Thursday, September 8, 2011

Amedeo Modigliani: Drawing On The Ideal Female Form

Great Artists

What I am seeking is not the real and not the unreal but rather the unconscious, the mystery of the instinctive in the human race.
Amedeo Modigliani

[Hold sacred all] which can exalt and excite your intelligence... [and] ... seek to provoke ... and to perpetuate ... these fertile stimuli, because they can push the intelligence to its maximum creative power.
—Amedeo Modigliani,
in a letter that he wrote from Capri to his friend Oscar Ghiglia in 1901

Amedeo Clemente Modigliani [1884-1920]: "With one eye you are looking at the outside world, while with the other you are looking within yourself."
Source: Wikipedia

You can easily recognize the works of Amedeo Modigliani, an Italian painter and sculptor, whose paintings and sculptures depict droopy eyelids and languid poses, especially of elegant elongated females, many of them nudes. His paintings, influenced to a large part by Pablo Picasso's blue period and by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Georges Rouault, show an idealized form of female sexuality. The nudes are revealing for the absence of anything erotic, but rather show women in reflective repose, stripped of pretense. A contemporary to the Cubists Modigliani was not part of them. He had other influences, including the European masters and non-Western art.

Modigliani's sculptures, influenced by his friendship with Constantin Brancusi, a Rumanian, is distinguished by, WebMuseum says, "strong linear rhythms, simple elongated forms, and verticality. Head (1912; Guggenheim Museum, New York City) and Caryatid (1914; Museum of Modern Art, New York City) exemplify his sculptural work, which consists mainly of heads and, less often, of full figures." His reputation was established in part due to his particular style and in part due to his death at the age of 35 from tuberculosis and the excesses of drink and drugs.

Modigliani epitomized the artistic life in its romantic myth, dying at an early age, in poverty, unrecognized. He had only one solo exhibition in his short life. He sold his paintings for restaurant meals and drink. After his death, his paintings became sought after by collectors, selling for millions of dollars. For example, La Belle Romaine (Nude Sitting on a Divan) a painting of a nude, part of a series of nudes Modigliani created around 1917, sold for more than $68.9 million at an auction in New York—a record for the artist's work. A private collector purchased the work. And “Tete,” a 65-cm limestone sculpture was sold for $52.6 million in 2010. (See here for a list of some of his notable paintings.)

The Early Years in Italy

Amedeo Clemente Modigliani was born to Flaminio Modigliani and Eugenia Modigliani (nee Garsin) in Livorno, Italy on July 12, 1884. Amedeo was the Jewish couple's forth and youngest child, nicknamed "Dedo."  Livorno, a port city in northwest Italy, had long served as a refuge for those persecuted for their religion, and was home to a large Jewish community. His maternal great-great-grandfather, Solomon Garsin, had immigrated to Livorno in the 18th century as a refugee.

His mother ran an experimental school. "Modigliani came from a wealthy background. His family were Sephardi Jews, and when his father's career was ruined as a banker, he was forced to work as a wood and coal merchant. Sadly, Amedeo lost his father while still a young boy," the Jewish Virtual Library says. By some accounts, his family traced its lineage to Baruch Spinoza and came from a long line of aristocratic intellectuals. Even so, by the time Amedeo was born, the family was poor but proud, characteristics that would mark Modigliani the artist throughout his short career.

Another factor was Modigliani's health, which is best described as delicate. He was kept at home by his mother, home-schooled, rather then being sent to elementary school. He suffered typhoid fever as a young boy, which nearly killed him. That was the impetus for his family to allow him to study painting and they sent the 14-year-old to the studio of local Livorno painter Guglielmo Micheli.

At age 16, he showed his first signs of tuberculosis. This would affect his well-being the rest of his life and eventually lead to his death. Louisa Buck writes  ("Sex'n'drugs'n' Modiglian; January 9, 1994), in The Independent:
While convalescing in the milder but more cosmopolitan climate of Naples, he resolved to widen his horizons. In 1902 he enrolled at the Accademia di Belle Arte in Florence, but it was in Venice that Modigliani found his artistic feet. In March 1903 he joined the Institute of Fine Arts and met up with young Futurist artist Umberto Boccioni. After three years of hectic study, hashish consumption and dabbling in the occult, Modigliani turned towards the art-world mecca of Paris.
The Early Paris Years

In 1906 Modigliani moved to Paris, the centre of the avant-garde, settling in Montmarte's artistic quarter and renting a studio on Rue Caulaincourt. At first, he established a reputation as quiet, reserved artist, almost academic in approach. But within a year, his manner changed to a boisterous drunk and drug user. It just might have been a persona he crafted to hide his worsening health and hide the truth that he had tuberculosis, a disease that was a leading killer in France at that time. People were afraid to come in contact with someone suffering from TB.

There is always a reason for an action, even if it seems irrational. It can now be said, with much certainty, that a good part of Modigliani's reputation as an alcoholic and drug addict is part myth and part truth. It must be remembered that opium use (similar to alcohol use today), although socially unacceptable in some quarters in Paris, was common and legal, with as much as 1,200 opium dens in operation. In addition, Laudanum, an opium derivative, was found in many homes' medicine cabinet as a remedy for many ailments, including for pain relief, sleep aid and reducing diarrhea.

