Modigliani and His Artist Friends

Modigliani and His Artist Friends

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A narrow entrance at no. 9 rue
Campagne-Première, paved with bumpy cobblestones and lined with pot
plants, leads to a courtyard with an unexpected fig tree. Built of
materials salvaged from the 1889 Universal Exposition, the building was
divided into more than 100 studios, responding to the needs of the
neighbourhood in those days. Here only the song of birds interrupts the
stillness, and the church bells chiming the quarters.

its famous tenants were Rainer Maria Rilke, Rodin’s then secretary,
Modigliani, Whistler and De Chirico, one of the early precursors of
Surrealism. When Picasso and Apollinaire came over to his studio to
look at his metaphysical paintings, they were overwhelmed. Modigliani’s
cantine was just three houses down the street, at no. 3, a modest
crémerie (dairy), bearing the sign Chez Rosalie, which also served as a
restaurant, as was common in those days.

Italian, Rosalie Tobia, Mère Rosalie to the community of Montparnasse,
had begun as a model, one of the Italians picked up on the ‘fair’ held
weekly on the corner of rue de la Grande-Chaumière and Boulevard du
Montparnasse (see chapter on the 6th arr.). Posing as Venus for the
highly regarded “Pompier” painter Bouguereau, she also agreed to work
for such fringe characters as Whistler and Modigliani, portraying less
pompous subjects and for a smaller fee…. When cellulite got the
better of her, she switched to the food business and played mother to
the poverty-stricken artists whom she nourished with all her heart. On
her tiny, dark premises below street-level, impregnated with the smell
of onions and garlic, she offered a full, delicious Italian meal for
the modest sum of 2 francs.

Soutine, Max Jacob, Salmon, and Kiki too, huddled on the backless
benches on either side of the long wooden tables of the restaurant for
a dish of pasta. Many ate on credit, others contented themselves with
half portions of a filling minestrone. She was not interested in being
paid with the ‘dreadful’ paintings of her protégés, as other café
owners were, not even those by her fellow countryman Modigliani; he was
the terror of the place, always drunk as a lord and creating havoc.
When he refused to eat, she refused to serve him wine: “A good-looking
boy like you who does honour to our country!” When, eaten away by
alcohol, he died on 24 January 1920 at the Hôpital Broussais-la Charité
(on rue Didot, in the 14th arr.), the most famous artists and models of
Montparnasse followed his hearse, which was overflowing with flowers,
in a huge procession. At every street junction – all the way to the
Père Lachaise cemetery in eastern Paris – a policeman was standing at
attention in the shining uniform of the Republic. Thus in death did
Modigliani wreak vengeance on the establishment.

Copyright © Thirza Vallois