I have changed my intended blog for today. At the end of my last blog, I said that in the next one I would conclude Modigliani’s life story and look at some of the women in his life. However, after careful consideration, I decided that it would not be right to end Modigliani’s life story without looking at his favourite artistic genre, the painting of female nudes. In all between 1916 and 1919 he completed no fewer than twenty-six paintings of female nudes, some of whom are seated whilst others are seen lying back languorously.
We know that Amedeo’s love of painting females nude started back in Livorno where, at the age of fourteen, he attended the Villa Baiocchi workshop of the artist Guglielmo Micheli. Later in 1902, when his mother took him away from their home in Livorno to aid his failing health, they visited Florence and in May 1902, just before his eighteenth birthday, he enrolled at the Scuola Libera di Nudo of the city’s Accademia di Belle Arti which was the beginning of his serious study of life drawing and which cultivated his love of painting female nudes. In 1903 when he was in Venice he enrolled at the life drawing classes at the Accademia di Belle Arti and three years later, when he arrived in Paris at the end of 1906, he attended the Académie Colarossi where he attended life drawing classes. The Académie Colarossi was a private institution, founded at the end of the nineteenth century, which offered its students an alternative to the very formalised state Academies. It was very progressive and it is certain that Modigliani received some alternative approaches on how to depict the female nude. In the Académie Colarossi life-drawing classes the students were encouraged to decide themselves on how the model should pose. This was totally contrary to the strict rules and formalisation imposed by the likes of the state Académie des Beaux-Arts.
Without doubt, Modigliani’s most powerful compositions are his female nude paintings. There is something simplistic and yet graceful about them but such simplicity does not decrease the erotic and sensuous nature of the works. In many cases one feels that he has drawn upon earlier female nude paintings by other great artists for the resultant poses of his sitters. The Italian art critic Giovanni Scheiwiller, who wrote a biography of Modigliani, wrote of the artist’s nude paintings and the artist’s relationship with his sitters, saying:
“…[it was] a completely spiritual unity between the artist and the creature he has chosen as his model…”
This bond between Modigliani and his models of course led to many racy stories of his penchant for the fairer sex and his belief that to completely capture the inner beauty of his female sitter he must first make love to them! It is maybe this kind of legend that contributes to our desire to see his work.
Let us first look at Amedeo Modigliani’s oil on linen work entitled Nude on a Blue Cushion, which he completed in 1917. It is part of the Chester Dale Collection at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. The naked female lies back against a blue cushion and looks out at us with a challenging stare. There is no hint of her being shy or introverted. The look she gives us is one that almost suggests that she is tempting us with her body, which she is very proud of.
If one looks at the famous 1863 painting, Olympia, by Edouard Manet (see My Daily Art Display Oct 12th 2011) we see in the sitter’s posture the same brazen look as she awaits her next client.
In his 1917 work entitled Sleeping Nude with Arms Open (Red Nude) Modigliani has depicted the female laying back on a red blanket. Her right arm lies at the side of her head whilst her left hand is placed beneath her head. She is unashamedly offering her body to us.
This pose is very like Goya’s female nude painting entitled, La Maja Desnuda (My Daily Art Display Sept 9th 2012), which he painted around 1800. She too lies naked before us albeit her upper torso is propped up by cushions but she, like Modigliani’s female has her hands behind her head. Despite her very revealing pose, there is a certain vulnerability about Modigliani’s female in this work. Her eyes are closed and we have therefore no idea of what she is thinking. Our eyes are drawn to her red lips which are full and slightly pouted. In a way it is as if she is giving herself to us. She is offering us her ultimate gift – her body.
In another female nude painting which Modigliani completed in 1917 entitled Nude with a Coral Necklace and which is housed in the Allen Memorial College at Oberlin, Ohio, we can see a similarity between the pose of the Modigliani’s female sitter with the poses of the females in two of the greatest nude paintings of all times, Giorgione’s 1508 painting entitled, Sleeping Venus
and Titian’s 1558 work entitled, Venus of Urbino (My Daily Art Display Feb 15th 2011).
In all three cases the models left hand is placed between her thighs in an effort to retain a modicum of modesty. In the Modigliani’s work our eyes are drawn to her breasts because of his use of red to depict the areolas. Unlike the other nude works the face of the women in this painting shows a hardness which I believe counteracts any sensuality. Her facial expression differs from the other female nudes. Her almond shaped eyes and tight-lipped mouth warn us off. There is no hint of a “come-hither” look about this woman.
