Modigliani and His Artist Friends

By Thirza Vallois
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.

Among 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.

The 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.

Kisling, 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


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