Please note this work has been requested for the exhibition Modigliani et le Primitivisme to be held at the Tokyo National Gallery and the Osaka National Art Museum from March to September 2007.
In his time and among his friends Modigliani was known primarily as a portraitist. He painted fewer than three dozen nudes, only a small portion of his short life's work, and nearly all of these were done in the years 1916-1918. Nevertheless, as Werner Schmalenbach has noted, "the name of Modigliani is almost synonymous with nudes. No other painter, in our century or any other, has painted the human female body as he did" (in Modigliani, Munich, 1990, p. 47). Indeed, while many 20th century artists painted the nude, none created images of the undressed female form that are as iconic, well-known and as universally loved as those of Modigliani. Picasso is famous for his deformations of a woman's body, often violent but occasionally tender by turns, and Matisse is justly celebrated for having elevated the feminine form to a transcendent, nearly abstract ideal. Modigliani alone, however, combined and made a virtue of all these qualities. His nudes are sensual and earthy, while the lines of their beauty are idealized and pure. Nonetheless, from the very first time Modigliani showed his nudes, they became notorious for their eroticism, and while time has taken the edge off their more overtly sexual blandishments, their allure continues to enrapture and seduce viewers. Young people, and lovers of all ages, cannot resist them.
Most of Modigliani's portraits are occasional works, the result of the temporal act of the subject sitting for the artist, who aimed for an apt expression of character through his own innovative and idiosyncratic mannerisms of form. In the nudes the artist was reaching for something more profound, a strong link to the art of the past, and, looking forward, a reputation that would be lasting and unassailable. As an Italian he felt compelled to measure his abilities against the masterworks of Botticelli, Gorgione, Titian and Tintoretto. Living in Paris in the early years of a new century, he sought to make his modernist art worthy of the achievement of his forebears in the previous era, most notably Ingres, Courbet, Manet and Renoir.
It cannot be ascertained if Modigliani titled the present painting Vénus--he might have called it by the name of the pretty, but anonymous young redhead who posed for it, or simply referred to it as a nu. If the title Vénus somehow attached itself to the picture, it probably occurred early on, and was inevitable, in light of its source. The goddess of love in antiquity here displays the coy yet enticing gesture of Venus pudica--"The bashful Venus"--with its overt signals of female sexuality and fertility. Modigliani recalled from his student days in Florence, wandering about the Uffizi, the Medici Venus, a Roman copy done in the 1st century BC after a classic Greek marble (fig. 1). The Florentine painter Masaccio used this pose in his Expulsion of Adam and Eve, 1422-1426, in which the shamed, sinful Eve attempts to cover her nakedness as she is driven from the Garden of Eden. Botticelli, another Florentine master, revived the gesture of the Medici Venus in its original antique, pagan and sensual context for his famous Birth of Venus (fig. 2), also in the Uffizi.
Apart from his stylized caryatides after antique sources, Modigliani painted only four nudes before 1916 (Ceroni, nos. 7-8 and 10-11). The impetus for the series of grand nudes of 1916-1917 came from a fortuitous encounter. Fernande Barrey, Foujita's wife, introduced Modigliani in June 1916 to Léopold Zborowski, a young Polish art lover who had been studying at the Sorbonne. The men became close friends. Zborowski wanted to make a career as an art dealer, and took Modigliani under his entrepreneurial wing. Although Zborowski and his wife Hanka were little better off than the perpetually impoverished painter, in November he made a contract with Modigliani. Zborowski would find and pay for models, cover the cost of paints and canvas, and provide a small room in a hotel for Modigliani to work in. Drink, unfortunately, was included in the deal, which further exacerbated the painter's alcoholism. Zborowski would also pay the artist 20 francs per day, all in exchange for the paintings he produced.
In 1916 Modigliani painted a seated nude and six reclining nudes (Ceroni, nos. 127, 131, 144-148). At the end of that year Zborowski and his wife moved to an apartment at 3, rue Joseph Bara, where they turned over one of their rooms to Modigliani for use as a studio. It was here that Modigliani painted Vénus, and the other great nudes, twenty in all, of 1917 (Ceroni, nos. 184-203). Zborowski, by the terms of his contract, expected Modigliani to paint nudes. He knew that would they would be more commercially viable than straight portraits, and would offer the painter a challenge that was truly worthy of his talent and skill. Zborowski, in effect, commissioned the series of twenty nudes that Modigliani painted during this time, in some cases for his own collection, or more importantly, for use in his plan to promote the artist. Of the twenty nudes, thirteen are reclining (fig. 3) and five are seated. In only two, including Vénus, is the model standing, in three-quarter length. Modigliani employed in them the same broad-hipped girl whose red hair no doubt reminded him of Botticelli's Venus. She appears nowhere else in the series.
