Jean Cocteau, 1916

Amedeo Modigliani, Italian, 1884–1920

Jean Cocteau, 1916

Oil on canvas
The Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation, on long-term loan to the Princeton University Art Museum
photo: Bruce M. White

Modigliani’s portrait of Jean Cocteau seems to have been painted as part of a friendly competition between Modigliani and the Polish-born painter Moïse Kisling. Picasso had taken his friend Cocteau to Kisling’s studio to introduce him to the group of artists and poets who gathered there. While the details are not clear, in the end both Modigliani and Kisling painted a portrait of the young poet. Various friends were in attendance as the artists set to work. It would appear that the perpetually hard-up Modigliani needed assistance in getting started. He must have taken a canvas from Kisling, as an x-radiograph reveals that underneath Modigliani’s portrait is a self-portrait of Kisling with his wife Renée and their dog.

Curator Betsy Rosasco:

In 1950, long after the portrait Cocteau paid for but left behind had become famous and was sold for what was then a large sum, Cocteau wrote in his monograph on Modigliani, “[he] does not elongate faces, does not accent their asymmetry, does not put out an eye, does not lengthen a neck. It is all organized.” This was perhaps Cocteau’s act of ironic revenge to point out the stylistic traits Modigliani brought into play in his portrait, which Cocteau illustrated in the monograph along with a selection of beautiful but somewhat bland Modigliani portraits, the sort of work he had expected his own portrait to be. It is also ironic, however, that Modigliani’s portrait of Cocteau, so merciless in its psychological penetration of the sitter’s elegant self-satisfaction and vanity, became the painter’s masterpiece. The poet Pierre Reverdy, who was present at the sitting, remembered fifty years later that Modigliani was the only portraitist at the time with “a vocation, serious and talented,” but he did not flatter Reverdy, whose portrait he also painted, or anyone.

X-radiograph of <em>Jean Cocteau</em>, turned 90 degrees, showing that the portrait was painted over another portrait, probably by Moïse Kisling

Moise Kisling, French, born Poland, 1891–1953. <me>Jean Cocteau</em>, 1916. Oil on canvas, 73 x 60 cm. Petit Palais, Musee d'Art Moderne, Geneva, Switzerland / © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris / Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY