Amedeo Modigliani’s Window into the Soul
The way eyes are depicted in the Italian painter’s oeuvre reveal his level of intimacy with the subject, and his own deep emotional intelligence
Born and bred in Livorno, Italy, Amedeo Modigliani’s artistic oeuvre stands out for his controversial elongated and asymmetrical portraits, imbued with modernity. Best known as a painter, he was a sculptor too, and his artistic development was tragically cut short by his early death at the age of thirty-five, following which his wife committed suicide. His artistic achievement, however, has attained permanent prominence, and is widely researched and studied. During his lifetime, Modigliani was a fool for poetry, often caught by his beloved reciting Dante by heart, and his artworks draw many elements from poetry, inspired by the credo: When I know your soul, I will paint your eyes. Accordingly, Modigliani had a unique way of painting his sitters’ eyes.
It’s said that the eyes are the mirror to one’s soul, and, even scientifically speaking, the key to understanding if someone is well or not. When we meet someone new, we feel an inextricably inner desire and need to understand who this person is, and usually the very first thing we do is to look at their eyes, losing sight in their beaming gaze. The eyes can also reveal complex truths, such as if one is lying or telling the truth, although there needs to be a certain level of acquaintance and empathy between individuals to accurately recognize their message. Modigliani would rarely paint the details of his subjects’ eyes, except when he had a close, nurturing relationship with them — enabling a basis for emotional intelligence.
While he would outline the eyes, he’d rarely paint the pupils, except on very few occasions. This stylistic choice stemmed from many relentless trials and much experimentation throughout his life. Scholars repeatedly tried to find a pattern in Modigliani’s way of depicting the eyes, resulting in many different observations. Rarely are both eyes painted with detailed pupils, and the only common denominator of paintings in which they are, is that of intimacy. Sometimes both eyes are empty and devoid of pupils, other times only one eye contains a pupil, here and there both eyes are empty, and occasionally they are painted in a monochrome hue — they can appear coal-black, recall the color of a night sky, be characterized by a blueish green or a greenish blue. They oftentimes are of the same color as some other element of the portrait, like the sitter’s background, as if to say that the artist could not see through the other person: he could not grasp their personality and see their soul, seeing only that which is behind them. The relationship between painter and subject becomes the prevailing theme in Modigliani’s oeuvre, hence in cases where he didn’t paint the eyes we can ascertain a clear disconnection.
Of course there are other factors that influenced the depictions, such as different painting techniques, the degree of intimacy with the sitter, the type of model, and the emotional state Modigliani himself was in, which all assisted in establishing or distancing a close connection. According to some other research, he changed the way he approached the eyes over time. Most of his works made prior to 1906 displayed traces of classicism with normally drawn features. Only after he moved to Paris in 1906, this started to shift from an ordinary representation, and black and blurred eyes gradually appeared. After 1908, black, and hence vacant, eyes increasingly dominate his portraits.
It was after meeting his wife Jeanne that Modigliani began to display a new tendency: elongating some features, such as the neck or body. And when painting her, he painted her eyes. In Jeanne Hébuterne with Hat and Necklace, 1917, she wears a sumptuous necklace, her gaze is intense and magnetic, attracting the viewer’s attention and drawing them in. The eyes’ light blue is strikingly emphasizing and stands in stark contrast to the darker background. She appears as the emblem of the modern woman — eloquent, elegant, and well-mannered. Jeanne became the subject of many of Modigliani’s portraits, but never of his nudes, ennobling her figure.
At the same time he seemed to develop that same empathy toward friends or sitters from a poor or different background. In Gypsy Woman with a Baby, 1919, he blurred the woman’s eyes, but he did draw her pupils. Her enigmatic, hazy eyes capture the true essence of the painter’s style. She is dignified by being portrayed this way. She looks at ease and relaxed. Modigliani was likely drawn to minorities, those who were marginalized by society, the humble. Those were the only people of which he could perceive the soul, who were free from societal dogmas.
Given that emotional intelligence is rooted in the degree of empathy between two individuals, Modigliani curiously applied the same principle in conceiving his paintings, as a forerunner of the scientific understanding, or through an intuitive depth in understanding others, by way of emotions. He was a master in human relationships, gently honoring people in his paintings. There is a wisdom in his art. When I know your soul, I will paint your eyes, denotes equality and respect — I will not judge you, unless I truly know who you are, unless I truly know your pure soul.