Modigliani, When the Face Becomes an Event

La Gazette Drouot
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Painted by a Modigliani at the peak of his career, La Bourguignonne is returning to the market, which is already shaping up to be an event. Let’s return to the history behind this painting from 1918

Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), La Bourguignonne, 1918, oil on canvas, signed upper right, 55 x 38 cm/21.6 x 14.9 in.
Estimate on request
Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), La Bourguignonne, 1918, oil on canvas, signed upper right, 55 x 38 cm/21.6 x 14.9 in. Estimate on request

Regularly loaned for retrospectives dedicated to Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), La Bourguignonne is a well-referenced work. Also known under its first title of the Jeune fille joufflue or Servante bourguignonne (Burgundian Maid), it depicts an anonymous model whose job, physical characteristic and geographical and social origin are the only characteristics that are recorded. In 1918 when Modigliani, in poor health, was sent with his family to the South of France, he diversified his models. Indeed, if his friend Chaim Soutine, also represented by the art dealer Léopold Zborowski, initially accompanied him to Cagnes-sur-Mer, Modigliani found himself isolated from the circle of artists and authors he had previously portrayed through friendship and proximity. The portraits of 1918 depict anonymous people, maids, a peasant, an apprentice, or even, a Zouave, with medals bulging on his chest, on furlough. Behind the Western Front, far from the fighting and bombing that reached Paris, Modigliani did not forget that he was one of the marginalized in more ways than one. Both a Jewish-Italian emigrant and a poor artist, he paints­—especially during the war—everything that French bourgeois society rejects.

A painter of portraits and bodies, in 1917 Modigliani was marked by a scandal when he exposed his nudes at the B. Weill Gallery. During this monographic exhibition he sold —the only one during his lifetime—only two drawings, which was more than enough to feed his legend of the cursed artist. His daughter, Jeanne, returned to this episode in Modigliani, l’homme et le mythe, and never ceased to try to deconstruct these preconceived ideas. If he sold little and lived in precarious conditions, he was nevertheless not completely alone and was supported by several dealers and collectors. Paul Guillaume, whom he met in 1914, was the first to have confidence in him and to consider his work. While Modigliani’s health condition made sculpture more and more difficult, Guillaume encouraged him to paint more. Guillaume kept an interest in Modigliani’s work and continued to visit his studio, even when he let the young Leopold Zborowski take over in 1916-1917. A bit of a poet, the latter also became a friend of the artist, with whom he signed a contract paying him 100 and then 500 francs a month, determined to make Modigliani famous. As for collectors, Modigliani could count, if not on friends, then on loyal relationships with Jonas Netter, who held the largest number of his paintings during his lifetime, and Roger Dutilleul, who acquired La Bourguignonne as soon as it left the studio.

Roger Dutilleul, Modigliani’s Faithful Friend
The importance of collectors like Roger Dutilleul is no longer in question from the point of view of modern art. The man who modestly admitted that he began to take an interest in young artists—and in particular the Fauves—because Cézanne had become too expensive, was never content to buy copyists or followers. With limited means but with constancy, he supported, for example, the Cubist experiments of the Braque-Picasso group. He discovered Modigliani in 1917 at Paul Guillaume’s, but bought his first painting from the framer Constantin Lepoutre—a Tête de jeune fille (Head of a Young Girl) for 150 francs. The collector’s meticulousness led him to detail most of his purchases: La Bourguignonne was purchased for 250 francs at the time (about €500 today). Seeking to buy more works by this painter who synthesized his tastes so well, Zborowski suggested he have portrait done, which allowed Dutilleul to understand, from behind the scenes, how the artist worked.

Dutilleul recounts the sessions and posing times, the way Modigliani talks to the model to get him to relax and achieve the painting, the color, through a constant process of drawing. The spectrographic analysis of La Bourguignonne reveals another face under the pictorial layer: that of Jeanne Hébuterne, an artist he met in 1916 and who quickly became his lover. In 1918, far from Paris and while she was expecting their first child, she was also his principal model. As demonstrated by the colloquium and exhibition at the LAM in Villeneuve-d’Ascq on “The Secrets of Modigliani” in 2021, this practice of overpainting can be found in other works and can be explained in particular by the cost of materials, but the practice remained limited: working relatively quickly on his canvas, the artist had, by virtue of his drawings, a sure hand when he began a painting. We will probably never know why the first painting disappointed Modigliani, but we can see the same double chin that he had given to Jeanne Hébuterne, which some critics believed to be a sign of the tensions at work in the couple. The canvas is clearly representative of the painter’s mature style: we find his famous eyes, turned inward, whose introspective dimension he explained to Leopold Survage, the lesson of the line retained since the series of “Caryatids” and his singular chromatic range.

A Small and Large Version
The subject portrayed here seems so important to the artist that he produced it in two versions. In addition to the canvas sold to Roger Dutilleul in 1918, we now know about the other painting, in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, which is larger (92 x 54 cm/36.2 x 21.2 in) as opposed to (55 x 38 cm/21.6 x 14.9 in) and shows the model seated on the back of a chair, hands clasped. The background is treated with more energetic hatching to accentuate the relief and leaves one wondering about the relationship between the two paintings. Were they started at the same time? Was the smaller one a form of preparation for the larger one, although it has its own specific details? Marc Restellini, who pointed out this coincidence in the catalog of “L’ange au visage grave” (Musée du Luxembourg, 2002-2003), does not elaborate. All we know is that La Bourguignonne of 1919 was owned by Gaston Bernheim and Bernheim-Jeune, while that of 1918 has always remained in the hands of Dutilleul and his heirs. Both played their part in the posthumous recognition of Modigliani, with prestigious loans: in 1932 at the Venice Biennale and, strategically, as early as 1920 with the first retrospective organized by the Montaigne Gallery, after the artist’s death. A generous promoter of modern art, Dutilleul directly or indirectly made many people aware of Modigliani’s work, starting with his own nephew Jean Masurel, who donated part of the collection to the city of Lille—which is on view at the LAM. If the work now on sale has been shown to the public on several occasions, and naturally has its place in the catalogs raisonnés of Lanthemann (no. 228, described on p.123 and reproduced on p.221) or Parisot (no. 61/1918, reproduced on p. 401 and described on p.499), it was nevertheless a favorite of the collector, who, from one hanging to the next in his home, found a good place for it in the dining room, as seen in the 1950s photos by Willy Maywald and Gisèle de la Bégassière. A place next to a portrait by Nicolas de Largillière (1656-1746), which in a way confirms and sanctifies the Italian’s artwork in this context. Although La Bourguignonne is now looking for a new home, there is no doubt that Modigliani’s position is well-established.


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