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Conserving arts for generations to come


6 min read

Conserving arts for generations to come

A closer look into Amedeo Modigliani’s Woman in a Sailor Shirt, the research and conservation project supported by EFG, Institutional Patron of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection since 2001.

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"What I am looking for is neither the real nor the unreal, but the unconscious, the instinctive mystery of the race." Amedeo Modigliani

Amedeo Modigliani represents a case in itself: the delicacy of the languid female faces he portrayed continues to enchant viewers with the mystery of the poetics of an enigmatic artist.
Although he was one of the protagonists of the cosmopolitan and international milieu of Paris in the 1910s, that took place in the heart of Montparnasse, where he was in contact with artists such as Constantin Brancusi, Marc Chagall and Pablo Picasso, Modigliani remains an isolated case. His style is one of a kind and revolves around a few themes: the portrait, the female nude, and the studies for sculptures.
Despite his several failures in his professional life, Modigliani was tenaciously faithful to his ideas and his art, which was the result of personal interpretations and reworkings. He never gave in to a more commercial approach to painting, which was closer to the taste of the time. As he noted: “You must continue to pursue your dreams.” In a whirlwind of self-destruction, an icon of the cursed and romantic artist, brilliant and full of passions, Modigliani died while pursuing his dreams at only 36 years old.


Amedeo Modigliani

The painting, Woman in a Sailor Shirt

The sitter of the portrait, the young woman with bobbed black hair that accentuate the oval of her face, is unknown. She appears in another portrait by Modigliani of the same year, The Seated Servant, now in a private collection.
Both the background and the woman’s clothing are in dark tones, projecting her warm pink face forward. The colour of the dress suggests it is winter, especially since the ‘marinière’, or ‘French Riviera Style’, which was adopted by the children of upper-class Parisians and Londoners who visited the Côte d'Azur, was characterized by light colours. The anatomical elongation which, beginning in the second half of the 1910s, characterizes Modigliani’s work, is indicative of his previous experience as a sculptor and of the influence of African and Oriental art.
Woman in a Sailor Shirt was exhibited in the artist’s solo show organized in December 1917 by Modigliani’s dealer Leopold Zebrowski, at the Parisian gallery of Berthe Weill. Paintings of female nudes in the window of the gallery caused a scandal, and the show closed prematurely. In 1917, Woman in a Sailor Shirt was bought by Paul Guillaume and rarely shown after this, namely at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Bruxelles in 1933 and at the Kunsthalle Basel in 1934. It entered the Toso collection in Venice in 1952.

The conservation project

The canvas was examined and treated by Luciano Pensabene Buemi, Conservator at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice. The painting showed numerous conservative issues.
The canvas was not well tensioned to its frame and presented some evident distortions. The thickness of the impasto — which was typical of Modigliani’s works, as he painted with fresh colours and small rotations of the brush — gave rise to visible large cracks, especially in the darker areas. On the occasion of a previous restoration, the painting had also been varnished. This was an incorrect procedure, since Modigliani never varnished his works. The varnish had yellowed and oxidized and rendered the artist’s palette illegible. It altered the colour tones: the cold, blue and grey tones were obscured and the peach tone of the flesh had deteriorated to beige. Small losses of colour were also evident along the edges of the canvas.

Before (left) and after (right) the conservation project of Amedeo Modigliani, Woman in a Sailor Shirt (La femme en blouse marine) 1916, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York. Bequest of Luisa Toso, 2016

The conservation treatment

The treatment was made necessary by the above described conditions.
It was especially important to remove the altered, non-original varnish. Scientific investigations and preliminary tests were necessary to select the solvents and emulsions for the removal of the varnish. The operation was conducted selectively by gradually thinning the oxidized and yellowed varnish. Once the treatment was concluded, the pink tones of the flesh and the blues and greens of the garment and the background were at last visible.
The canvas was also correctly re-tensioned. Small retouches were then made along the cracks and losses along the edges.