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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920) was an Italian artist of the École de Paris who was best known for his paintings of human figures, although he also produced a few notable sculptures.

He is most noted for the strikingly elongated portraits he produced in the last few years of his short life, as well as for the nude figures he painted. He made considerable use of asymmetric patterns, matching them with bold yet simple lines. Although his popularity was limited for the bulk of his lifetime, Modigliani has since come to be recognised as one of the most important figures of the early 20th century artistic scene. His biography is peppered with instances of illness and domestic unhappiness, some of it self-inflicted.

Early Life

Modigliani, who was nicknamed "Dedo" as a young boy, was the fourth and last child of his parents Eugenia and Flaminio; they were part of the substantial Sephardic Jewish community that resided in late 19th-century Livorno. At the time of his birth, Amadeo's family were in very reduced circumstances and had been officially declared bankrupt. However, ancient Italian tradition meant that no woman in labour could have her possessions repossessed to pay debts. Since Eugenia was in childbirth when officials visited the family home, the provision ensured that the family could keep at least of its heirlooms. Nevertheless, money was always tight and this may well have affected the youngster's health.

The young Amadeo was strongly influenced by his grandfather and aunt, who valued education and quickly began to show him what they considered the best of the visual, literary and philosophical arts from the Renaissance onward. Before he had reached his teens, Amedeo fell ill; he was to have poor health throughout his life, although he often did not help himself in this regard. On one occasion, suffering badly with typhoid, he is said to have told his mother that he wished to become a painter and to travel to see the magnificent works hanging in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. She had hoped he would follow an academic career, but in 1898 she allowed him to start formal lessons in drawing. A year later, he ended his other education and devoted himself entirely to art.

Maturing as an Artist

In 1901, while Modigliani was recovering from a bout of tuberculosis in the warm climate of southern Italy, his mother took him on trips to cities where great classical artworks could be found: Rome, Florence, Naples, Venice. He became ever more fascinated with the fine arts, not only painting but also sculpture. With permission from his mother, he eventually set up home in Florence and attended figure drawing classes at the Scuola Libera di Nudo. At first, he was drawn towards being a sculptor, perhaps as a result of having seen Michaelangelo's masterpieces. However, he found sculpting too lengthy and laborious a process for his frail frame.

During Modigliani's time in Florence, he met the Chilean painter Manuel Ortiz de Zarate, who told him intoxicating tales of the avant-garde set in Paris and of the great Impressionist painters he had met. Modigliani was intrigued and hoped to move to the French capital himself, though his mother asked him to remain in Italy and he reluctantly agreed. Instead, he moved to Venice and attended the Istituto di Belli Arti, but became frustrated by what he saw as its hidebound and old-fashioned approach to the subject. Instead, he increasingly haunted the city's cafés and bohemian bars. He did his fragile health little good by experimenting extensively with drugs, and his mother eventually decided that Amadeo would after all be permitted to set up home in Paris; he made the move in 1906.

Early Years in Paris

After his move to Paris, Modigliani initially spent most of his time visiting noted local galleries, though he also enrolled formally at the Académie Colarossi. He met a number of established figures in the art world, such as Pablo Picasso and Max Jacob, and became part of the so-called Bateau Lavoir set. Inspired by these great personalities of the Parisian arts scene, he looked for a way in which he too could make his mark on the local artistic community. Among his first major paintings, produced in 1907, was "Head of a Woman Wearing a Hat", in which Modigliani blends Post-Impressionist features and striking use of emotional expression with with those of the burgeoning Art Nouveau movement.

By this time, he had put on his first exhibition, a modest affair featuring only three paintings. It was almost completely ignored, and Modigliani was at times reduced to the humiliation of using art to pay for basic essentials, even food. He returned to drugs and began to drink heavily; unsurprisingly, his health became even worse. He was, however, encouraged by his new patron Paul Alexandre, who was impressed by works such as the Cézanne-influenced "The Jewess", painted in 1908. By now, Modigliani's style had progressed, with much thicker strokes and solid, dark blocks of colour. Despite Alexandre's support, however, his work was passed over at the the 1908 Salon des Indépendants: he sold not a single piece.

