In the early stages of his career, from about 1910 to 1914, Modigliani hoped to establish a reputation as a sculptor. He focused on a narrow range of themes: there are idol-like heads, one kneeling caryatid and a single standing figure, totaling about two dozen works. There are, however, many more watercolors and drawings that attest to the intensity of Modigliani's preoccupation with sculptural form during this period, and his studies of caryatids are among his most formally adventurous works in any medium.
Modigliani derived the subject of the caryatid from the columnar female figures used to support entablatures in classical architecture. Another source was very likely African and Oceanic tribal art, especially the carved wooden stools supported by crouching female figures. In taking over this subject, Modigliani rejected its functional and decorative aspects. "The figure works primarily in a 'formal' way: its form exhausts its meaning. Under the pretext of carrying an -- invisible -- burden, the body and its component parts are forced in specific directions, generating a complex rhythm of horizontals, verticals, diagonals and curves. The artist has chosen his theme solely for the sake of this formal architecture" (W. Schmalenbach, Amedeo Modigliani: Painting, Sculptures, Drawings, Munich, 1990, p. 10).
To reinforce the classical element inherent in this archaic subject, Modigliani hones and reduces his forms to their utmost simplicity. The violent, primitive expression found in Picasso's early cubist works, which also draws heavily upon archaic and tribal sources, is absent in Modigliani's treatment of the caryatid theme. He is more concerned with formal balance and repose, in which each contour is firmly rendered and set in counterpoint to adjacent lines, creating a fugue-like composition of repeated and inverted forms. His use of ovoid shapes lends the composition a sense of sculptural volume, contrasted with the flatness of the drawn line and the application of monochrome paint. The overall effect is that of a monumental structure unified by its linear rhythms and the careful balance of its proportions.
The present work is unusual in the artist's series of caryatids for its Degas-like addition of paper joined to the top edge of the original sheet. Modigliani also expands the composition onto the mount, as seen in the lower and left hand edges of the painted image. Whereas the cropping of the figure on the original sheet implies a sense of compressed and coiled strength, the enlargement of the composition imparts to it a monumental dimension, as if the figure is radiating outward into an immense, unlimited space. The hourglass shape of the enlarged figure, almost globular in the upper and lower portions, and hinged by her narrow, elongated torso, is an extreme interpretation of the caryatid idea. It reaches into the realm of the mythic and superhuman, as if the caryatid is an Atlas-like figure, bearing the burden of one world on her shoulders while resting on another.