An update on Jeanne Hebuterne
After my essay Missing Person in Montparnasse The Case of Jeanne Hebuterne was published in the Literary Review nearly ten years ago, I have received requests from time to time regarding information about JH , her artwork, and her relationship to Modigliani. Since that time, I have had an opportunity to pursue my research and this looks like as good a venue as any to share what I know.
My essay was inspired by a visit to an exhibition Modigliani ed I suoi ( Modigliani & company) held in Venice and curated by Christian Parisot, recognized authority on Modigliani and long time collaborator with Jeanne Modigliani, daughter of Jeanne Hebuterne and Modigliani. The core of that exhibition which sent a ripple of delight round the world were the artworks of young Jeanne – several sketches and paintings. It was revealed that JH was indeed a very gifted artist whose work had value in itself, and not just because of her link to Modigliani. The Venice show was the first public viewing of her work in 80 years. After Jeanne’s suicide all her artworks had been collected by her brother and locked away in his studio. It was Jeanne Modigliani who had first ferreted this story out and who throughout her life had worked tirelessly to strip away the legend of Modigliani as “drunken woman-basher” and Jeanne as a silent, sacrificial lamb and passive model. Jeanne Modigliani desired ardently to re-establish her connection with her mother as artist and to free her from the oblivion which the Hebuternes had imposed upon her. It took her entire lifetime.
The documents and artworks exhibited in the Venice show seem to have come mainly from two sources: Jeanne Modigliani who had then transmitted them to her archivist, Parisot, and the heirs of Andre Hebuterne, Jeanne's older brother. I should mention here that at one time the Hébuternes publicly claimed that no such work of Jeanne’s existed – that it had all been dispersed after her death. That however seems to be untrue, and after his death at the age of 90, the veils were lifted.
The pieces in the Venice show were scheduled to be exhibited in Segovia where an unexpected event then occurred. Claims were made that some pieces in the show were fakes, the police closed it down and the curator was charged with art forgery.
It is this news that Jeffrey Meyers appends to his biography of Modigliani – with a dismissive note on Jeanne’s art : “Jeanne Hebuterne ‘s nephew said that works supposedly by her and exhibited in Segovia were fakes.” This would suggest that JH was no artist. Indeed he goes on to say:” Marc Restellini…then co-director of the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris had identified a number of fake drawings and reduced their value to a negligible amount.” What actually came out in the proceedings of the trial were that some drawings shown in Segovia were thought to be copies of originals drawn by JH, while others “pastiches” – compositions not drawn by Jeanne at all. What had happened was that after the Venice show, the Hebuterne heirs declined to lend the works for further exhibition. At the show in Segovia the curator exhibited other works which had come into his possession independently of the Hebuterne heirs and it was these works which were subjected to inquiry.
Restellini, the expert who had identified the drawings as fakes then became the curator of another show of the Hebuterne materials organized in Japan. He is the author of a book about Jeanne and Modigliani which includes in the back a catalogue raisonné of JH’s works. His research bears out what Jeanne Modigliani and Parisot had stressed all along – it was not only passion for each other that linked Jeanne to Modigliani but their shared passion for art.
A comparative study of REstellini and Parisot’s findings reveals that despite their mutual rivalry – they draw a similar picture of JH and Modì - attempting to remove the fabrications overlaid upon the pair by the sensational memoirs published after their death by friends and acquaintances such as Andre Salmon. Like Parisot, Restellini grants Jeanne individual status as an artist of promise and merit.
In his book, we discover that Jeanne and Modi often painted the same subjects – ie – when someone came to sit for a portrait, Jeanne and Modi would sometimes both work at the same time in the studio – so that we have a second perspective on some of Modigliani’s portraits. These doubles – ie portraits of the same people painted by both Modi and Jeanne, allow us to grasp Jeanne’s independent research as a painter and appreciate her unique sensibility. She was particularly sensitive to background, décor, fashion --the very things Modigliani left out of his portraits -- and includes details of this nature in her work. In fact it is through her drawings and paintings that we may catch a glimpse of the studio where they lived and worked together.
Certainly Jeanne Modigliani would be pleased to know that one of her wishes has been granted. The world has come to know Jeanne Hébuterne not only as Modì’s favorite model –but as an artist with an agenda of her own.