Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920)
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Arguably the greatest of all expressionist painters, the tragically short-lived Italian Artist Modigliani was born in Italy, came to Paris at the age of 21, and died penniless from tuberculosis - aggravated by alcoholism and drug-abuse - in January 1920, aged 35 years. Undoubtedly one of the best portrait artists of the modern era, whose instantly recognizable portrait art and female nudes were sadly unappreciated during his lifetime, his works now sell for tens of millions of dollars each. He spent most of his short working life painting and sculpting in Paris, where he became friends with several members of the Ecole de Paris, including Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Georges Rouault (1871-1958), Juan Gris (1887-1927), Chaim Soutine (18931943), and Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957). The strong influence of Cezanne (1839-1906) is also evident in his art. Although his remarkable style of expressionism now guarantees him a unique place in the history of art, he spent most of his career battling the stress of failure as an artist (supported only by the dealers Paul Guillaume and Leopold Zborowski), the resulting poverty, as well as the health problems associated with alcoholism, drug addiction and tuberculosis. The legend of Modigliani, the tragic bohemian artist, was enriched shortly after his own death, by the suicide of his pregnant girlfriend. Negelected while alive, it is said that at his funeral, art dealers were overheard negotiating a completely new price level for his paintings.
Born Amedeo Clemente Modigliani in Livorno, Tuscany to Jewish parents, his family fell into poverty after the failure of the father's business, and were only saved from complete ruin due to a local law preventing creditors from seizing the bed of a pregnant woman. Modigliani's mother was pregnant with him at the time, and the family piled as many of their possessions as possible on the bed. Modigliani was particularly close to his mother, who home-schooled him until he was about 10. He was a sickly child, contracting pleurisy and tuberculosis (which was eventually to claim his life). When he was 11 she wrote in her diary, "The child's character is still so unformed that I cannot say what I think of it. He behaves like a spoiled child, but he does not lack intelligence. We shall have to wait and see what is inside this chrysalis. Perhaps an artist?"
Between 1898 and 1900 Modigliani studied with the Italian artist Guglielmo Micheli, who specialized in landscape painting en plein air, like the Impressionists. Modigliani never developed a taste for working outdoors. Instead, he preferred drawing in cafes. Even when he was forced to paint a landscape by his teacher, he tended more towards a proto-cubist style than a traditional style.
In 1902 he continued his training at the Scuola Libera di Nudo (Free School for Nude Studies) in Florence, where he developed his passion for female nudes and figure drawing. In addition, he visited many of the city's museums and churches in order to study Renaissance art at its source.
In 1903, during another bout of TB, Modigliani moved to Venice, where he enrolled at the Istituto di Belle Arti di Venezia. He also devoted considerable time to a close study of Venetian painting from the Renaissance, including works by Titian and Tintoretto. At the Biennial shows of 1903 and 1905, he encountered the works of French Impressionist painters as well as sculptures by Rodin (1840-1917). It was also in Venice that his lifestyle became more debauched, he started smoking hash, drinking heavily and became the typical bohemian. Curiously, few surviving works by Modigliani exist from either his time in Venice or Florence.
In 1906 he went to Paris, where he rented a simple studio in Monmartre and took figure painting classes at the Academie Colarossi, where he became close friends with the alcoholic French genre painter Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955). During this first year in the French capital, he moderated his drinking, but soon after, embarrassed by his persistent poverty and lack of patrons, reverted to his old ways. He became an alcoholic and drug addict, and angrily destroyed most of the examples of his early academic art calling them "childish baubles, done when I was a dirty bourgeois". He resented the training that had bought him so little success to date.
In 1907, he began showing at the Autumn Salon, and visited the huge Cezanne Retrospective. His painting at this time owed much to Cezanne, as well as to the cabaret genre-painter Toulouse Lautrec (1864-1901) and the Norwegian expressionist Edvard Munch (1863-1944).
In 1908, six of his Modigliani's portrait paintings were exhibited at the Salon des Independants, including The Jewess (1908). During these early years in Paris, his output was prolific, sometimes adding up to 100 drawings a day. Unfortunately, most were destroyed by himself, or else given to girlfriends who subsequently lost them.
In 1909, due to his new friendship with Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), he switched his attention from oil painting to sculpture. At the same time, he began to develop an interest in tribal art as well as African sculpture (mainly masks), an influence clearly visible in the flat broad faces of his almost primitive-like sculptures. Examples of his plastic art from this period include limestone statuettes like Head (1911, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC), Stone Head (1911, Philadelphia Museum of Art), and Head (1911-13, Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York). (See also: Primitivism/Primitive Art.)
