Amedeo Clemente Modigliani, more commonly known as just Modigliani, was one of Modernism's most unique artists. Even though his work can be linked to both Expressionism and Surrealism, his work wasn't well-accepted during his life. His depiction of the body with elongated faces and hollow eyes later became highly praised for its unique aesthetics. The later period of his work was focused on sculpture, and he was influenced by Pablo Picasso and Brancusi. He died in poverty and relatively young at 35 years old. Today, his work is sold by the millions at auctions.
The painter was born into a Jewish family in the port city of Livorno, on the Western coast of Tuscany, Italy. The Modigliani's were an old Jewish family, long-established in the region. Modigliani's grandfather was a banker in Rome, and his son, Flamino, worked as a stock-broker in Livorno. Eugène Cassin, Amedeo's mother, was also from Jewish ascent and originally from the city of Marseilles.
The Modigliani family became bankrupt right before the painter was born since their business was facing continuous hardship. The artist's maternal grandfather and aunt were very present during his childhood. They valued erudite culture and exposed the young Modigliani to literature and philosophical works. Modigliani used to spread rumors that his mother came from Baruch Spinoza's family, and her journal seems to confirm this in part, as she had an ancestral called Regina Spinoza.
As a child, Modigliani was often ill, with various lung conditions. In 1895, he contracted pleurisy. He contracted typhoid fever in his teens, three years later. It was during a health crisis, bedridden, that he expressed his biggest wish to his mother; to visit the Palazzo Pitti in Uffizi and see the artwork.
At fourteen years old and in good health, Modigliani was encouraged by his mother to pursue his artistic career. She not only granted his wish of visiting the Palazzo Pitti but also put him to work and study at Gugliemo Micheli's Studio in the Livorno School of Fine Arts, where he stayed until 1900. In the studio, the young apprentice studied painting along with Giulio Cesare Vinzio, Manilo Martinelli, Gino Romiti, Renato Natali, among others.
Amedeo was the youngest student of Gugliemo Micheli, a painter that had Giovanni Fattori as a master and was specialized in landscape painting. Micheli was already influenced by Impressionism and had the habit of painting outside, so Modigliani had exposure to a non-academic education since the beginning.
After his second attack of tuberculosis in 1901, he spent some time with his mother in the southern region of Italy. This first period of Modigliani's studies was essential for the development of his style, mostly influenced by Italian art of the XIX century and Renaissance art. During this year, he visited various museums where he could see plenty of masterpieces in Florence, Naples, and Rome.
Deeply motivated by this experience, Modigliani talked with his mother so he could move to Florence. The young artist enrolled in the School of Fine Arts of the city, where he studied figure drawing with models. In the next year, he enrolled at a similar institution in Venice and tried his hand at sculpture, but found his strength insufficient. During this period, Modigliani indulged in a very bohemian lifestyle, attending parties and brothels.
His friendship with Manuel Ortiz de Zárate was crucial to this period, a bond that lasted for his whole life. Zárate helped Modigliani delve more closely into the Impressionists in the works of Paul Cézanne and Toulouse-Lautrec, one of his biggest inspirations. He also added to the painter's literary taste, discussing symbolist poetry and Count Lautréamont's work.
Modigliani arrived in Paris in 1906. He lived in the Montmartre neighborhood, a historical place where the Commune of Paris started its insurrection. By the end of the XIXth and start of the XXth century, it was known for its bohemian and artistic community, with not only the Italian artist living there but also the likes of Pablo Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, and Camille Pissarro.
Throughout this period, the artist didn't have a proper income and received money from his mother. Still, Modigliani opted for a dandy lifestyle that was much in vogue during his time. In his first months, he attended galleries and museums diligently and got acquainted first hand with the works of Post-Impressionists.
In no time, Modigliani faced economic difficulties since he depended upon his mother's savings. One of his fellow painters, Henri Doucet, invited him to live in a communal place, a colony of artists financed by Dr. Paul Alexander, who had his portraiture made by Modigliani a couple of times, as it can be seen in Portrait of Paul Alexander. They held soirée at the weekends, and Modigliani left his paintings hanging on the walls, which even aroused some animosity from other painters.
Paul Alexander became a fundamental figure for the Italian painter. He paid models to pose for him, made the artist's first commissions, and even used his influence to put Modigliani in the Salon des Independants of 1908. Alexander was his primary buyer until The Great War and introduced him to primitive art. They had each other's company when attending exhibitions at galleries and museums as well as the theater.