Zborowski arranged an exhibition for Modigliani, his first solo show, at Berthe Weill's gallery, which ran in December 1917. Although the exhibition brochure mentions only four paintings titled Nu, several more paintings under other titles may have been nudes as well. Patani (op. cit.) cites seven nudes that he believes were in the show, out of the 32 paintings and drawings placed on view, a number that seems consistent with the importance Zborowski attached to this subject. He includes Vénus as one of these nudes. While his list is speculative, one should note that he also catalogues Mme Weill as being the first owner of Vénus, which she probably acquired in connection with the exhibition in her gallery.
Modigliani's first solo exhibition turned into one of the great scandals in the history of early modernism. In order to attract attention, Mme Weill placed one of the nudes in her gallery window. The local police commissionaire divisionaire had his office across the street; he noticed a crowd gathering and sent an officer to investigate. Livid at the exposure of pubic hair in the picture, the commissioner promptly ordered it removed, and all of the nudes inside the gallery taken down as well, threatening to confiscate the lot of them if Mme Weill did not comply. The commissioner might well have found the saucy Vénus to be especially indecent. Mme Weill had no choice, and took down the pictures. Now that the paintings that formed the core of the show were off view, the exhibition was condemned to end up a financial failure. Only two drawings were sold, and Mme Weill bought two paintings, Vénus as one of them, to partly compensate Zborowski for this setback.
The 1917 exhibition would actually become a succès d'estime for Modigliani--he now had the distinction of being the only artist in recent memory whose work had been banned by the police. Capitalizing on this notoriety, Zoborowski made some sales early in 1918 and might have further succeeded in his efforts to promote Modigliani, if the war had not suddenly re-intervened. The final German bombardment of Paris began in March, driving many people out of city. The Zborowskis, Modigliani and his new love Jeanne Hébuterne, who was pregnant, departed as well, in an entourage that included Soutine and Foujita. They went to Nice, where Zborowski hoped the climate would aid Modigliani's worsening health. The scandal of the Weill exhibition had taken its toll on the artist, who grew increasingly pessimistic about his chances for success. He painted only eight nudes during the remaining two years of his life--most of these are seated figures and partially robed, done in a manner, so it appears, that the artist hoped would not offend.
(fig. 1) The Medici Venus, Roman copy, 1st century BC, after a marble attributed to Cleomenes or Praxiteles of Athens. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. BARCODE 20627430
(fig. 2) Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (detail), circa 1485. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. BARCODE 20627423
(fig. 3) Amedeo Modigliani, Nu couché, 1917. Sold, Christie's, New York, 4 November 2003, lot 29. BARCODE 20627416
Vénus (Nu debout, nu médicis)
Oil on canvas
Please note that the following work has been requested for the exhibition Modigliani et le Primitivisme to be held at the Tokyo National Gallery and the Osaka National Art Museum from March to September 2007.
PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE FRENCH COLLECTION
Signed 'Modigliani' (upper right)
Paris, Galerie Berthe Weill, Amedeo Modigliani, peintures et dessins, 1917.
Paris, Galerie Charpentier, 100 tableaux de Modigliani, 1958, no. 85 (illustrated).
New York, Perls Galleries, The Nudes of Modigliani, October-November 1966, no. 4 (illustrated in color).
IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART
39¼ x 25¼ in. (99.5 x 84.5 cm.)
R. Franchi, Modigliani, Florence, 1944, pl. XIV.
J. Cocteau, Modigliani, Paris, 1951, p. 5 (illustrated in color).
Y. Sonabel, Modigliani: Nudes, no. 18, pl. 6 (illustrated in color).
A. Werner, Amedeo Modigliani, Milan, 1967, no. 14.
N. Ponente, Modigliani, Florence, 1969, no. 62.
A. Ceroni, Modigliani, Milan, 1970, p. 97, no. 189 (illustrated).
J. Lanthemann, Modigliani: 1884-1920, Catalogue raisonné, Sa vie, son oeuvre, Milan, 1970, p. 118, no. 163 (illustrated, p. 203).
L. Piccioni and A. Ceroni, I dipinti di Modigliani, Milan, 1970, no. 189 (illustrated).
O. Patani, Amedeo Modigliani, Catalogo Generale, Milan, 1991, p. 203, no. 193 (illustrated in color).
J. Meyers, Modigliani: A Life, New York, 2006, pp. 189-190.
Collection Netter, Paris.
Perls Galleries, New York.
Galerie de l'Elysée (Alex Maguy), Paris.
By descent from the above to the present owner.