Biography of Amedeo Modigliani, Italian Modernist Artist

Amedeo Modigliani
Apic / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The Italian artist Amadeo Modigliani (July 12, 1884–January 24, 1920) is best known for his portraits and nudes, which featured elongated faces, necks, and bodies. The distinctly modernist works were not celebrated during Modigliani's lifetime, but after his death, he achieved great acclaim. Today, Modigliani is considered a crucial figure in the development of modern painting and sculpture.

Fast Facts: Amadeo Modigliani

  • Occupation: Artist
  • Born: July 12, 1884 in Livorno, Italy
  • Died:  January 24, 1920 in Paris, France
  • Education: Accademia di Belle Arti, Florence, Italy
  • Selected Works: The Jewess (1907), Jacques and Berthe Lipchitz (1916),  Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne (1918)
  • Famous Quote: "When I know your soul, I will paint your eyes."

Early Life and Training

Born into a Sephardic Jewish family in Italy, Modigliani grew up in Livorno, a port city known as a safe haven for those fleeing religious persecution. His family suffered financial ruin at the time of his birth, but they eventually recovered.

A sickly childhood prevented the young Modigliani from receiving a traditional formal education. He battled pleurisy and typhoid fever. However, he began drawing and painting at an early age, and his mother supported his interests.

At age 14, Modigliani enrolled in formal training with local Livorno master Guglielmo Micheli. Modigliani often rejected the ideas of classical painting, but instead of disciplining his pupil, Micheli encouraged Amedeo's experimentation with different styles. After two years of success as a student, Modigliani contracted tuberculosis, which disrupted his artistic education and perhaps his entire life's trajectory: a mere 19 years later, the disease would claim his life.

Parisian Artist

In 1906, Modigliani moved to Paris, the center of artistic experimentation. He settled in an apartment in Le Bateau-Lavoir, a commune for poor, struggling artists. Modigliani's lifestyle was raucous and arguably self-destructive: he became addicted to drugs and alcohol and engaged in numerous affairs.

Biographers have speculated that Modigliani's ongoing struggle with tuberculosis spurred his self-destructive lifestyle. In the early 1900s, tuberculosis was a leading cause of death, and the disease was contagious. Perhaps by burying his struggles under the influence of substances and hard-partying, Modigliani shielded himself from potential social rejection as well as the suffering caused by his illness.

Painting

Modigliani produced new work at a furious pace, creating as many as 100 drawings a day. Most of these drawings no longer exist, however, as Modigliani typically destroyed or discarded them during his frequent moves.

In 1907, Modigliani met Paul Alexandre, a young physician and patron of the arts, who became one of his first steady customers. The Jewess, painted in 1907, was the first Modigliani painting purchased by Alexandre, and is considered one of the prime examples of Modigliani's work during the period.

A few years later, Modigliani's most productive period began. In 1917, with the patronage of Polish art dealer and friend Leopold Zborowski, Modigliani started work on a series of 30 nudes that became some of the most celebrated work of his career. The nudes were featured in Modigliani's first and only solo show, and it became a sensation. Police tried to close the exhibition down on the first day due to charges of public obscenity. With the removal of some of the nudes from a storefront window, the show continued a few days later. 

Portrait of Jeanne Hebuteme by Amadeo Modigliani
A photograph depicting "Portrait of Jeanne Hebuteme" on display in a gallery. Ben A. Pruchnie / Getty Images

Modigliani created a series of portraits of fellow artists including Pablo Picasso while World War I raged in Europe. Among the most famous of these works is a portrait of the artist Jacques Lipchitz and his wife, Berthe.

After beginning a relationship with Jeanne Hebuterne in the spring of 1917, Modigliani entered the final stage of his work. Hebuterne was a frequent subject for his portraits, and they are marked by the use of more subtle colors and elegant lines. Modigliani's portraits of Jeanne Hebuterne are considered some of his most relaxed, peaceful paintings.  

Sculpture

In 1909, Amedeo Modigliani met the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi. The meeting inspired Modigliani to pursue his lifelong interest in sculpture. For the next five years, he focused on sculpting.

A 1912 Paris exhibition at the Salon d'Automne featured eight stone heads by Modigliani. They demonstrate his ability to translate ideas from his paintings to a three-dimensional form. They also reveal strong influences from African sculpture. 

Amedeo Modigliani Sculptures
Laura Lezza / Getty Images

At some point in 1914, at least partially influenced by the rarity of sculpting materials with the outbreak of World War I, Modigliani abandoned sculpture for good.

Later Life and Death

Modigliani suffered from the progression of tuberculosis throughout most of his adult life. After a series of affairs and relationships, including one with Russian poet Anna Akhmatova in 1910, he appeared to live a life of relative contentment with 19-year-old Jeanne Hebuterne beginning in 1917. She gave birth to a daughter, Jeanne, in 1918.

In 1920, a neighbor checked on the young couple after not hearing from them for several days. They found Modigliani in the final stages of tubercular meningitis. He succumbed to the disease in a local hospital on January 24, 1920. At the time of Modigliani's death, Hebuterne was eight months pregnant with the couple's second child; she did by suicide the following day.

Legacy and Influence

During his lifetime, Modigliani was stubbornly idiosyncratic, refusing to associate himself with the art movements of his era, such as CubismSurrealism, and Futurism. Today, however, his work is considered pivotal to the development of modern art.

Sources

  • Meyers, Jeffrey. Modigliani: A Life. Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2014.
  • Secrest, Meryle. Modigliani. Random House, 2011.