Artistic maturity

Upset at the lack of public interest in his paintings, Modigliani now turned to sculpture and Alexandre's acquaintance Constantin Brancusi. Modigliani was impressed by Brancusi's simple, strong style and used elements of it in his own sculptures. In 1910, he began one of his major works, "Head", carved from limestone. This piece, which because of its substantial scale took two years to complete, also incorporated Asian and African influences, which Modigliani had picked up via the avant-garde movement in Paris. His intention in his sculpting work was to produce pure, strong forms with a minimum of embellishment or decoration.

Modigliani returned to painting a few years after this, and in 1914 Paul Guillaume, an art dealer who was an associate of Max Jacob's, purchased some of his work; soon afterwards, he began to act as Modigliani's promoter. The artist met with only modest success but, that summer, he met and fell in love with Beatrice Hastings – real name Emily Haigh – a poet and writer originally from England. He painted her portrait on a number of occasions, giving her a somewhat ethereal appearance. Hastings was impressed and attempted to get her lover's work more widely appreciated, but she fell out with him over his dissolute behaviour and before long the couple had ended their relationship.

Last years

Alone again, Modigliani fell once more into poor health, drinking as heavily as before. Although he recovered from illness, he was too weak to resume his sculpting work and instead devoted himself almost entirely to portraits. Indeed, only three of his landscapes are known to exist. His new paintings, many female nudes, saw Modigliani finally achieve the style for which he remains best known, the heads of his subjects striking in their elegance and stylised, elongated appearance. They were fairly poorly received despite their expressiveness, though Modigliani did manage his own exhibition in late 1917, at Berthe Weill's gallery. The deliberate placing of a nude in the window resulted in its temporary closure by the police on grounds of morality, but eventually led to a jump in sales.

Also in 1917, Modigliani fell in love again, this time with an art student named Jeanne Hebuterne; they later lived together. The artist's associates hoped that this would give him the stability he needed to improve his lifestyle, but in fact he continued to take drugs and drink alcohol at a prodigious rate. Even so, he produced portraits of his partner that showed a calmness that had previously been absent; this was also present in his 1919 self-portrait. In 1918 the couple had a daughter, and Modigliani's determination not to repeat the poverty of his own childhood pushed him to increase his output despite his increasingly failing health.

Death and legacy

Although happier in his domestic affairs than he had been for many years, Modigliani never managed entirely to rid himself of his health problems, and he suffered frequent alcoholic blackouts. In January 1920 he contracted tubercular meningitis, at that time incurable in its final stages, and he succumbed to the disease a few days later in a local hospital. His funeral was a major event, with the large attendance including many members of the Parisian artistic community. His wife, eight months pregnant, was inconsolable and jumped from a high window at her parents' house, killing both herself and her unborn baby. Her family blamed Modigliani and insisted she be buried separately; only in 1930 did they relent and allow her to be moved to Père Lachaise Cemetery to be with her love.

Modigliani's works were not especially popular with art buyers while he lived, but later their reputation improved greatly, and by the late 20th century he was almost universally acknowledged as one of the great portrait painters. The mixture of passionate hedonism and penniless misery that had marked his life became part of his appeal in death, and his biography has been used as the basis for numerous books and feature films. One of these, Man and Myth, was written by his daughter. In recent years, Modigliani has been recognised as having been highly innovative in combining emotional insight and experimentation in his paintings.

Modigliani paintings have sold for high prices on the international art market, despite the fact that no universally agreed catalogue of hiss works exists, a problem exacerbated by doubts over the authenticity of some of the paintings included in recent lists by Christian Parisot. The artist's nudes are the most sought after, with the current record set in 2015 at Christie's in New York. Here, his 1917 piece "Red Nude" ended the bidding at $170 million, a record by far for any Modigliani. Other notable sales include "Le Belle Romaine", which sold for $68 million in 2010, and a portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne, which made $19 million.