The sitter in this portrait is still only a girl, probably in her late teens. Her ruddy cheeks and russet hair, adorned in cork-screw bangs and shoulder-length braids, give the impression of youthful and healthy innocence. There is, however, a Lolita-like aspect to her as well, contained in a simple gesture, that of having let the strap of her shift slip from her shoulder, revealing a small rosy nipple on her pubescent breast. Her impossibly tiny rosebud mouth is little larger than aureole on her bosom. As sweet and nonchalant as she appears, this is an enigmatic and suggestive portrait, a simple yet insinuatingly seductive characterization by a master portraitist. Modigliani has calculated each of these fetching effects to entice one's attention, and create a delicately erotic mystery that holds the viewer in thrall.
Hardly less appealing in this portrait is its warmly glowing and airy feeling, which points to the fact that Modigliani painted it in the South of France in 1918, during his year-long stay there. It was a trip occasioned more by circumstance than choice. The artist's possibilities in Paris had actually begun to look promising toward the end of 1917. His friend, agent, dealer and backer Léopold Zborowski had gotten Modigliani his first--and, as it would turn out, only--solo exhibition at Berthe Weill's gallery, which ran in December. The heart of the show had been a group of about seven nudes (fig. 1), one of which Mme Weill put in the window of her shop. This painting showed the "forbidden triangle," pubic hair, and a crowd gathered. The local police station was located across the square, and the commissionaire divisionaire sent an officer to investigate. When he learned the cause of the commotion, he ordered the offending painting taken down, and all the nudes inside removed as well, on threat of confiscation. Without them on view, the artist and his agent had nothing else that was as pricey to sell, and the show was doomed to run its course and end up a financial failure. Only two drawings were sold.
As Pierre Sichel has pointed out, we do not know how Modigliani responded to this incident. "It was probably a greater shock to Zborowski, but Modi could not have been too surprised since he had been long convinced that nothing ever turned out right for him. It was fate conspiring against him as always; it reinforced his belief that he was being persecuted" (in Modigliani: A Biography, London, 1967, p. 401). In any case, Modigliani never again painted full-length nudes that were so utterly naked and blatantly sensual. He could, however, now claim the distinction of being the only painter in recent memory to have his work banned by the police. The Weill exhibition had become a succès de scandale, which for an artist at that time amounted to a significant succès d'estime. People began to wonder about this provocative painter and became interested in his work. Zborowski rebounded from the blow, and saw an opportunity to capitalize on his client's new-found notoriety.
Zborowski made some much-needed sales of Modigliani's work in early 1918. But just as things were looking up, a string of troubles soon dashed all hopes. Modigliani was suffering from tuberculosis, a condition his nonstop smoking and drinking further aggravated, and his health took a sudden turn for the worse. Jeanne Hébuterne, the artist's girlfriend, announced that she was pregnant. The Germans then decided to launch their last-ditch, all-out offensive to end the war. They positioned three huge railway-mounted guns, collectively known as Big Bertha, to lob massive shells over a distance of 100 kilometers into Paris, raining death and destruction in earth-shaking explosions twenty minutes apart. People who possessed the means fled the city in droves. The art market in Paris, whose state had been tenuous at best during the previous years of the war, collapsed altogether. Zborowski wanted to take Modigliani and Jeanne out of harm's way, and he believed that a move to a warmer clime would help restore the artist's health. He planned to support their trip by selling the artist's paintings to the well-heeled and fashionable crowd, including the recent influx of refugees from Big Bertha, that congregated in the resort towns on the Côte d'Azur.
Zborowski assembled an odd entourage for the journey: in addition to his wife Hanka, there was Modigliani and Jeanne, Jeanne's mother Eudoxie (who wanted to look after her daughter during her pregnancy), the Japanese artist Foujita and his wife Fernande Barry, and the painter Soutine. They took the train to Nice, and then settled into a medieval fortress at Haut-de-Cagnes, in the hills above the city, near Cagnes-sur-Mer, where Renoir had his home. While Zborowski tried to sell the artists' paintings, literally going from door to door in the hotels of Nice, Modigliani painted but continued to drink heavily. Soutine, who had never known what it was like to take a vacation and had just seen the sea for the first time, simply lounged and slept in the warm sun. Foujita called him "The Lizard."
Tensions ran high between Modigliani and Jeanne's mother. Mme Hébuterne thought poorly of Modigliani's profession and would never acknowledge his talent, she was appalled at his self-destructive habits, and believed that he was unfit to support her daughter and the child on the way. Zborowski did all he could to keep them apart, and he sent Modigliani to stay with the painter Anders Osterlind, whose residence in Cagnes bordered on Renoir's property. Modigliani wanted to meet Renoir, and Osterlind arranged for a visit with him one evening. The latter had assumed that both men, who seemed to share common interests in female portraiture and the nude, would have enough to talk about. Modigliani's behavior, however, proved to be baffling and rude. Osterlind later recounted their visit:
"It was a delicate thing putting these two face to face: Renoir with his past, the other with his youth and confidence; on the one side joy, light, pleasure, and a work without peer, on the other Modigliani and all his suffering. After Renoir had some of his canvases taken down from the wall, a grim, sombre Modigliani listened to him speak.
"'So you're a painter too then, eh, young man?" he said to Modigliani, who was looking at the paintings. [Modigliani did not respond.] 'Paint with joy, the same joy with which you make love.' [Silence.] 'Do you caress your canvases a long time?' [Silence.] 'I stroke the buttocks for days and days before finishing a painting.'
