Following the magnificent series of caryatides that Modigliani painted in watercolor and gouache during 1912-1914 while he was sculpting in stone, he only occasionally again worked in this medium during the years 1915-1916, and thereafter hardly at all. Modigliani was admired in his time as a prolific and dedicated draughtsman, and it is unclear why he discontinued the practice of heightening his drawings with color. It is possible that this development stemmed from reasons of economy, or on principle, for as Matisse had done by this time as well, Modigliani may have decided to pursue painting (color) and drawing (line) as two related but independent forms, each with its own pictorial imperatives, especially after he resumed oil painting in 1915 and sought desperately to establish himself as a painter.
As a result of these circumstances, Le Ménage, the watercolor offered here, is a rare kind of Modigliani indeed. It appears to be related as a preliminary study to a painting of 1915-1916, Les Mariés (Ceroni, no. 55; fig 1), a work that has long been highly regarded as one of the artist's most successful forays into cubist-influenced form. The female sitter in Le Ménage is instantly recognizable in the oil painting; her husband, however, a stout and stately gent in the watercolor, appears to have undergone a slimming process while being made-over into Modigliani's quasi-cubist facial stylization for the oil painting. The identity of this married couple is unclear, but another drawing offers a clue: La Famille, ascribed to 1916 (Patani, no. 211). This drawing was formerly in the collection of Richard Rodgers, the American composer, who donated it to The Museum of Modern Art, New York, which also owns the painting Les Mariés. This second drawing contains the addition of the couple's young daughter, and as Modigliani was wont to do at this time, he inscribed the sheet with his sitters' name,"Ferdinan" (possibly "Ferdinand"). Who they may be, apart from taking the role of a rare sympathetic patron at this difficult stage in the artist's career, remains a mystery.
The application of watercolor in Le Ménage is selective, and confined mostly to the figure of the seated woman, which lends her a solid Cézannesque presence. Modigliani admired Cézanne above all other artists--he always carried in his pocket a reproduction of the master's Boy in a Red Waistcoat which he pulled out whenever he and his comrades got into an argument about painting. The overlay of watercolor does not obscure, but rather enhances the essential, most consistent and unifying stylistic element in Modigliani's art: his classical and Italianate concern for linear clarity, the rightness and precision of the defining contour, which he learned, practiced and perfected in his drawing. Modigliani drew incessantly, but to a more decisive extent than most artists, he translated the qualities that define his draughtsmanship directly into the pictorial syntax of his paintings. Franco Russoli has written:
"Even in the quick sketches from life or the first studies for a painting, his aim is the synthesis of effective characterization and compositional invention... [His] line is rapid, loose and open, but while it fixes the image with infallible acuteness and even affectionate irony, the basic elements of the individual characterization already indicate the unfolding of rhythms, planes and volumes... The influence of Cézanne was not exerted directly on Modigliani's style, but by revealing the importance of formal classical moderation it helped the Italian artist to find the synthetic and functional power of line. From then on Modigliani's every symbolist tendency...such as his inveterate propensity toward exaggerated facial definition and sentimentality, is expressed in a simple and limpid idiom of severe graphic purity" (in Modigliani Drawings and Sketches, New York, 1969, pp. XI and XXI).
(fig. 1) Amedeo Modigliani, Les Mariés, 1915. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.