His nude painting Red-haired Young Woman in Chemise was completed by Modigliani in 1918 in some ways reminds one of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.
Although in this work she is seated, she, like Botticelli’s nude, inclines her head slightly to one side and her right hand lies across her body, over her heart and touches her breast. There is a definite sensuality about Modigliani’s painting in the way he has depicted the woman with her head at an angle. She clutches her white chemise in an attempt to cover herself but she has failed. The strap of the chemise has slid down her left shoulder. Her right breast is fully exposed whilst her right hand hides her left breast from our view. The way Modigliani has depicted her mouth with reddened lips, which are slightly parted, adds to the eroticism of this work. Her facial expression is one of inquisitiveness as if she is questioning our presence.
Of all his female nude paintings, my favourite is the one which hangs in the Courtaulds Gallery in London. It is simply entitled Female Nude and was completed by Modigliani in 1916. The female in this work is seated, which is unlike most of his other female nude works. Her head rests on her shoulder. Her eyes are closed. Her full lips touch the delicate skin of her chest. Her long black hair cascades down her back, but a few strands lie delicately across her right breast. The unknown female sitter holds a demure expression. Hers is an hour-glass figure. The shading and the skin tone Modigliani has used reveals a slight swelling of her stomach. She is a veritable beauty. Once again the figure has an elongated face, a trademark of Modigliani. Her cheeks are flushed with a rose-coloured tint. Is this a sign of her embarrassment at posing for Modigliani or is she just being coy? The painting was completed a year before he set about painting his large series of female nudes and was at a time when he was engaged in painting portraits of his friends and lovers.
Modigliani’s works command very high prices. The Modigliani Venus which he completed in 1917 when it last came up for sale had an estimated price of between $6 and $9 million but it sold for $14,200,000 and his work Nu assis au collier (Seated Nude with Necklace) had, in 1995, sold for $12.5 million.
However the highest price paid for a Modigliani nude came in November 2010 when his painting Nu assis sur un divan (La Belle Romaine), came up at Sotheby’s New York auction. Its estimated price was $40 million but with five bidders competing for the work its sale price reached $68.9 million, four times the price it realised when it was sold at Sotheby’s in 1999.
I came across an interesting graph (above) on the website (http://secretmodigliani.com/auctions.html) which showed how Modigliani’s paintings have consistently risen in value. Who says art is a bad investment?
I could not end this blog about Modigliani’s nude paintings without recounting the well known tale of Modigliani’s first and only, one-man show which his patron and friend, Leopold Zborovski had managed to cajole the art dealer Berthe Weill to hold at her Paris gallery, Galerie B. Weill. Weill had first opened her gallery in 1901 and in 1917 moved to a more spacious one at 50 rue Taitbout in Paris’ 9th arrondissement, close to the Paris Opera. Weill was dedicated to the cause of giving young up-and-coming artists, like Modigliani a chance to become recognised. Over almost forty years, until the gallery closed in 1939, works by all the modern greats such as Raoul Dufy, Kees van Dongen, André Derain, Georges Braque,Vlaminck, Diego Rivera and mother and son Suzanne Valadon and Maurice Utrillo had their works exhibited at her gallery.
Modigliani’s one man show was set for December 3rd 1917 and being exhibited at it were thirty drawings and paintings including a number of his female nude paintings, one of which was in the window of the gallery and attracted a lot of public attention. Unfortunately for Weill and Modigliani, across from the gallery was a police station and the police, to their horror, soon noticed the crowds gathering to look through the window of the gallery at the nude figures. The police commissioner ordered Weill to close the exhibition describing the paintings as being “filth”. So why this strange decision and this prudish statement? Female nudes had been painted for many years and life classes were part of the artistic syllabus at the formal Academies? However that was the nub of the matter as the Academies taught that the female nude should be depicted only in certain poses and Modigliani’s nudes did not conform to that dictate but even more horrifying to the police commissioner was that Modigliani had depicted his female nudes as having pubic hair…shocking!!!!! Modigliani had gone back to the pre-Academy days when strict rules regarding the posture of female nudes did not exist. Goodness knows what the police commissioner would have made of the works of Egon Schiele !!!!! Despite Weill’s argument that it was art, the commissioner of police would not change his mind and the exhibition closed before it began !
My final look at the life of Modigliani in my next blog will take in his final years and look at some of the women with whom he developed a close relationship.
……to be continued.