Sculptor, painter, and draftsman. Amedeo Modigliani could have been the greatest Expressionist painter if he had lived longer. He succumb to tuberculosis at the age of 35 and died in an impoverished state. He was an Italian artist but based in France most years of his life. He was known for painting nude portraits of men and women and his style is characterized by the subject’s elongated form and obvious melancholy, particularly on the shape of the faces and body.
Educated by Italian classicists and Renaissance painters, Modigliani began his career as a painter and then shifted to sculpture. His style was apparently quite modern though despite his traditional education and training, with influence coming from the likes of Constantin Brancusi and Pablo Picasso. During his lifetime, his nude portraits were harshly criticized by the audience for his vulgar depiction of the pubic hair and bare sexuality. He nevertheless raised the bar higher in nude painting with his spontaneous sensuality and his ability to produce art works devoid of mythological motifs.
Another factor that led the audience to be unappreciative of his rather bizarre art the fact that he had lived a self-destructive lifestyle and possessed a reckless personality. He had to pay for committing to an unhealthy lifestyle, bounded by substance abuse, feeble health since he was a child, and promiscuity. Regardless of this bad reputation the Ecole de Paris circle still welcomed his works and viewed it as an important historic artifact.
Amedeo Modigliani was unique in his own right. His art was known for its recurring theme which consisted of long necks, linear contours, and a pair of almond-shape eyes. But it is also said that Picasso may have exposed the artist to African art, which techniques and styles would be observable in his later works. It is also said that French impressionists like Paul Cezanne made a significant impact onto Modigliani’s composition, treatment of color, and method of capturing the sitter’s personality and expressed it through paintings.
Examples of Modigliani’s notable works included the Portrait of Pablo Picasso (1915), Caryatid, Portrait of Juan Gris (1915), a reclining nude titled Nu Couche au cousin Bleu (1916), Female Head (1912), Nude Sitting on a Divan (1917), and Jeanne Hebuterne (1918).
Amedeo Clemente Modigliani was born in July 12, 1884 in Livorno near Tuscany, Italy. He was raised by a Jewish family who suffered from bankruptcy before he was born. It is said that a couple of generations earlier his time, his maternal great grandfather was originally a refugee from a country where the Jews used to be heavily persecuted. Amedeo’s mother, Eugenie Garsin, was born into an intellectual family of Sephardic Jews.
Based on research, the Garsin’s may have been a descendant of Baruch Spinoza, a Dutch philosopher. Meanwhile Amedeo’s father was an owner of a credit company in Tunis, London, Livorno, and Marseille. However, on the year of his birth, his father failed to recover from a major setback brought about by a financial crisis in the metal industry at the time. Ironically, it was Amedeo’s birth that saved the family from complete ruin as there used to be a law at the time that prohibited authorities from seizing the bed of a pregnant mother. The Modigliani’s then put all of their valuable possessions on top of the bed of the pregnant Eugenie so that the authorities wouldn’t confiscate them.
Amedeo Modigliani was home-schooled by his mother until he was ten due to his feeble health condition. Two of his main health problems were pleurisy and typhoid fever, which attacked him at age 11. At 16, he contracted tuberculosis and he had since in constant bout with the said illness until his untimely death.
Eugenie Garsin was among the first to witness her son’s exceptional talent in drawing. When Modigliani was at age 14, experiencing a delirium due to typhoid fever, he requested to see the art works displayed in Uffizi and Palazzo Pitti in Florence. It was the tales about the Florence artists that sparked an interest in him to see and go to the said city despite his delirium state. As such, he felt despair for grabbing the chance to have an actual encounter with the paintings while he still could.
The worrying mother then had little choice but promise to her son she would let him visit Florence once he recovered. With renewed vigor to live the young Modigliani was able to recover and her mother took him to Florence and then enrolled him at the workshop of Guglielmo Micheli in Livorno.
Under the tutelage of Micheli, Modigliani would spend the next two years (1898 to 1900) of his life with the master learning the intricacies of painting and Renaissance art. There he met other notable artists like Giulio Cesare Vinzio, Oscar Ghiglia, and Manilo Martinelli. During this period, his works depicted the themes and styles that dominated the 19th century Italian art, which he would bring with him in Paris.
Modigliani had to stop attending Micheli’s classes when he experienced an episode of tuberculosis. In 1901 he went to Rome to personally see the work of Domenico Morelli, who was known for representing literary and religious narratives in painting. Since then, Morelli would serve as a figure to look up to for the exploring Modigliani and a circle of iconoclasts that were called “the Macchiaioli” collectively. The Livorno-native would have been exposed to the works of these iconoclasts, however the group itself left little impact on an international scale.
