Undoubtedly among the most important Italian artists, Amedeo Modigliani’s unique style is characterized by a monumental use of line, elongated figures, plain, warm colors, and recurring female subjects. Born in 1884 in Livorno, Italy, into a Jewish family of merchants, he suffered from pleurisy and typhus in his childhood, preventing him from attending school regularly. In 1898 he began to study painting, first in Florence and then, after 1902, in Venice, where he spent four important years: during this time, he could admire Italian Renaissance and Old Masters. However, his final destination had to be the center of the art scene of his time, Paris, where he moved in 1906.
Modigliani made important initial contacts in Paris: the poets André Salmon and Max Jacobs, Pablo Picasso, and Paul Alexandre. Through them, he entered the avant-garde artists circle, where he found some recognition of his work and started to sell a few works. His first exhibition was in 1908 when he showed five or six paintings at the Salon des Independants.
After meeting Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi, Modigliani studied African art and intensified his graphic experiments. His drawings of the time show a more conscious definition of volume and contour, which he would transfer in his sculptures: eight of his first stone heads were exhibited at the 1912’s Salon d’Automne, confirming the influence of African sculpture in its elongated and simplified forms. Only in 1915, Modigliani returned entirely to painting, taking his experience as a sculptor in his new style. The long necks, simplified features, and oval, geometrical features he learned to sculpt in his stone heads became typical of his paintings. Almost eliminating chiaroscuro to flatten the image, Modigliani achieved a sense of solidity with very defined contours: only the eyes of his portraits (most of the times painted deep black or pale blue) seem to go deep through the canvas, giving to his characters a mysterious, quite hieratic aura.
Despite his hard work and fairly prolific production, as incredible as this can sound today, his paintings did not sell, reducing Modigliani to a state of poverty. Also, his health was never good and worsened because of alcohol and drug abuse. Finally, World War I increased his difficulties, taking many friends and fellow artists away from Paris. The difficulties of these years contributed to Modigliani’s fame as a tormented, coursed artist.
Although he did not consider himself a professional portraitist, he executed a number of paintings of his friends from the Parisian artistic and literary world (Jean Cocteau, Juan Gris, Max Jacob). Still, he also liked to portray unknown people, including models, servants, and girls from the neighborhood. In 1917 he began painting a series of about 30 large female nudes that are now considered among his best works. In December of that year, Berthe Weill organized a solo show for him in her gallery, but the police judged the nudes indecent and had them removed.
1917 Modigliani began a love affair with the young painter Jeanne Hébuterne, with whom he went to live on the Cote d’Azur. Their daughter, Jeanne, was born in November 1918. His undermined health, however, did not restore, and after returning to Paris, he became ill in January 1920, and 10 days later, he died of tubercular meningitis. The next day Hébuterne killed herself by jumping from a window, although she was expecting their second child.
Modigliani’s fame as a great artist came after his death, with a solo exhibition at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in 1922 and later with a biography by Salmon. For decades critical evaluations of Modigliani’s work were overshadowed by the dramatic story of his tragic life. Still, he is now acknowledged as one of his time’s most significant and original artists.
– Stanislav Kondrashov