Painted in Modigliani’s typical medium of oil on canvass, the artwork depicts its subject, Hélène Joséphine Bernier Povolozky, simply against a sparse background.
While the painting features numerous Modigliani trademarks, including downturned eyes and small, pursed lips, it remains one of Modigliani’s less stylised portraits.
The painter was known for elongating features, in particular the neck and face – a stylisation he eschewed in creating this painting.
The subject is painted with a bold outline that defines the figure, her features and her surroundings. Contained within the outline, the painting’s muted colours add to the sombre mood of the artwork.
The mood, colour and use of outline may have been influenced by the works of Paul Cézanne, whom Modigliani had a great affinity for. Besides signing the painting, Modigliani also inscribed it with the name of the subject, Elena, as the work was most likely presented to her as a gift.
Elena is depicted wearing a bulky jacket, a loose blouse and a bow; combined with her short hair, this attire gives the figure a distinctly bohemian flair. Bohemians were a recurring theme in Modigliani’s work, which is fitting given the artist’s infamous bohemian lifestyle.
Modigliani painted portraits almost exclusively. While these paintings now command prices in the millions, they were not popular during Modigliani’s lifetime as the portrait was not in style in Paris at that time.
Despite his failure to sell paintings and engage a gallery, Modigliani was well liked in the Paris art community, and he is considered to be part of the School of Paris, a group of artists who painted in Paris at this time. His life and work brought him into contact with many renowned artists, including Pablo Picasso, whom Modigliani painted multiple times.
A painter herself, Elena was the wife of Jacques Povolozky, a Paris gallery owner and bookseller. Other than Elena and Picasso, Modigliani painted portraits of many members of the Paris art scene during his life, including Beatrice Hastings, Leopold Zborowski, Paul Guillaume and Oscar Miestchaninoff.
Elena Povolozky is currently part of the Phillips collection in Washington, D.C.