Depicting the satirical draughtsman and writer André Rouveyre, the present painting is part of an important group of several dozen portraits by Modigliani that record the artists, poets, dealers, and collectors who frequented bohemian Montparnasse during the war years (fig. 1). Taken together, these works constitute a veritable visual history of Left Bank culture in the second decade of the twentieth century. Werner Schmalenbach has written, "In his portraits, without ever setting out to be so, Modigliani was a chronicler of the vie bohème of Montparnasse, the district where in his time the artistic life of the French capital was being transformed. He painted so many people from this world that one is almost impelled to ask whom he did not paint. Modigliani was part of this bohème in a highly personal and indeed an exemplary way. In the eyes of his contemporaries, he was--as he has remained--its epitome" (Modigliani: The Melancholy Angel, exh. cat., Musée du Luxembourg, Paris, 2002, p. 33). Coinciding with Modigliani's return to painting after concentrating almost exclusively on sculpture for several years, the portraits of 1915-1916 also occupy a preeminent place in the artist's stylistic development. Schmalenbach has declared, "These are the works with which Modigliani has earned his place in the history of art" (ibid.).
When Modigliani moved to Montparnasse from neighboring Montmartre in late 1908 or early 1909, the neighborhood had already earned a reputation as the center of avant-garde artistic life in Paris. Lively, cosmopolitan, and sophisticated, Montparnasse was home to hundreds of artists and writers from dozens of different countries (fig. 2). The Café de la Rotonde, situated on the Boulevard du Montparnasse, functioned as the principal gathering place for this group, which included Picasso, Juan Gris, Diego Rivera, Chaïm Soutine, Jacques Lipchitz, and Max Jacob, among many others. An article on the Rotonde from the June 3, 1917 issue of Le Cri de Paris described the atmosphere there: "It is a very welcoming establishment and a good place to sit down. It has been chosen as the headquarters by those men, the cubist painters. That is where they gather. That is where we can see their pope, Monsieur Picasso, surrounded by his cardinals, Messieurs Kisling, Modigliani, Ortiz de Zarate, etc. That is where their prophets Messieurs Guillaume Apollinaire and André Salmon establish their attack plans against the bourgeois spirit and debate between them the most abstruse questions of pyramidal, spherical, cylindrical, and conical aesthetics" (quoted in Modigliani and the Artists of Montparnasse, exh. cat., Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, 2002, p. 21).
The highly charged environment of Montparnasse, with its broad range of cultural stimuli, was essential for the development of Modigliani's art. Born into a Sephardic Jewish family in the thriving Italian port of Livorno, a thoroughfare for traders from all around the Mediterranean, Modigliani had a cosmopolitan background that made him especially open to the rich inspiration of Montparnasse. His mature style, which crystallized in 1915-1916, incorporates a vast array of artistic influences, from the Renaissance painting of his native Italy to the African and Egyptian art on display in the celebrated Montparnasse shop of the dealer Joseph Brummer. Kenneth Wayne has written, "The internationalism of the Montparnasse artist's community is its single most defining characteristic and a key point to consider when evaluating the art that developed there in the early twentieth century... Of the many distinguished artists who worked in Montparnasse, Modigliani had perhaps the widest range of discernible sources, making him the ultimate Montparnasse sophisticate and the quintessential figure of this extraordinary time and place" (ibid., pp. 16-17). Using this signature hybrid of Western and non-Western styles, Modigliani painted the cultural melting pot of Montparnasse, creating what Emily Braun has called "a portrait of otherness within modern Europe" (Modigliani: Beyond the Myth, exh. cat., The Jewish Museum, New York, 2004, pp. 25-26).