In 1902 Modigliani enrolled himself at the Free School for Nude Studies in Florence. There he developed his deep interest for figure drawing, specifically female nudes. He also took the time to visit various relics of Renaissance art in Florence through churches, museums and buildings. In 1903 he suffered a relapse of his tuberculosis which forced him to settle in Venice. He then studied at the Istituto di Belle Arti di Venezia, in which he dedicated a significant amount of his time and effort studying Venetian painting. He was particularly amazed by the works of Tintoretto and Tiziano.
Sometime in 1903 and 1905 he attended a series of exhibitions by Impressionist painters. The art show was called Biennial displaying a variety of art works by Rodin and other French impressionists. While Venice may have been an excellent artistic inspiration, it was also the same place that introduced the young Modigliani to sexual debauchery and substance abuse. He became a Bohemian by practice and only a small number of his works produced in both Florence and Venice had survived.
Amedeo Modigliani settled in Paris by 1906. He lived in a studio in Monmartre and continued his figure painting studies at the Academie Colarossi. There he befriended Maurice Utrillo, who was also an alcoholic genre painter. At some point, Modigliani tried to consume alcohol in moderation but when he felt disappointed over the fact that he couldn’t attract several patrons, he again turned to alcohol.
During the latter part of the 1900’s, he had been a drunkard, drug user and angsty artist. He expressed anger and frustration at his early academic works by destroying them and labeling it “childish baubles, done when I was a dirty bourgeois.” He quit school and lived in poverty.
In 1907, he received an invite to exhibit at the Salon’s autumn art show. The works he submitted had so much influence from Cezanne, Edvard Munch, and Toulousse Lautrec. The following year he was then joined by portrait artists to exhibit at Salon des Independents. The Jewess (1908) was a remarkable painting by Modigliani which was deemed prolific.
Amedeo Modigliani met and became great friends with sculptor Constantin Brancusi. The said sculptor influenced him to change his art form from portrait painting to sculpture. It may have also been Brancusi who exposed him to African Art besides Picasso at the time. African art would become a recurring cultural reference of his art works depicting elongated, flat faces and the primitive style of his sculptures.
During this period, he produced The Head which was described as African-like. In 1910 he met Max Jacob who introduced him to circle of wealth patrons and collectors like Paul Guillaume. The said collector would then become his significant patron and he continued focusing on sculpture over painting. With this, he developed a friendship with primitive art sculptor Jacob Epstein and Cubist Jacques Lipchitz.
When the Great War broke out in 1914 the art market slowed down. Modigliani was not qualified to render military service because of his sickly condition and he took this break to return to oil painting. This time, his works had traces of African art influence and sculpture-like forms. The faces of his sitters appeared as though wearing a mask with their elongated faces and almond shape eyes.
When the war ended, Modigliani produced a series of brilliant portraits. Between 1915 and 1919 was considered as the peak of his success and there was positive development in his reputation. These portraits would provide evidence to claims that he was the greatest Expressionist of his generation. He possess a new artistic style and psychology of form. The elongated figures and sharp contours plus the neutral-colored backgrounds served instrumental in his attempt at incorporating the distinct personality of each model.
Examples of portraits that Modigliani produced during this period included Moise Kisling (1915), Max Jacob (1916), and Paul Guillaume (1916). He also painted portraits for his fellow artists like Diego Rivera, Juan Gris, and Celso Lagar. Lipchitz and his Wife was also portrayed in a sculptural work in 1916. As for his nudes, he produce a series of the so-called reclining nude of female sitters from France. Some of his friends reported that Modigliani could only produce such masterpiece-level works when he’s drunk or on drugs.
In 1917 Modigliani met the 19-year old Jeanne Hebuterne at the Academie Colarossi. She became his source of portrait inspiration and lover over a short period of time. In 1918 the couple sought refuge in Nice as the annexation of the German army men threatened them. They stayed in Cote d’Azur and sold his paintings to tourists there. He would be lucky enough to be selling a few francs for each art work unfortunately.
Living in poverty and almost penniless, he reverted to his old ways. Hebuterne was heavily pregnant with their first off-spring at the time whom they named Jeanne Modigliani. The birth of his daughter might have given him a new inspiration to paint once more. He returned to Paris to attend a series of art shows there such as in Faubourg Saint-Honore and this was followed by some exhibitions in London.
Just as when Modigliani about to return to Paris to attend the Autumn Salon exhibition, he suffered another episode of TB. On January 24, 1920 he died of the said chronic disease in Charite, Paris. It is said that he was holding on Jeanne Hebuterne trying to regain some strength, but failed to do so after a few minutes. His wife, heavily pregnant at the time, jumped out of the window the day after his death. The suicide killed her and the unborn child on the spot.
There were a huge number of sympathizers who attended their funeral at Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Today, by post-modern standards, Amedeo Modigliani’s nude portraits were deemed acceptable and great works of art.