I’ve always been ambivalent about the theory behind first impressions and the people we meet. It’s commonly believed that the first is one that sticks and proves accurate over time. While my personal experience has shown this to be largely true, I have known some exceptions. Conversely, I wonder about some first impressions I’ve given in my life. Wish I could take a few of those back! I try to consider that a person might be having the proverbial “bad day” on that first encounter, but I’m inclined to think that our “truth” – our inherent nature, habits, and tendencies – can never fully be disguised, good day or bad.
Beatrice Hastings (born Emily Alice Haigh) was an English writer and poet, raised in South Africa. Her works were published in the British literary magazine The New Age. Upon moving to Paris in the years before the war, she soon became a known figure in the Bohemian circles that frequented the cafes and cabarets of Montparnasse. It was inevitable that she would cross paths with the poster boy of Bohemian Paris life, sculptor and painter Amadeo Modigliani. In 1914, after meeting the then 30 year-old artist Beatrice wrote down her first impressions:
“A complex character. A pig and a pearl. Met in 1914 at a ‘cremerie’. I sat opposite him. Hashish and brandy. Not at all impressed. Didn’t know who he was. He looked ugly, ferocious, greedy.”
Beatrice sure didn’t mince words! But given what we know about Modigliani – his sickliness from tuberculosis, his hashish and opium addictions, and his violent temperament – Hastings’ initial impressions are not surprising. If anything, they’re spot on. Now look at what she wrote about her next encounter with him:
“Met again at the Cafe Rotonde. He was shaved and charming. Raised his cap with a pretty gesture blushed to his eyes and asked me to come and see his work. Went. Always a book in his pocket, Lautreamont’s Maldoror. Despised everyone but Picasso and Max Jacob. Loathed Cocteau.”
So Modi cleaned up a bit, extended himself, and confided feelings about his peers after spending time with his new acquaintance. These are the kinds of developments that naturally happen when people get to know each other better. Beatrice Hastings’ sharp eye for observation creates a portrait of an intense, complicated man. But do her second impressions cancel out the first? Not necessarily. The second may simply augment the first. Sure Modigliani came across as more presentable and more well-mannered on the second meeting, but that does not mean the “ferociousness” he radiated the first time had evaporated. It was likely still there, only framed in a broader scope of reference. Or momentarily suspended. Or tempered by a shave
I met an artist a few years ago whose first impression struck me as snippy. Then I got to know her. We became friends and are friends to this day. She’s a wonderful person but she is, in fact, snippy. Snippy in a harmless, hilarious, sarcastic way that fits well in the context of her personality. Qualities understood in a person as a whole are different than qualities perceived in isolation, detached from knowing the total individual, as they are in first impressions. That’s my theory at least.
One of Modigliani’s many portraits of Beatrice Hastings:
As one would expect, Beatrice Hastings and Modigliani became lovers. They lived together for about two years until Beatrice broke it off. It seems that they were not well-matched and the relationship was doomed from the start. He was jealous and possessive, she was fiercely independent and opinionated. He had a shabby appearance, she was always well-dressed. He used drugs, she preferred not to. He was driven by passions, she by intellect. They had vicious fights, often in public. But through it all, Beatrice sat for many Modigliani portraits and served as his muse.
After her affair with Modigliani, Beatrice Hastings’ life gradually spiraled downward over the course of many years. She traveled though Europe, broke acrimoniously from The New Age, and harbored bitter feelings about her former colleagues. In 1943 she committed suicide by filling her apartment with gas. In the years before her death, Beatrice had published some scathing pamphlets in which she ridiculed most of the people she had ever known and worked with, with one notable exception: Modigliani. Spared her attacks. Perhaps first impressions don’t stick after all?