André Rouveyre (1879-1962), the subject of the present portrait, was well-known in Modigliani's circle as a fierce parodist of upper-crust social manners, in both satirical writings and witty caricatures. Modigliani was not the only member of the avant-garde to memorialize Rouveyre: Marquet painted a full-length portrait of him as a rakish bohemian in 1904 (Musée national d'art Moderne, Paris), and Matisse made a charcoal drawing of him wearing a monocle in 1912 (fig. 3), as well as six lithographic portraits for Rouveyre's novel Repli, published in 1947. Rouveyre owes his fame today in large part to an extraordinary group of some twelve hundred letters that he and Matisse exchanged between 1941 and 1954, which provide unprecedented insight into Matisse's creative process and artistic aims at this time. Rouveyre and Matisse also collaborated throughout the 1940s on a book about the late poet Guillaume Apollinaire, another key participant in la vie bohème of Montparnasse during Modigliani's day.
A noteworthy feature of Modigliani's portrait of Rouveyre is its delicate balance between generic qualities and signs of individuality. Modigliani captures the sitter's angular jaw, sharp nose, dark brows, and high forehead, all physiognomic features that appear in Matisse's portrait of Rouveyre as well. He gazes straight ahead, his eyes close-set and narrow, his lips pursed, as though sizing up the viewer for one of his incisive (even cruel) caricatures. Modigliani himself stressed the importance of the specific individual, telling the Cubist painter Léopold Survage, "To do any work, I must have a living person. I must be able to see him opposite me" (quoted in Modigliani and His Models, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2006, p. 31). Yet Modigliani has subjected Rouveyre's facial features to a series of pronounced formal stylizations, translating them into his distinctive pictorial idiom. His eyes are blank and slightly asymmetrical; the high, dark collar that he wears accentuates the sculptural, linear contours of his face, recalling Modigliani's lengthy experience as a stone-carver. The vertical element behind his head (most likely part of a window, mantle, or stretcher) even suggests an unsettling parallel with one of Modigliani's sculpted caryatids. Tamar Garb has written, "Modigliani's portrait practice internalized the iconoclasm of Cubism and the liberatory power of primitivism at the same time that it affirmed its commitment to the conventional function of the portrait: the adumbration and celebration of the named individual" (op. cit., exh. cat., p. 44).
The tension between the generic and the specific, the mask and the face, that characterizes Modigliani's portraiture was noted even during his lifetime. The poet Jean Cocteau, whose portrait Modigliani painted in 1916 (Ceroni, no. 106), wrote, "It was not Modigliani who distorted and lengthened the face, who established its asymmetry, knocked out one of the eyes, elongated the neck. All of this happened in his heart. And this is how he drew us at the tables in the Café de la Rotonde; this is how he saw us, loved us, felt us, disagreed or fought with us. His drawing was a silent conversation, a dialogue between his lines and ours. We were all subordinated to his style, to a type that he carried within himself, and he automatically looked for faces that resembled the configuration that he required, both from man and woman. Resemblance is actually nothing more than a pretext that allows the painter to confirm the picture that is in his mind. And by that one does not mean an actual, physical picture, but the mystery of one's own genius" (quoted in D. Krystof, Amedeo Modigliani, 1884-1920: The Poetry of Seeing, Cologne, 2000, p. 54).
The first owner of the present painting was Paul Guillaume, a tireless promoter of African and Oceanic art in Paris, as well as one of the most prominent dealers in modern art during the First World War. Guillaume met Modigliani through Max Jacob in 1915 and served as his agent until the artist decamped to Leopold Zborowski the following year. Supremely suave and confident, with a great talent for public relations, Guillaume was critical in promoting Modigliani's reputation. Modigliani, in turn, painted four portraits of the pioneering dealer, whose gallery at 108 Faubourg Saint-Honoré was a major center of artistic and literary life in Paris during his day (Ceroni, nos. 55, 56, 58, and 62; fig. 4).
(fig. 1) Modigliani in his studio in Montparnasse, 1915-1916. Photograph by Paul Guillaume. Archives Jean Bouret, Paris.
(fig. 2) Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait du sculpteur Oscar Miestchaninoff, 1916. Sold, Christie's, New York, 6 November 2007, lot 47.
(fig. 3) Henri Matisse, André Rouveyre, 1912. Musée national d'art Moderne, Paris.
(fig. 4) Amedeo Modigliani, Paul Guillaume assis, 1916. Civico Museo d'Arte Contemporanea, Milan.