothing is mannered" (in Amedeo Modigliani, Munich, 1990, pp. 43-44).
The present painting epitomizes this new approach to portraiture. It depicts a young woman, no longer an adolescent but only recently an adult. Her name is recorded as either Madeleine Verdon or Madeleine Verdou, but nothing else about her is known; she was presumably one of the residents of Cagnes whom Modigliani engaged to pose for him in 1918-1919. At first glance, she seems the epitome of passivity and calm, her hands clasped in her lap, her face expressionless. Certain details of the composition, however, belie this initial impression. The girl's face, for instance, is more heavily worked than the remainder of the painting, serving to focus the viewer's attention on her inscrutable features and suggesting the richness of feeling that they mask. The outlines of the figure waver slightly, producing a sensation of energy and potential kinesis; this is heightened by the fact that juncture of the wall and floor behind the sitter is off-axis. The colors in the painting also contribute to the impression of tension and vibration, with the bright red of the girl's necklace and bracelet forming a strong contrast to the deep navy of her dress and the pale blue of the background. Reddish-pink dots outline her fingers as well, suggesting that her clasped hands are meant to imply energy and restlessness rather than quietude and repose. Overall, the painting functions as a moving psychological portrait, leaving the viewer with the impression that intense, unresolved emotions lie behind the sitter's calm, still exterior.
The portraits that Modigliani made in the south of France owe a substantial debt to the work of Cézanne, both in their sense of mass and their subtle psychological insight. Particularly notable are the French painter's depictions of his wife, which usually show her seated frontal and straight-backed, her neutral expression and steady gaze suggesting an intensely moving emotional restraint (fig. 2). Modigliani adored the pictures of Cézanne and talked passionately of his admiration for them. He is said to have kept a reproduction of Cézanne's Gargon au gilet rouge in his pocket, which he took out and kissed reverently each time the older artist was mentioned, and he commented about his own portraits to Soutine, "Like Cézanne's figures, they want to express nothing but a mute affirmation of life" (quoted in D. Krystof, op. cit., p. 76). It has been suggested that Modigliani's move to the Midi, where Cézanne had painted periodically throughout his life, may have intensified Modigliani's engagement with Cézanne's work. Notably, many of Cézanne's portraits from the 1890s depict children and working people, and are rendered with the same quiet tonality and candid sympathy that Modigliani brought to his sitters a generation later. Discussing Modigliani's portraits from Cagnes, Schmalenbach concludes, "It is in this small group of paintings, which stands out so sharply from the portraits of male and female friends, that Cézanne makes his reappearance in Modigliani's work, not so much in the manner of painting as in the vision of humanity" (op. cit., p. 43).
Numerous other artistic influences are also evident in the present painting. The simplified contours of the head and neck, the graceful arcs made by the arms, and the delicate tracing of the sitter's features all recall the abstract refinement of sculptures by Brancusi, who had been a close friend and mentor to Modigliani starting in 1909. Modigliani's own experience of stone carving, preserved in a small group of mysteriously hieratic heads, also comes across in the present work, particularly in the incisive firmness of the line that describes the oval head and elongated, cylindrical neck (fig. 3). Finally, the inspiration of African art--a key source for the portraits that Modigliani executed in Paris in 1915-1916--remains palpable in the painting of Madeleine Verdon, with its subtle and rhythmic combinations of geometric form. Much of Modigliani's genius lies in the inimitable way that he synthesized these diverse influences in his mature work, creating a figural type distinctly his own. In an eloquent paean to his long-time friend, the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz left the following account of Modigliani's achievement as a figure painter:
"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, n.p.).
(fig. 1) Amedeo Modigliani, Le petit paysan, circa 1918. Tate Gallery, London. Barcode 23669369
(fig. 2) Paul Cézanne, Madame Cézanne au fauteuil jaune, 1888-1890. Sold, Christie's, New York, 12 May 1997.Barcode 23669451
(fig. 3) Amedeo Modigliani, Tête, 1912. Philadelphia Museum of Art.Barcode 23669390