In Paris, [Amedeo Modigliani] encountered anti-Semitism for the first time, though not directed at himself. The long case of French Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish officer unjustly imprisoned for espionage, was about to come to a close with his vindication in 1906. The Dreyfus affair had split the country, and anti-Semitic diatribes still flourished in magazines. Many of Modigliani's artist friends in Paris, such as Chaim Soutine and Moise Kisling, were East Europeans whose heavy accents easily identified them as Jewish. But Modigliani spoke French fluently with only a slight Italian accent. He was not picked out as Jewish. In fact, he sometimes surprised strangers by introducing himself as "I am Modigliani, Jew." Paris made him ponder the problems of identity.
It is easy to see this tension in Modigliani portraits. They are stylized -- almost everyone has a long neck, narrow face, triangular nose and crooked or empty eyes. (Some of the stylization stemmed from the few years Modigliani tried sculpting -- a practice he gave up because the stone dust irritated his weakened lungs). In contrast to the stylization, Modigliani tried to include the individual detail that set one subject apart from another. No one can doubt, for example, that the portrait of Cocteau (painted in 1916), with its giraffe-like neck, angular nose, sharp chin and cast of eyes, is a Modigliani. But other details -- the pursed lips, the string bow tie, the pocket handkerchief, the square shoulders, the stiffness of the face -- make it clear that the haughty [Jean Cocteau] is different from other Modiglianis.
The nudes of Modigliani enhance the myth about him. Their carnal frankness could tempt a viewer into supposing that the artist must have painted his conquests soon after each lovemaking. But most of them were painted in 1917 on order from the dealer [Leopold Zborowski], who installed Modigliani in a room in his apartment, supplied canvases and paints, hired the models and paid the artist 15 to 20 francs a day for his work. Modigliani was probably trying to paint modern and vibrant variations of the classical nudes that he had studied in Italy.