Reclining Nude on Blue Cushion is a 1916 painting by Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani who was well known for his portraits in the early 20th-century.
Reclining Nude on Blue Cushion is representative of his rough-hewn but finely delineated human subjects, preferentially female nudes. As its title purports, we are looking here at a naked woman reclining on a divan or a bed, with an exceptionally visible light-blue cushion under her head.
Her right hand is resting above her head while the left is invisible to the spectator on the other side of her body. The tangerine hue on the sides of her face and chin seems to tell us that this exhibition of herself is embarrassing her.
The few years beginning with 1916 are highly productive in his short-cut career and it is when Modigliani created many of his most famous paintings. They are also the years of many portraits and very many nudes, most especially those which, in 1917, at the artist’s own Paris Show, attracted much middle-class outrage and a premature closure by the Paris police.
Like the Reclining Nude on Blue Cushion, Modigliani’s nudes are only erotic in the sense that they show the naked female body as an object worthy of desire. It was hard, even in 1917, to denounce them as pornographic. This was always the case given their primitivist conception of shape: modulated but not elaborated.
In typical fashion, in this painting we also observe the strong foundation in single colours which then receive refinement by a second coating intended to convey shade and ascertain the volume. In this case we see a strong shade of orange along the woman’s side; then we detect the streaks of black along her legs which, if they do not serve to plunge that side of her body into darkness, may represent hairs.
The topos of the reclining female nude, in precisely an arrangement where the woman’s head is supported by additional cushioning and she displays the entirety of her body from the front in a strong diagonal, was initiated by Giorgione (or Titian, if the main figure is his) with the Sleeping Venus of c. 1510. This Venus tradition was then entrenched by his peer Titian, with the Venus of Urbino of 1534.
In the centuries since the Impressionists had produced their own revisions (think of Manet’s Olympia), as did Goya, with his The Nude Maja (Maja desnuda) and The Clothed Maja (Maja vestida). Modigliani’s take is thus self-consciously an innovative one but within a known tradition of reclining female nudes.
What conforms to custom in Modigliani’s “Venus” — regularly listed under its French title, Nu Couché au coussin Bleau — is the woman’s posture and orientation of her head (toward us), the bedding on which she is reclining, and the presence of a scarlet element somewhere on the scene.
In Modigliani’s take it is the background which appears as if to burn in a slow scarlet effusion hemmed in by black. Scarlet would traditionally evoke erotic love and, within the topos of the reclining Venus, create a chromatic opposition with the woman’s flesh, or some element of her clothing or bedding.
Like Goya — for whom the gesture was so significant that his naked Maja is even considered the first erotic nude of Western painting — Modigliani paints a woman with hair on her body, most visibly at the armpit, and thus not a classically idealised subject without human “blemish”. For Modigliani, all of whose figures are unambiguously real and painted from live models, this choice came as a matter of course.
The painting is currently owned by Dmitry Rybolovlev, Russian oligarch known for his extensive art collection who was once the owner of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi.