Amedeo Modigliani 1884 —1920


Amedeo Modigliani was born in Livorno, Italy on July 12th, 1884 as the fourth son of Eugénie Garsin and Flaminio Modigliani. Both the Garsins and the Modiglianis descended from the Sephardic jews that were expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492, the survivors seeking refuge in various European countries. In the 19th century the Jewish community in Italy lived in freedom and prosperity, many of them doing business as merchants across the Mediterranean. Eugénie Garsin (Modigliani's mother) grew up in Marseille, France and at the age of 15 is married to Flaminio, whose family is from a village near Rome, called Modigliani, but later moves to Livorno, in the Italian province Tuscany. Tuscany is famous for it's literature (Dante, Boccaccio), which may be why the mature Amedeo Modigliani would always seek the company of writers and poets. Although much of the art of Modigliani is inspired by his adult life in France, his motivation can usually be traced back to his youth in Italy. "Cara Italia" (beloved Italy) were his last words when he died in 1920.

Initially, Amedeo Modigliani's father is a successful merchant and owner of a real estate agency, but goes bankrupt and is in debt when Amedeo is born. Because of mining related business, Flaminio Modigliani (Amedeo's father) spends most of his time on the island Sardinia and the rest of the family goes to live with the parents of Amedeo's mother. There Amedeo develops a particularly good relationship with his grandfather Isaac, who spoke four languages and had an interest in philosophy. Amedeo's philosophical interest is attributed to his contact with his grandfather.

In spite of the bad financial situation of Amedeo's father, and probably with the help of the affluent parents of Amedeo's mother, the Modigliani children get a good education, resulting in the first child Emmanuel becoming a lawyer and the third child Umberto a mining engineer. The second child, Margherita continues to live with her parents and will adopt Jeanne Modigliani, Amedeo's daughter. Amedeo is also well educated and gets familiar with poetry and literature, from Dante to Nietsche. His mother is ambivalent about his future: she suspects a career in art, but at the same time is hesitant about encouraging the "pursuit of this shadow". In 1898 Amedeo begins his drawing classes and starts to paint frantically, neglecting his school work. He gets painting lessons from painter and teacher Guglielmo Micheli (1866-1926) in Livorno. Micheli is a "macchiaiolo" of the second generation, macchiaiolo is derived from "macchia" (stain) and refers to an Italian style of painting that is related to impressionism.

During his teens Modigliani gets seriously ill several times, from pleuritis to typhus and tuberculosis. His reckless disposition begins to show when, in spite of his weak lungs, he starts to use hashish. Amedeo Modigliani "has the manners of a spoilt child", as his mother said and during his late teens he begins to develop a decadent lifestyle.

Due to his tuberculosis, Amedeo has to interrupt his lessons with Micheli in 1901 and his mother takes him on a trip through the South of Italy, visiting the museums in many different cities, where he develops an interest in sculpture. On his return to Livorno, he heads for the local marble quarry to create his first sculptures.

In 1902 Modigliani enrolls in the Florence School of Nude Studies, where his teacher is Giovanni Fatori (1828-1905). Modigliani already knew Fatori from the visits the latter had paid to the workshop of his former student Micheli, when Modigliani was present as a student. Fatori was one of the main first generation macchiaioli.

In 1903 Modigliani moves to Venice where he joins the Venice School of Nude Studies. In Venice Modigliani frequents the nightlife of "disreputable neighborhoods" and is recruited by an Italian nobleman to join occult sessions in the company of young girls and under the influence of soft drugs. In a letter to his friend Oscar Ghiglia (a fellow student at Micheli's workshop) he writes:

"....The man that cannot leave behind everything that is old and rotten is not a man, but a bourgeois. You suffer, you are right, but can't suffering serve to find yourself and to make your dream stronger than your desire?......always let your aesthetic needs prevail over your social obligations."

This quote doesn't only show the spirit of the times at the beginning of the 20th century, which was an era of innovation and loss of belief in old values, but also testifies of the romantic energy and the sense of sacrifice of the young men of his generation. Some people learn to combine this energy with a more practical attitude, or at least survive their romantic phase. Alas this was not to be for Amedeo Modigliani, who would always remain a romantic at his own expense, as we will see.

Now with plenty of Venice nightlife experience under his belt, Amedeo is "ready for Paris", where he goes in 1906. There he lives at several different address, among which Le Bateau-Lavoir, a block in Montmarte and so called because it resembles a laundry boat. At Le Bateau he meets Picasso, Braque and poet Max Jacob who would become his best friend. In fact, much of the European artistic avant garde was then assembled in Paris, leading to a unique artistic cross-fertilization which formed modern art as we know it today and in which Amedeo Modigliani played a crucial role.

Modigliani had a deep respect for Picasso as an artist. He used some aspects of Picasso's cubism, and the way Picasso would depict his artistic friends during his blue period would remain one of the main themes in Modigliani's own work. When Picasso lost a close friend, he expressed his grief in a series of paintings, which besides genuine expressions of mourning, also contain an element of (post-)adolescent pathos and are in a sense a celebration of lifestyle. While artistically much more mature than Picasso's blue period, Modigliani's paintings of his art-friends lack Picasso's motivation (the suicide of his friend) and rather than a real life tragedy, they express the discontentment and boredom of a group of young bohemians. They do however, reveal Modigliani's unique artistic temperament, which we will get to later.

