Amedeo Clemente Modigliani was born into a Jewish family at Livorno, in Tuscany. Livorno was still a relatively new city, by Italian standards, in the late 19th century. The Livorno that Modigliani knew was a bustling centre of commerce focused upon seafaring and shipwrighting, but its cultural history lay in being a refuge for those persecuted for their religion. His own maternal great-great-grandfather was one Solomon Garsin, a Jew who had immigrated to Livorno in the eighteenth century as a religious refugee.
Modigliani was the fourth child of Flaminio Modigliani and his wife, Eugenia Garsin. His father was in the money-changing business, but when the business went bankrupt, the family lived in dire poverty. In fact, Amedeo's birth saved the family from certain ruin, as, according to an ancient law, creditors could not seize the bed of a pregnant woman or a mother with a newborn child. When bailiffs entered the family home, just as Eugenia went into labour, the family protected their most valuable assets by piling them on top of the expectant mother.
Modigliani had a particularly close relationship with his mother, who taught her son at home until he was ten. Beset with health problems after an attack of pleurisy when he was about eleven, a few years later he developed a case of typhoid fever. When he was roughly sixteen he was taken ill with pleurisy again, and it was then that he contracted the tuberculosis which was to eventually claim his life. Each time it was his mother Eugenia's intensive care of him which pulled him through. After Modigliani had recovered from the second bout of pleurisy, his mother took him on a tour of southern Italy: Naples, Capri, Rome and Amalfi, then back north to Florence and Venice.
His mother was, in many ways, instrumental in his ability to pursue art as a vocation. When he was eleven years of age, she had noted 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?"
Modigliani is known to have drawn and painted from a very early age, and thought himself "already a painter", his mother wrote, even before beginning formal studies. Despite her misgivings that launching him on a course of studying art would impinge upon his other studies, his mother indulged the young Modigliani's passion for the subject.
At the age of fourteen, while sick with the typhoid fever, he raved in his delirium that he wanted, above all else, to see the paintings in the Palazzo Pitti and the Uffizi in Florence. As Livorno's local museum only housed a sparse few paintings by the Italian Renaissance masters, the tales he had heard about the great works held in Florence intrigued him, and it was a source of considerable despair to him, in his sickened state, that he might never get the chance to view them in person. His mother promised that she would take him to Florence herself, the moment he was recovered. Not only did she fulfil this promise, but she also undertook to enroll him with the best painting master in Livorno, Guglielmo Micheli.
In 1901, whilst in Rome, Modigliani admired the work of Domenico Morelli, a painter of melodramatic Biblical studies and scenes from great literature. It is ironic that he should be so struck by Morelli, as this painter had served as an inspiration for a group of iconoclasts who went known by the title "the Macchiaioli" (from macchia -"dash of colour", or, more derogatively, "stain"), and Modigliani had already been exposed to the influences of the Macchiaioli. This minor, localized art movement was possessed of a need to react against the bourgeois stylings of the academic genre painters. While sympathetically connected to (and actually pre-dating) the French Impressionists, the Macchiaioli did not make the same impact upon international art culture as did the followers of Monet, and are today largely forgotten outside of Italy.
Modigliani's connection with the movement was through Guglielmo Micheli, his first art teacher. Micheli was not only a Macchiaiolo himself, but had been a pupil of the famous Giovanni Fattori, a founder of the movement. Micheli's work, however, was so fashionable and the genre so commonplace that the young Modigliani reacted against it, preferring to ignore the obsession with landscape that, as with French Impressionistm, characterized the movement. Micheli also tried to encourage his pupils to paint en plein air, but Modigliani never really got a taste for this style of working, sketching in cafes, but preferring to paint indoors, and especially in his own studio. Even when compelled to paint landscapes (three are known to exist), Modigliani chose a proto-Cubist palette more akin to Cezanne than to the Macchiaioli.
While with Micheli, Modigliani not only studied landscape, but also portraiture, still-life, and the nude. His fellow students recall that the latter was where he displayed his greatest talent, and apparently this was not an entirely academic pursuit for the teenager: when not painting nudes, he was occupied with seducing the household maid.
Despite his rejection of the Macchiaioli approach, Modigliani nonetheless found favour with his teacher, who referred to him as "Superman", a pet name reflecting the fact that Modigliani was not only quite adept at his art, but also that he regularly quoted from Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Fattori himself would often visit the studio, and approved of the young artist's innovations.
In 1902, Modigliani continued what was to be a life-long infatuation with life drawing, enrolling in the Accademia di Belle Arti (Scuola Libera di Nudo, or "Free School of Nude Studies") in Florence. A year later while still suffering from tuberculosis, he moved to Venice, where he registered to study at the Istituto di Belle Arti.
It is in Venice that he first smoked hashish and, rather than studying, began to spend time frequenting disreputable parts of the city. The impact of these lifestyle choices upon his developing artistic style is open to conjecture, although these choices do seem to be more than simple teenage rebellion, or the cliched hedonism and bohemianism that was almost expected of artists of the time; his pursuit of the seedier side of life appears to have roots in his appreciation of radical philosophies, such as those of Nietzsche.
In 1906 Modigliani moved to Paris, then the focal point of the avant-garde. In fact, his arrival at the centre of artistic experimentation coincided with the arrival of two other foreigners who were also to leave their marks upon the art world: Gino Severini and Juan Gris.
