Modigliani’s Secrets

Modigliani. Art critics say he was a great painter of female nudes. But why? Read on to understand why. I will take you on a tour around just one of his nudes. Critics say they are all sensual and expressive. But why are they so expressive? What was the method, the tricks?

This lady was painted around 1916, and exhibited in Paris a year later. The exhibition lasted a few hours, and was shut down by the police from a station across the street; the reason was indecency. It was pornographic to show pubic hair at the time.

Female Nude, Modigliani – c.1916 –  The Courtault Gallery – London

In fact, you don’t see this painting the way it is presented on the Gallery’s web-site. You don’t see the dabs. It looks much smoother:

Colours: It is good to remember that Modigliani was fascinated by Renaissance art. The background greenish blue and red can be seen in many Italian paintings showing Madonna. Especially in the ones that were not “cleaned” in the late 19th century, when Amedeo was a teenager roaming the churches and galleries of Liguria and Tuscany.

Shapes: The pose of the model resembles that of some mannerist paintings by Parmigiano. There’s the most famous, Madonna of the Long Neck in Florence that might have inspired Modigliani to arrange the model in this way (not to mention that his manner of showing elongated forms has a lot to do not only with the fashion for African art, but first of all with his passion for Renaissance).

Madonna of the long neck by Parmigiano, 1535
You can read more about it in the friendly blog of History of Art

The artist’s provocation: Modigliani undresses the madonna, taking off her garments and presents us with her young and tender body. It is, in fact, not the pubic hair that’s indecent in this painting. It is the blasphemy of the artist who links the Virgin to an alive body capable of provoking not just spiritual adoration but sexual arousal. 

The model is not trying to cover her breasts, but she doesn’t look wanton. Somehow. She does not look even accessible!

The conflict. As I often say, no conflict – no drama – no interest. Where is the conflict in this painting?

Look at the way the face is painted. Same colours as the background, and very different from the body. The face stays “dressed” in the Virgin’s blues and reds, it is just the body that is revealed. Obviously, the red on her cheek turned to us can’t come as a reflection from the red behind her back. The pun was intended, not “copied” from nature.

That’s the main conflict in this painting. The modesty of the face and the eroticism of the body.

The details.

Modigliani looks “flat” to many people. Well, he is far from being flat. He spent a hell of a lot of time doing this painting. You can see it from the X-ray image the gallery did of this painting:

All those brushstrokes, layer upon layer. What did he try to achieve?

You may notice that the size of brushstrokes that make up the face is different from those that shape the body. This is another sign where the conflict was intended.

Modigliani wanted to be a sculptor and tried to become one when he had a chance. His brushstrokes sculpt the body as if he were working with a chisel.

His – as often an art critic would say – “bold” lines show the boundaries of the sculpted form. Inside the line you find a sculpture, outside is a simple painting:

Look at the way he sculpts the legs. A very subtle change of colour bends her legs in a way that the body stays smooth and the skin not wrinkled at all – showcasing the beauty of a young body.

And also look at the white spot on which she sits. It is made with very loose, impasto brushstrokes that leave no doubt about what it is: a part of the painting area.

When you get to London, go to the Courtauld Gallery and enjoy this painting for yourself. And, to leave you some space for your own exploration, think about why Modigliani used white accents in his painting. Find them and try to figure out his logic!

PS Apologies for using pics done with a mobile phone: the colours are often wrong.

PPS. And one more thing. If this article made you look at Modigliani in a new way, if, having read it, you really felt his genius – drop me a comment, let me know whether it worked or not!  


  1. What terrific insights, bravo. I am writing a paper on Modigliani and the impact of his tuberculosis on his art and life. Your observations and study of his nudes are enlightening! Are you writing any more on the subject?

    1. Thank you – if you click on Modigliani’s tag just above your comment you’d get more articles on him. I believe I can see them suggested as “Related” too, that’s above.

  2. An informed and insightful analysis of Modigliani’s painting, just the bit about the artist’s provocation is is not convincing for me.There is provocation, but the link with Madonna of the Long Neck is somewhat far fetched – a lot went on between Modigliani and Parmigiano’s time. Had they been contemporaries, or a generation apart, the ‘scandal’ would have been more likely. A delightful read, all the same.

    1. Wonderful comment, thank you!

      I am just readying up a post on two more nudes by Modigliani – there will be further proof that he used references to paintings of his predecessors quite a lot ) Sometimes he would quote the artist directly, and sometimes only a part of the painting in question. Parmigiano influence is documented in Marevna’s memoirs (a Russian lady who was one of the Hive painters and a lover to some of the most notable Paris School guys). I think I’d have the post ready by Saturday – would love to know what you’ll think of it!

      Thank you again – that’s a great value and help to me!

  3. The skin of this woman actually looks like it would bleed if we cut the canvas. Its alive, breathing, monsterously delicate and sensual. I could understand why Mo spent so much time trying to duplicate the flesh as such..almost as if he wanted to capture a woman to love forevermore… to have her in his possession since lovers are difficult to make ones own for too long. Great read.

    1. I like the bleeding canvas image ) Hopefully, none of the modern artists seeking instanteneous fame will try it out for real. Thank you! )

  4. Hi. I’ve spotted white areas on the inside of the two elbows, above the pubic bone, above the nipples, around the belly button and on the front of the throat. These are all intimate areas which are projected forward to the viewer by the white and contrast to the averted gaze of the woman. There is also some white highlighting the womanly curves. I love the hair!

    1. What an attentive eye you have! You are right. He marked “intimate” areas or areas and curves he saw as sensual and erotic. I am saying he did it on purpose because – were he just copying the sunblicks – he’d never get light areas there, quite on the opposite, those areas would be shadowed. So, he specifically drew our eye there. PS The lines you see in the hair were done with the back tip of the brush )

  5. What a wonderful painting, I really liked it. And liked how her face (head tilt) made me look at her breast and then follow the lines of her body. this usually happens with men, isn’t it?) btw the white spots on and around the body can also provoke this travelling, at that bringing some innocence into it..

    1. If a woman is caught into the eroticism of it, you can imagine was a man must feel standing in front of it. If he’s not blind, of course.

      The white spots are not seen properly on a photograph. They are scattered through those places where they can’t appear at all. And, yes, you are right about travelling, though I am not sure about innocence )))

    1. Thank you! Living in Central London makes it easier for you to walk up to the Sommerset House and enjoy this painting, perhaps, in a slightly new light. I suppose, with me becoming a part-time Fitzrovian in a month, we are going to be neighbours )

        1. No, but I’ve been to his exhibitions in Paris and Moscow. I think it must have been the same ones, just travelling. I remember queueing up to the exhibition titled “Evenings with Modigliani” and two people talking behind me:
          – Is he dead or alive?
          – I guess he’s very much alive. How could they have evenings with him, were he dead?

It would be grand to hear from you now!

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