Amedeo Modigliani greatly admired Paul Cezanne’s work. The story goes that Modigliani carried a reproduction of Cezanne’s painting ‘Boy in a Red Waistcoat‘ ever since he saw a retrospective of Cezanne’s work in Paris in 1907. And whenever Cezanne’s name came up in a conversation, Modigliani would take out that reproduction and ecstatically kiss it.
There is indeed a connection between works of these two masters. Both Cezanne and Modigliani were faithful to tradition, and sought inspiration in history, at the same time adorning their canvases with something brutally modern and infected with abstraction. There’s no doubt that Modigliani was influenced by Cezanne, for his early paintings are very unlike the nudes which later celebrated him. Sombre and grey, with solid brush strokes they evoke the spirit of Cezanne’s series of ‘boys in a red vest’. Even though Modigliani later found his own artistic direction, Cezanne’s spirit occasionally lurks even in the most unusual paintings.
I am not a big fan of Cezanne, but I must say that his painting ‘Boy in a Red Waistcoat‘ (along with his numerous depictions of skulls), has striked me at first sight; what emotional depth, what drab mood, what a mystery? I instantly loved everything about it! Cezanne rarely bothered to date his paintings, or even name them, but it is assumed that these four paintings, ‘Boy in a Red Vest‘ series, were created between 1888 and 1890. Cezanne seemed to have a flair for painting the same scenes again and again, with a few changes, but each reflecting a different mood.
Just to be clear, I am going to be discussing my favourite out of these four paintings, which is the one above (they all bear the same name and I don’t want any misunderstanding.) The painting shows a boy dressed in a traditional Italian attire, standing in a classical pose; one hand on the hip, other hanging – a pose of resignation and passivity fitting for a drab yet powerful mood of the painting. Amidst all the bleak greys and boring browns, there’s a red vest that exudes aura of decadency and power. Blue tones occasionally peak like rays of sunshine. Sun can be blue if one sees it that way. The most exciting aspect of this painting are the brushstrokes; heavy and serious. Using only a few basic autumnal colours, Cezanne painted a magnificently intricate background, in some parts even blended with the boy’s trousers, in others cheekily standing out from the red waistcoat. Depth was achieved by adding visibly darker tones around the elbow and the shoulders. Despite the seeming roughness, a scene is perfectly balanced, sad and harmonious.
The boy was a professional model named Michelangelo di Rosa. His face reveals to us a troubled inner live, sadness, shyness, fear and doubt. His lips are shaped ‘like the wings of a distant bird‘. A figure at once melancholic and graceful, evokes the spirit of the 16th century Italian aristocratic portraits by mannerist masters. Clad in a romantic costume of Italian peasant, the boy seems so fragile and vulnerable, secretive and passive – retaining a position of eternal mystery. Cezanne’s portraits are, just like Modigliani’s, nothing but silent confirmations of life.