"It seemed to me that Modigliani was suffering and that a catastrophe was imminent. It happened. Modigliani got up brusquely, and his hand on the doorknob, said brutally. 'I do not like buttocks, monsieur!'" (quoted in P. Sichel, op. cit., p. 413).
There was clearly a difference in temperaments, and the patrician Modigliani no doubt objected to Renoir's lecherous suggestions, which he felt were unbecoming in a great master. Modigliani's response also suggests the lingering effect of the scandal of the nudes during the Weill exhibition; he was growing more guarded in the expression of sexuality in his work, and wanted to avoid the very charge of vulgarity he that he had thrown by inference at Renoir's nudes. Both painters did share in their work, however, a penchant for classical form, the figure fully rounded and volumetric, and an idealized spirit derived from the ancient arts of Mediterranean culture. The body, the nude especially, was the classicist's subject par excellence. Matisse and Picasso had increasingly turned to classicism, and both admired Renoir. Matisse called on Renoir at the end of 1917 and made several more visits in 1918, while Picasso would pour with growing interest over the late Renoir paintings in his dealer Paul Rosenberg's inventory, and buy one for himself.
By the time of his sojourn to the Midi, Modigliani had already begun to abandon some of the Cubist-derived stylistic devices which had he had employed in his earlier paintings. Although he retained until the end of his career some of the trademark mannerisms of his Montparnasse period--the simplification of the contours of head and body, for example, and the sightless, almond eyes--the portraits from 1917 onward are notable for the increasing naturalism in the artist's depiction of the human figure. This tendency gained momentum upon Modigliani's arrival the south of France. There the artist moreover employed thinner painterly textures, using the whiteness of the ground to radiate through the paint film, and he adopted a lighter palette to reflect the crystalline brightness of his new surroundings.
Modigliani also turned to new subjects. Separated from his circle of Parisian artists, poets, friends and patrons, he now took as his models local inhabitants of Nice and its environs, people who lent themselves to a more straight-forward, sympathetic presentation than had the sophisticated urban denizens of bohemian Montparnasse. Werner Schmalenbach has written:
"It was precisely 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 [fig. 2]--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 even more restrained in his use of color than usual; as if he were approaching his sitters quietly, almost shyly. 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. 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 picture is one, perhaps the first completed, of three canvases that Modigliani painted in 1918 that feature the same young female model, seen in the progressive stages of a sort of strip-tease. In the second picture (Ceroni, no. 265; fig. 3) she has let the strap of her chemise drop completely, as she lifts her hand to her breast. In the third picture (Ceroni, no. 266; fig. 4), she has bared both breasts, and completes the motion of her hand: she now cups her breast, which appears more ample than in the previous two versions. This positioning of the hand, which also appears in the 1917 nude shown at the Berthe Weill exhibition (fig. 1), is the classic gesture of Venus lactans. It is seen in the famous Medici Venus, a first century BC Roman copy after Praxiteles, and in Bottticelli's The Birth of Venus (fig. 5). In Christian art, this posture becomes the symbolic gesture of Maria lactans, in which the Mother of God reveals her love as nourishment for the soul, just as a mother's milk is for her child. In Ceroni, Patani and another catalogue entry, the model in Modigliani's paintings has been called a milkmaid (see Modigliani: Melancholy Angel, exh. cat., Musée de Luxembourg, Paris, 2002, p. 326), which reflects this classical and perhaps even the religious allusion, but was probably not her real occupation. A milkmaid was usually a young girl who lived on the farm under some manner of adult supervision, either from her parents or her employer. Modigliani would have been taking a substantial risk if he enticed such a girl to pose for him in the manner seen here--like Egon Schiele, he might have ended up in a provincial jail on charges of endangering the morals of a minor. This pretty, adolescent model is surely a young prostitute, one of his neighbors in the cheap hotels in Nice where Modigliani stayed during much of his sojourn in the Midi. Tamar Garb has explained the role of the nude model in Modigliani's painting:
"Of what was she a sign? Of the male artist's identity as creator in contrast to her passive materiality? Of his sexuality or her animality? Of an equation between artistic license and sexual freedom as metaphor for its opposite--the regimentation and regulation of bourgeois masculinity and domestic life? All this and more... This was how the new endeavor of modernism could be signified as a deep engagement with the actual... The frank undressedness of the model in a recognizable singularity was a signifier for the disrobing of art" (in Modigliani: Beyond the Myth, exh. cat., The Jewish Museum, New York, 2004, p. 68.).
(fig. 1) Amedeo Modigliani, Vénus (Nu debout, Nu Médicis), 1917. Sold, Christie's New York, 8 November 2006, lot 31. BARCODE 25062793
(fig. 2) Amedeo Modigliani, Jeune fille au béret, 1918. Sold, Christie's London, 6 February 2007, lot 15. BARCODE 25010565
(fig. 3) Amedeo Modigliani, Giovane rossa in camicia, a mezza figura, 1918. Private collection. BARCODE 25010572
(fig. 4) Amedeo Modigliani, Giovane rossa in camicia, seduta su un divano (La giovane lattaia), 1918. Private collection. BARCODE 25010589
(fig. 5) Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (detail), circa 1485. Gallería degli Uffizi, Florence. BARCODE 20627423
(fig. 6) Amedeo Modigliani, 1918, in a photograph he gave to Jeanne Hébuterne. Archives Jeanne Hébuterne. BARCODE 25240269