The painting depicts the head of a woman with gathered blonde hair, a typical theme for Amedeo Modigliani’s paintings and art.
The woman of the painting is probably Beatrice Hastings, English writer and journalist with whom the artist had a tormented love affair between 1914 and 1916. In fact, Modigliani had painted many of his lovers and friends of his Montparnasse circles between 1915 and 1918.
The painting is part of the famous series of “heads” where the artist depicted only the faces of his models leaving in a hint of shoulders. Shortly after Modigliani began to paint full-length portraits, often females with small eyes, curled lips and long, narrow necks, painted with wavy lines and rapid strokes, which made the artist and his portraits famous.
These elements can be also found in the Head of a Young Lady, represented with synthetic, rapid and essential brushstrokes. Beatrice’s face is slightly turned on the right and she is characterized by small eyes with magnetic look and tiny mouth with red lipstick, accentuated on the lines as well as rather pronounced nose.
The figure looks like a mask with proud and decisive expression, due to a simple and linear design that emerges from the blue background. On the other hand, the colors are flat and without nuances or fading shades that have a long tradition in painting, except for the more accentuated shade of red on the woman’s cheekbones.
It is quite difficult to understand the true personality of Beatrice and her stormy and violent relationship with Modigliani from this cold and austere figure. In fact, Ms. Hastings defined him “a complex character, a pig and a pearl at the same time”. He was 30, she was 35. She supported financially the painter during their brief cohabitation which was characterized by frequent disputes, often due to alcohol.
Beatrice’s face in all its simplicity doesn’t reveal this side of their relationship and it even seems archaic and detached, serene figure of another dimension.
In the early 20th century the work was in the collection of Parision art critic and merchant Paul Guillaume, who was the only collector of Modigliani’s work at the time. In the 1930s’ it was exhibited at the Biennale of Venice and it was purchased by the gallery Il Milione in Milan. In the 1940s’ the painting came to the collection of Emilio and Maria Jesi who later donated the work to Pinacoteca di Brera together with other 20th century works that were part of the same collection.
Modigliani was born in Livorno into a family of Jewish origins and his life was marked by poor health, caused by a lung disease which afflicted him since adolescence forcing him for long but beneficial stays in the island of Capri.
Already at an early age Amedeo became passionate about art and because he spent long times at home for his illness he began to draw sketches and portrait, which convinced his parents to send him to study painting in Guglielmo Micheli’s studio, who was a student of a Livornese painter Giovanni Fattori and who taught young Modigliani the painting style of the Tuscan Macchiaioli.
In 1902 Amedeo enrolled at the Scuola Libera del Nudo in Florence but in the following year he moved to Venice to study at the Accademia di Belle Arti.
His first stay in Paris dates back to 1906 and when he moved there permanently in 1909 and introduced himself to Henri de Toulouse Lautrec and Paul Cezanne’s painting.
Cezanne’s work, based on simple lines and volumes, influenced greatly Modigliani’s art, nevertheless he remained an independent artist focused on avant-garde and in particular on cubism which was born in that period of time.
Modigliani was known for his difficult character and for the numerous affairs with models and intellectuals. He died at only 35 years old for tuberculosis that had afflicted him for life. His wife Jeanne, who was nine months pregnant, committed suicide the next day by throwing herself out of the window.
Pinacoteca di Brera is a complex that consists of the departments of Accademia delle Belle Arti, Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense, Sopraintendeza per il Patrimonio Storico ed Artistico, Istituto Lombardo di Scienze e Lettere, Botanical garden and Astronomical Observatory.
The origins of this collection, where the chronological period of the artworks ranges from 13th to 20th century, with great examples of national and international figurative artistic culture, allow us to understand the motives of this heterogeneity and variety.
Pinacoteca di Brera is situated in the namesake building on the area which, in the past, was occupied by the Order of the Humiliati who came to Milan in 1209, designed by Milanese architect Carlo Maria Richini and later renovated by Giuseppe Piermarini.
In 1773 after the suppression of the Jesuit order, Pinacoteca di Brera became a state property. The first collection was introduced by Maria Theresa Of Austria, who wanted to create a collection of exemplary works intended for the students’ training.
When Milan became the capital of Italian kingdom by Napoleon’s will, the gallery became a real museum with exhibitions of great paintings from all the conquered territories, in addition to the already existing collection. In total there were 269 artworks, and the museum was opened to the public in 1809 with a unique collection of artworks from all the Italian museums, among them the Marriage of the Virgin by Raphael, the Crucifixion by Bramantino and the Disputation of St. Stephen by Carpaccio.
In the 19th century the collection was enriched with many significant works taken from Lombard churches and conventions, due to the abolition of many religious orders. Other works of identical origin, which were removed from the departments of the Italian kingdom, were added to the collection, thanks to the initiative of Giuseppe Bossi and Andrea Appiani. This explains the presence of so many important sacred paintings, which gave the museum its particular appearance, as well as the paintings by Bellotto and the portraits by Lorenzo Lotto.
Corrado Ricci, writer and art historian of undisputed fame, reorganized the exhibition to a strict chronological order by the schools and the polyptych of Valle Romita by Gentile da Fabriano and Men at Arms by Bramante were added to the collection. After the historic reorganization of Ettore Modgliani and architect Piero Portaluppi, following the bombings of 1943, director Feranda Wittgens gives the Pinacoteca a modern and almost aristocratic structure, taking advantage of Franco Albini’s work as well.
The collection was enriched with paintings and sculptures from the 20th century, thanks to the donation of Emilio and Maria Jesi (1976) and Vitali (1984) and with the acquisitions managed by the historic Associazione Amici di Brera which has always kept the museum in dynamic and continuous evolution. Among these were the Self-portrait by Umberto Boccioni, Mother and Son by Carlo Carrà, the Still Life by Giorgio Morandi, the Red Wagon by Fattori and the Afternoon by Silvestro Lega. The director at the time, Franco Russoli, started the expansion process in the halls of the Citterio palace and denounced the problems of that era with the exhibition “Processo per il Museo” in 1974, held in those unused halls. The Pinacoteca was reopened and expanded with Carlo Bertelli.
More recent renewal process began in 1989 with the renovation of technological installations and reorganization of the spaces. The work was organized by Vittorio Gregotti, who created the Napoleonic rooms and the small rooms next to the original gallery.
Among the most important and internationally famous works are Piero della Francesca’s Monterfeltro altarpiece, Andrea Mantegna’s Dead Christ, Gentile and Giovanni Bellini’s Preaching, Barocci’s Martyrdom of St. Vital, the scenes by Antonio Campi, the Christ at the Column by Bramante, the Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio and the Kiss by Hayez.
On 17 December 2011 a new staircase was introduced, designed by Adolfo Natalini. It connected the historical floor of the gallery with the new halls on the first floor. The most recent (2017) renovation was organized in the heart of the Brera, the Napoleonic rooms.