Oil painting - Jeanne Hébuterne wearing a "big straw hat".
Jeanne Hébuterne with straw hat
More than anything, Modigliani was a portraitist and it is this author's belief that the way he drew and painted the human face motivated Picasso in such a way that he would eventually come to the "Picasso style", which would make him the most celebrated artist of the 20th century. As an artist I have found that, on trying to reduce Picasso's style to it's essence, what one comes up with is Modigliani's style, as least as far as the drawing is concerned. Picasso's style is a fascinating synthesis of many of the important styles in modern art, in which he "borrowed" from many of his contempories, and in Modigliani's case he would borrow from a man who had initially borrowed from him.
If you look at Picasso's painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon then you'll see faces that are crude, and made that even the artistic avant garde would doubt his sanity. It was Modigliani who introduced subtlety to abstract portraiture and it took Picasso decades to construct his version of a mature style of abstract portraiture, which had come naturally to Modigliani.
One of the best examples of Modigliani's style is his painting Jeanne Hébuterne wearing a straw hat. One of the key-elements of Modigliani's portraitism were the slanted heads, derived from Byzantine cariatides. However, the eyes and mouth are almost horizontal and the curvature of the nose makes it almost vertical. Regardless of these artefacts, the portrait is still as subtle and descriptive as a figurative portrait but has the directness and expression of abstract art. The portrait's subtlety is due to Modigliani's unique talent, but it's essence, the facial construction is one of the most important artistic inventions of modern art.
Picasso would go on schematize Modigliani's facial constructions, which would become the key-element of his own style and what people associate Picasso with, today. This schematized version of Modigliani's style would prove to be far more copyable and hence of far greater direct influence, but would never attain Modigliani's artistic maturity and subtlety, nor would it result in portraits that accurately resembled the subject, as Modigliani's portraits did.
Put in sportive terms: Picasso was the most successful center-forward in the history of art, scoring goals from other people's assists, especially Modigliani's. If this sound negative, bear in mind that one has to admire Picasso for his massive intelligence and his uncanning ability to analyze the work of other artists and to come to a style that summarizes modern art, providing an ideal stepping stone for his successors.

The list of influences shown above is how art history chooses to describe the background of Modigliani's work, but a spectacular omission is the work of Vincent van Gogh. No-one neither disputes the expressionist quality of Modigliani's art, nor will many disagree that Vincent van Gogh is the arch-father of expressionism. It therefore seems unlikely that Van Gogh was not a major influence on Modigliani and there is ample evidence that he was.
In Modigliani's painting Jeanne Hébuterne wearing a straw hat the influence of Van Gogh is clearly visible by the prominent monochrome background, the thick, dark contours, the course, expressive brush strokes in the straw hat and the flatness of most of the painting.

Modigliani and the School of Paris

The art of Amedeo Modigliani cannot be classified as an -ism. One simply says that he is part of The School of Paris, which refers to a group of international artists that lived and worked in France during the pre-WWII period. Because a definition of the School of Paris is rather vague, it's difficult to give an exact number of how many artists belonged to it, some say it's around one hundred. The core of the School of Paris was formed by Jewish artists from Central and Eastern Europe who had left their native countries, sometimes due to ethnic persecution, but also because of artistic reasons: The Jewish Faith didn't tolerate figurative images, so Jewish abstract artists were forced to look for an environment that tolerated figurative art. Their relationship with France is interesting. On the one hand they admired the French culture, on the other hand the French restraint was at odds with their Jewish and Slav temperament. Although Paris is the cradle of expressionism (Van Gogh), the mentality of expressionism goes against the French sense of restraint, and there are few, if any, true French expressionists. However, the School of Paris lived and breathed expressionism, partly because of the influence of Van Gogh, as well as the German expressionists, but first and foremost because of the Jewish background of many artists of the School of Paris.

According his mother, Modigliani had been a spoilt child and in Venice he got his first taste of the hedonic life style, which he would bring to perfection in Paris. Modigliani was the archetypical Latin Lover: charming, handsome and irresistible to women. This side of his personality would form a remarkable combination with his profound intellectuality, which showed in his choice of women. While Modigliani had many short lived affairs, his longer term relationships would be with women that were involved in art. Several of of his more serious affairs were with writers, such as British journalist Beatrice Hastings (1879 - 1943, their relationship lasted from 1914 to 1916).

Probably his true love was Jeanne Hébuterne. They met in 1916 when Hébuterne was a 19 years old art student. Their friends described her as depressed and the few photos that are left of her, suggest a depth and intensity that probably would have attracted Modigliani. All the more remarkable it is that Modigliani consistently portrayed her as a "jolie franÇaise", cheery and nonchalant, with brighter, more exuberant colors than he would normally use. Usually Modigliani was a ruthless and truthful portraitist, but Jeanne Hébuterne would be idealized, making her appear more shallow than she probably was.
Artistically, 1916 is a very productive year for Modigliani. He has his first one-man exhibition at the gallery of Berthe Weill, which is ended by the police because of two of Modigliani's nude paintings in the gallery's showroom.

In 1918 Paris is bombarded by the German air force. Modigliani's art dealer Zborowski decides conditions in Paris are becoming too difficult and so he moves to the South of France, taking with him most of his artists, which includes Modigliani, who goes to live between Nice and Cagnes. Their daughter Jeanne is born in Nice.


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Young Woman in Broad Hat

Young Woman in Broad Hat
Crayon on paper

8.2 x 5.1inches 21 x 12 cm
Signed and inscribed lower right to the painter Ortiz, an intimate of Modigliani
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