Unique among Amedeo Modigliani portraits for its exuberant, decorative background in combination with a floral-patterned dress, this work was painted by the artist in 1918 in Nice, probably during the summer months. At the urging of his dealer, Léopold Zborowski, Modigliani left Paris that April to seek refuge in the South of France: the impoverished artist was in ill health, his companion, Jeanne Hébuterne, was pregnant, and German howitzers had bombarded Paris. With little money for paid models and no commissioned portraits forthcoming, Modigliani made portraits of children, local townspeople, and a close circle of friends, who had also migrated south. Despite the setbacks, his period on the Riviera (he moved between Haut-de-Cagnes and Nice) proved to be one of the most productive of his career.
The sitter of this portrait was Renée Modot, recently married to the actor Gaston Modot, whose image Modigliani painted at the same time. Modot had known Modigliani since his earliest years in Montmartre and was an artist himself (as the beret he wears in his portrait wryly acknowledges), though by this time he had gained renown as a cinema star and daredevil. Both the Gaumont and Pathée film companies had studios in Nice.2 Madame Modot recalled that Modigliani, her husband and Hébuterne set up a makeshift studio in their house, where she posed during the afternoons. Though Modigliani apparently also made other images of her, none of these has yet been identified.3 Renée Modot was often told that she “looked like a woman from a Gauguin painting,” a resemblance that may have been one inspiration for Modigliani’s unusual emphasis on the decorative in this portrait.4
He typically placed his sitters against abstracted planes, for the most part mono- or bi-chromatic, articulated by the lines of door frames, mantle pieces, or wall panelling. Here, both the use of a flat, patterned backdrop and the floral motifs on the dress recall Gauguin’s portraiture; the dominance of brilliant chrome (or cadmium) yellow, while unusual for Modigliani, was one of Gauguin’s most characteristic colour choices. Gauguin, in turn, influenced Henri Matisse, to whom this portrait is most directly indebted. Modigliani depicted Modot in front of a tapestry with a bold arabesque design, the curves of her coiffure embedded amidst the flourishes and scrolls, in a virtual homage to Matisse’s Greta Moll (1908, London, The National Gallery) and its bluish-black and white backdrop.5 The poses of the models’ proper right arms are nearly identical. The sloe-eyed, dark-haired female type also resembles Matisse’s series of portraits of Laurette, the Italian model whom he painted obsessively in 1916-17.
The Modot portrait is singular in Modigliani’s oeuvre for the placing of the pupils to the right edges of the eyes, as if in a sideways glance, though she still meets the viewer’s gaze. Matisse had also settled in Nice by 1919, with periodic returns to Paris, but there is no evidence that the two artists were in contact with each other there during the war. Once he finished his canvases, Modigliani handed them over to Zborowski, who took the stock to sell in Paris; the names of many sitters, if not famous, were replaced by descriptive titles, their identities subsequently lost over the decades, as was the case with Renée Modot. It bore the title Jeune Fille à la robe jaune (Young Girl in a Yellow Dress) in Arthur Pfannstiel’s 1929 monograph on the artist and Ritratto di Donna (Portrait of a Woman) when first publicly exhibited at the 1930 XVII Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte di Venezia in the Modigliani retrospective, curated by Lionello Venturi (fig. 3).6 Only after World War II did the painting appear with the erroneous title or subtitle La belle Espagnole (The Beautiful Spanish Woman), undoubtedly due to the dark eyes and hair of the sitter, in combination with the “Moorish” arabesques of the tapestry, rendered by the artist in glistening, animated black strokes.7
1 Photo Library of the Biennale, Venice, 1930, photo, no. 306.
2 S. Fraquelli, “Modigliani and the Impact of the Midi”, in London 2017, pp. 151-152, the Modot portraits were painted in Nice. Modigliani came to visit them and their friend Blaise Cendrars, who was working there on Abel Gance’s film J’Accuse (1919).
3 Robinson J. 1974, p. 14. Interviewed in this article, Renée Modot recounted: “I’m not sure how many I posed for because it was such a long time ago, but I think it was a half dozen. It was during the summer of 1919 [sic]. We were in Nice and so was Modi and he came over to our house every afternoon to work. Gaston, Modi and his wife Jeanne Hébuterne painted and sketched while I posed.”
4 Modot quoted in Robinson J. 1974.
5 Matisse exhibited the portrait in the Salon d’Automne of 1908 and it was one of his six paintings illustrated in his widely read “Notes of a Painter,” published that same year; Klein 2001, p. 157.
6 Pfannstiel 1929, p. 47 as Jeune fille a la robe jaune; Venice 1930, p. 120, no. 29, Ritratto di Donna (Coll. Signora Monteux [sic], Paris). The verso of the canvas has two partially extant inventory labels from the exhibition, including one with the title “Portrait de Femme”. A different, handwritten label, date unknown, on the verso reads “La belle espagnole”.
7 The title La belle espagnole first appears in Di San Lazzaro 1947, pl. XIV; and subsequently in Scheiwiller 1950, pl. 37, La bella spagnola.