Jeanne Hébuterne (1898-1920) French artist. She and Modigliani met in 1917, when she was 19 and he 33.
Source: Wikipedia
In a book review of Modigliani  in the New York Times (“Modigliani: A Life" by Meryle Secrest; March 18, 2011), Holland Cotter writes:
Secrest suggests that Modigliani, terrified of the social ostracism that would result if he were known to have the highly contagious disease, deliberately fostered a reputation as an alcoholic and addict to prevent detection. This cover allowed him to freely drink the wine that soothed his coughing, use the drugs that gave him energy to work — his output of paintings surged in his last years — and pass off as drunk and disorderly any irritable or violent outbursts.
The Later Paris Years

Even so, he sketched and painted with furious abandon, hundreds of sketches and paintings. By 1914 he abandoned sculpture and focused on painting, sculpture being a more physically demanding art form and the obtaining of materials made more difficult during the First World War. In 1916, Modigliani befriended the Polish poet and art dealer Leopold Zborovski and his wife Anna. It was a productive period for Modigliani, where he produced painting after painting, some going to pay meals. For each portrait that he painted, he charged only ten francs, a nominal amount even then. Some of the paintings during this period include famous artists, including portraits of Diego Riviera (1914), Pablo Picasso (1915), Moishe Kisling (1915) and Chaim Soutine (1916).

Through the persistence and kind friendship of Zborovski, he had his only solo exhibition at La Galerie Berthe Weill  in Paris on December 3, 1917—a presentation of 30 drawings and paintings.  It was closed down after a few hours by the chief of police, deeming Modiglian's nudes obscene and "filth."

Modigliani liked women and idealized them, in his art and in his life. He had an affair with Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, in 1910, when he was 26 and she 21. Married, she soon returned to her husband. Many other women were beguiled by the five-foot-five dark-haired artist, including Beatrice Hastings, the British poet, who stayed with him two years. In 1917, the Russian sculptor Chana Orloff introduced him to Jeanne Hébuterne, a beautiful dark-haired 19-year-old art student who came from a strong bourgeois Roman Catholic family.

They started living together, moving to Nice, where she gave birth to a daughter, Jeanne (also called Giovanna), on November 29, 1918. Not surprisingly, her parents strongly objected to her relationship with a Jew and a bohemian, considering Modigliani  little more than a derelict and an interloper.

She thought otherwise. In May 1919  Modigliani and Hébuterne with their daughter returned to Paris, where they rented an apartment in the rue de la Grande Chaumière. There, he continued painting as did she, including making self-portraits and of each other.

His health worsened. By all accounts, tuberculosis is a terrible disease, and it still is prevalent in the world, notably in developing nations. Amedeo Clemente Modigliani, suffering from tubercular meningitis, died on January 24, 1920, without regaining consciousness. He was 35. There was an enormous funeral, attended by both Montmartre's and Montparnasse's artistic communities. Modigliani was interred in Père Lachaise Cemetery, the largest cemetery in Paris.

Hébuterne, who had been taken to her parents' house, nearly nine months pregnant, threw herself out of a fifth floor window two days after Modigliani's death, killing both herself and her unborn child. She was 22. Hébuterne was at first buried at the Cimetière de Bagneux near Paris, and in 1930 her family allowed her body to be moved next to that of Modigliani. A single tombstone has been erected for them. His epitaph reads: Struck down by Death at the moment of glory. Hers reads: Devoted companion to the extreme sacrifice.

Their daughter, Jeanne (1918-1984), then aged one, was taken in by her grandparents and then later her aunt, Florence Modigliani, who raised her. Jeanne became an art scholar and carried on the Modigliani name, and wrote a biography, Modigliani, man and myth, published in 1958. It's an appropriate title.


For more on Amedeo Modigliani, including to view more of his works, you can visit the site [Artsy]


  1. I found this old old article from Time Magazine, (1958 !), which, while discussing possible vision problems in several known painters, also mentions Modigliani as a possible astigmatism sufferrer, just like El Greco, hence his tendency to elongate the figures. Obviously this has no influence on the painter's baseline genuine artistic talent and characteristic style. I am posting it just for fun !,9171,893880,00.html

  2. Rudolph,

    Thank you for your comments. I read the article but it's much ado about nothing. Modigliani painted the way he did, not because of an unverified physical ailment, but because he viewed the world a certain way. It's called imagination.

  3. I had no idea about the tragic story of Jeanne Hebuterne. I looked again at her photograph and then at her portrait by Modigliani. I do not know if knowing now the story changed a bit my perspective, but I clearly had the impression that somehow, Modigliani, sort of presciently captured in the portrait some of her future, possibly already brewing, tragic internal tumult, which the earlier photograph does not seem to capture. A pregnant woman, already mom to another year old, does not habitually kill herself out of sheer widowhood related desperation. She must have had some psychological severe pathology going on, I am thinking. She was pretty though. Such a sad fate for little Giovanna to lose her dad and mom almost at once. I actually was curious enough to look up to see if I could find anything about the subsequent fate of that baby girl. And look what I found:

  4. Rudolph,

    Thank you for your comments and the link, which I read. It's indeed a sad, tragic story all around. My wife agrees with you that it's rare that a woman would kill herself, when pregnant and already having a young child. We don't know what was going on in her mind in the aftermath of Modigliani's death. It's an understatement, but the young woman was greatly affected by it and likely didn't have support from her family.


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