From 1909 on, the painter frequently changed address since he was evicted continuously for not being able to pay his rent. By this time, he already developed an alcohol addiction and consumed illicit substances as well. He became a popular figure among the Parisian artistic circles, known for being a joyful Italian. On some occasions, he exaggerated his alcohol consumption and even tried to destroy the work of colleagues at the artistic colony. He developed the habit of painting portraits at café or restaurants in exchange for drinks or small change.
Curiously, 1909 was the same year that Modigliani was approached by the Futurists to sign the Manifesto with them. Gino Severini, Italian painter and co-founder of Futurism, tells how he asked the painter to sign the Futurist Manifesto that year. The piece of text was just elaborated by him and Umberto Boccioni. The movement was a war on tradition, on institutions, and any of the Classical art.
The proposal of Futurism was far away from Modigliani's conviction. Paul Alexander narrated how the painter had many reproductions of Italian masterpieces. The accounts of young Amedeo spending his years in Florence and Venice show how he always felt connected to these artworks.
In 1909, Modigliani left the Right Bank and settled in the Cite Falguière, in Montparnasse. The Cite Falguière was a space for workshops, which established cheaper rest for artists. It was at the Falguière that the Italian painter met Jacques Lipchitz, a sculptor.
At the same place, he got close to Constantin Brancusi, who turned out to be a significant influence on him. Brancusi, a great Modern sculptor, incentivized him on his quest. Later that year, the painter had to leave Paris to spend a year with his mother since he was without any funds. He made a whole series of sculptures during this time, probably staying at Carrara, but got frustrated with the results and threw them in a river.
In 1914, his fellow painter and poet Max Jacob introduced Modigliani to Paul Guillaume, an art dealer. This was a rather rare and successful moment for the Italian artist, as Guillaume helped to promote Modigliani's work. He eventually produced around 350 paintings during the next years. It is documented that the dealer said that "there is nothing French about his art, and that's a pity because he's a great artist", a commentary probably aimed at his difficulty in having a great commercial takeoff.
In the same year, the artist fell in love with the poet Beatrice Hastings, who was portrayed in several of his paintings. Even though he started with a burning passion for her, depicting her in an idealized way, their relationship was damaged by his addiction and erratic behavior. Around this point in his life, he was too frail to keep working with sculpture. Since the physical demand was too much for him, he decided to dedicate himself entirely to painting.
In 1916, the Italian artist became acquainted with Leopold Zborowski. He was a Polish art dealer and organized Modigliani's only solo show. It happened in the Berthe Weill Gallery in the next year. Since the promotion was made using one of the artist's nudes, it attracted the police. The exhibit was not well received and was temporarily shut down.
Modigliani met Jeanne Hebuterne, who studied at the same Academy that Modigliani did ten years prior, the Colarossi. Even though he didn't slow down in his alcohol abuse, they had a happy relationship, and she later gave birth to their daughter.
The artist's health was declining, but a new sense of tranquility can be perceived in his last paintings. Living a rather tumultuous life, Modigliani seemed to find peace, even though it was temporary. The Modern artist became ill and died in Paris in January 1920. Jeanne was unable to handle his loss and tragically committed suicide by jumping from a five-story window. She was carrying their second child.
Modigliani's work stands out among his avant-garde peers because he was able to incorporate all of these distinct influences and create a style that is uniquely his. Although he didn't produce many paintings in his short lifetime, his paintings are expressive and unmistakable as a Modigliani piece. The artist worked in Paris for most of his life, becoming acquainted with other contemporaries like Andre Salmon, Constantin Brancusi, and Pablo Picasso - who became very close to Modigliani.
Modigliani, along with other painters of the time, was deeply inspired by the African masks' exotic aesthetics. These artifacts were brought to Europe by the turn of the century, after exploratory expeditions, and sold in flea markets. Picasso also used this inspiration in many Cubist paintings, while Modigliani adapted the characteristics to his style. The artist would mostly paint portraits as well as nudes and elongated his figures similar to the African masks.
Unlike Picasso, who found great success as an artist during his lifetime, Modigliani would never achieve fame in life. He was never accepted into the Paris Salon, much less had financial success, and his only solo exhibit was censored because of his depiction of nudes, scaring his reputation. The painter was indeed a visionary with his artwork but sadly struggled with drug and alcohol abuse.