In 1910, Modigliani made friends with the writer Max Jacob, who introduced him to the up and coming art dealer Paul Guillaume (1891-1934). During the period 1914-16, Guillaume would be his only significant customer.
Over the following three years (1911-13), Modigliani focused most (though not all) of his attention on sculpture. He also met the talented Cubist sculptor Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973), and the Anglo-American primitivist sculptor Jacob Epstein (1880-1959).
On the outbeak of World War I, in 1914, Modigliani was exempted from military service for health reasons. It was at this point that he returned to painting, which - like his sculpture - also came under the influence of African art. Many of his faces now displayed a flat mask-like appearance, with almond shaped eyes.
It was during the years 1915 to 1919, that Modigliani produced all of his greatest portrait paintings - works that support his claim to be one of the finest portrait artists of the 2Oth century. He developed a unique style: the necks of his subjects were elongated, their mouths pursed, the eyes almond shaped. The backgrounds were neutral and economical, but the portraits were able to convey the personality of each individual sitter.
Portraits executed during the period 1915-16 include: Moise Kisling (1915, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan); Chaim Soutine (1915, Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart); Paul Guillaume (1916, Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna, Milan); and Max Jacob (1916, K.N.W. Westfalen, Dusseldorf).
He also painted the portraits of numerous artists, including Diego Rivera (1914, Museu de Arte, Sao Paulo); Pablo Picasso (1915, Private Collection); Portrait of Juan Gris (1915, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); Chaim Soutine at a Table (1916-17, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC); The Sculptor Lipchitz and His Wife (1916, Art Institute of Chicago).
He also produced some deeply sensuous nudes, including Seated Nude (1916, Courtauld Institute Galleries, London). Some aquaintances of the artist have claimed that it was only when he was drunk on absinthe, that he was able to paint his masterpieces.
In April 1917 Modigliani met Jeanne Hebuterne, a 19-year old student at the Academie Colarossi, who would shortly become his lover and muse. In December he had his first solo exhibition at the Berthe Weill Gallery, but the Chief of the Paris police closed it down within a few hours, scandalised by his nude portraits.
In 1918, due to the threat of invasion by German troops, Modigliani and Jeanne left Paris for Nice on the Cote d'Azur. There, he tried selling his works to rich tourists, but only ever made a few francs per canvas. Whatever money he earned from his painting, was quickly spent on drink and drugs. In November, Jeanne Hebuterne gave birth to Modigliani's daughter. At the end of the year several works by Modigliani were included in an exhibition in the Faubourg Saint-Honore in Paris, organized by the art dealer Paul Guillaume.
In 1919, more works by the artist were shown in several exhibitions in London, and several are snapped up by English art collectors. In May 1918, he and Jeanne Hebuterne returned to Paris, where he continued to paint, except his alcohol-induced blackouts increased. Meantime, Jeanne became pregnant once more. See: Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne (1918, Metropolitan Museum of Art). Modigliani showed again at the Autumn Salon, but fell ill with a new attack of tuberculosis.
On January 24, 1920, Modigliani died in the Charite in Paris. He was clutching his heavily pregnant girlfriend as he took his last breath. On the following day, Jeanne Hebuterne threw herself out of a fifth-floor window, killing herself and her unborn child. A huge crowd attended their funeral at Pere Lachaise cemetery. Later in the year, the first retrospective exhibition of Modigliani's work was held at the Montaigne Gallery in Paris.
Although he was one of the most outstanding painters of the Ecole de Paris, Modigliani was penniless when he died, and had only enjoyed one solo exhibition in his life. He had given away his work to feed himself. It took several years for the true value of his paintings to be discovered, and since then he has been the subject of 9 novels, one play and three films. Despite his lack of material success while he was alive, his importance is now ensured due to his primitivist but evocative expressionist style of painting, which has influenced a wide variety of artists in numerous movements. He remains the greatest of all Italian expressionists, and one of the greatest and most iconic 20th century painters. The record price for a painting by Modigliani is currently $28 million. (See also: Most Expensive Paintings: Top 10.)
Portraits and nudes by the Italian genius Amedeo Modigliani can be seen in many of the best art museums across the world. Here is a short selection of his greatest expressionist paintings, chosen by our Editor.
Greatest Early Paintings
The Jewess (1908) Private Collection.
Pierrot (1915) State Art Museum,
Seated Nude (1916) Courtauld Institute
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