He settled in Le Bateau-Lavoir, a commune for penniless artists in Montmartre, renting himself a studio in Rue Caulaincourt. Even though this artists' quarter of Montmartre was characterized by generalized poverty, Modigliani himself presented-initially, at least-as one would expect the son of a family trying to maintain the appearances of its lost financial standing to present: his wardrobe was dapper without ostentation, and the studio he rented was appointed in a style appropriate to someone with a finely attuned taste in plush drapery and Renaissance reproductions. He soon made efforts to assume the guise of the bohemian artist, but, even in his brown corduroys, scarlet scarf and large black hat, he continued to appear as if he were slumming it, having fallen upon harder times.
When he first arrived in Paris, he wrote home regularly to his mother, he sketched his nudes at the Colarossi school, and he drank wine in moderation. He was at that time considered by those who knew him as a bit reserved, verging on the asocial. He is noted to have commented, upon meeting Picasso who, at the time, was wearing his trademark workmen's clothes, that even though the man was a genius, that did not excuse his uncouth appearance.
Modigliani's behavior stood out even in these Bohemian surroundings: he carried on frequent affairs, drank heavily, and used absinthe and hashish. While drunk, he would sometimes strip himself naked at social gatherings. He became the epitome of the tragic artist, creating a posthumous legend almost as well-known as that of Vincent van Gogh.
During his early years in Paris, Modigliani worked at a furious pace. He was constantly sketching, making as many as a hundred drawings a day. However, many of his works were lost-destroyed by him as inferior, left behind in his frequent changes of address, or given to girlfriends who did not keep them.
He was first influenced by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, but around 1907 he became fascinated with the work of Paul Cezanne. Eventually he developed his own unique style, one that cannot be adequately categorized with other artists.
He met the first serious love of his life, Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, in 1910, when he was 26. They had studios in the same building, and although 21-year-old Anna was recently married, they began an affair. Tall (Modigliani was only 5 foot 5 inches) with dark hair (like Modigliani's), pale skin and grey-green eyes, she embodied Modigliani's aesthetic ideal and the pair became engrossed in each other. After a year, however, Anna returned to her husband.
In 1909, Modigliani returned home to Livorno, sickly and tired from his wild lifestyle. Soon he was back in Paris, this time renting a studio in Montparnasse. He originally saw himself as a sculptor rather than a painter, and was encouraged to continue after Paul Guillaume, an ambitious young art dealer, took an interest in his work and introduced him to sculptor Constantin Brancusi.
Although a series of Modigliani's sculptures were exhibited in the Salon d'Automne of 1912, by 1914 he abandoned sculpting and focused solely on his painting, a move precipitated by the difficulty in acquiring stone, and by Modigliani's physical debilitation.
The following summer, the Russian sculptor Chana Orloff introduced him to a beautiful 19-year-old art student named Jeanne Hebuterne who had posed for Tsuguharu Foujita. From a conservative bourgeois background, Hebuterne was renounced by her devout Roman Catholic family for her liaison with the painter, whom they saw as little more than a debauched derelict, and, worse yet, a Jew. Despite her family's objections, soon they were living together, and although Hebuterne was the current love of his life, their public scenes became more renowned than Modigliani's individual drunken exhibitions.
On December 3, 1917, Modigliani's first one-man exhibition opened at the Berthe Weill Gallery. The chief of the Paris police was scandalized by Modigliani's nudes and forced him to close the exhibition within a few hours after its opening.
After he and Hebuterne moved to Nice, she became pregnant and on November 29, 1918 gave birth to a daughter whom they named Jeanne (1918-1984).
During a trip to Nice, conceived and organized by Leopold Zborovski, Modigliani, Foujita and other artists tried to sell their works to rich tourists. Modigliani managed to sell a few pictures but only for a few francs each. Despite this, during this time he produced most of the paintings that later became his most popular and valued works.
During his lifetime he sold a number of his works, but never for any great amount of money. What funds he did receive soon vanished for his habits.
In May 1919 he returned to Paris, where, with Hebuterne and their daughter, he rented an apartment in the rue de la Grande Chaumiere. While there, both Jeanne Hebuterne and Amedeo Modigliani painted portraits of each other, and of themselves.
Although he continued to paint, Modigliani's health was deteriorating rapidly, and his alcohol-induced blackouts became more frequent.
In 1920, after not hearing from him for several days, his downstairs neighbor checked on the family and found Modigliani in bed delirious and holding onto Hebuterne who was nearly nine months pregnant. They summoned a doctor, but little could be done because Modigliani was dying of the then-incurable disease tubercular meningitis.
Modigliani died on January 24, 1920. There was an enormous funeral, attended by many from the artistic communities in Montmartre and Montparnasse.
Hebuterne was taken to her parents' home, where, inconsolable, she threw herself out of a fifth-floor window two days after Modigliani's death, killing herself and her unborn child. Modigliani was interred in Pere Lachaise Cemetery. Hebuterne was buried at the Cimetiere de Bagneux near Paris, and it was not until 1930 that her embittered family allowed her body to be moved to rest beside Modigliani. A single tombstone honors them both. His epitaph reads: "Struck down by Death at the moment of glory." Hers reads: "Devoted companion to the extreme sacrifice."
Modigliani died penniless and destitute-managing only one solo exhibition in his life and giving his work away in exchange for meals in restaurants. Since his death his reputation has soared. Nine novels, a play, a documentary and three feature films have been devoted to his life.