Modigliani was above all a portraitist. According to Werner Schmalenbach, his need to “take possession of those around him” stemmed from a sort of “primary instinct” inherent in his very nature as an artist. Always departing from painting tradition, his entire oeuvre exudes a classical serenity and harmony that combines with the formal schematisation taken from primitive sculpture and from the influence of Cézanne and Cubism.
Although the present Head of a Woman, painted in oil on paper, is not featured in Joseph Lanthemann’s catalogue raisonné, it can be related to a set of heads dated 1915, which evidence the artist’s shift from sculpture to painting as a result of the influence of Cubist geometry. It may be a portrait of Kiki de Montparnasse, whose identity, as was common practice in Modigliani, is concealed by his use of types: the schematised face, the asymmetrical eyes that have no gaze, and the features converted into signs. Modigliani heavily geometrises his sitters and this, together with their almost sacred solemnity and emotional distancing, raises them to the category of effigies. As Tamar Garb aptly sums up, “the power of Modigliani’s portraits lies in their capacity to render the tensions between the generic and the specific, the mask and the face, the endemic and the particular.”
The portrait belonged to French ambassador Henri Hoppenot (1891–1977) and his wife Hélène Hoppenot, an art lover and friend of numerous avant-garde artists like Marcel Duchamp. The couple amassed a large collection of art and artistic objects from the Far East.