Today art critcs say that Amedeo Modigliani paintings are the greatest expressionist portraits of the 20th century. His beautiful signature style depicts single-figures with long necks, elongated and oval faces, almond-shaped eyes and small, pursed lips.
Modigliani’s Early Years
The tragically short-lived Italian painter, Amedeo Modigliani, was born into a Jewish family in Livorno, Italy. As a young boy, Amedeo contracted pleurisy, the first of several serious illnesses that he battled with throughout his childhood years. When sick with typhoid fever a few years later, Amedeo told his mother for the first time that he wanted to become a painter. Naturally his mother wanted her son to pursue a “proper” career but she allowed him to follow his dreams.
By the time Modigliani was sixteen years old, he had battled and survived serious bouts of pleurisy and typhoid fever and was diagnosed with an early death sentence – Tuberculosis.
Amedeo Modigliani’s time was limited…. he decided follow his dreams
Hopeful Beginnings for Modigliani in Paris
Amedeo Modigliani left Italy at the age of 21 and came to Paris to be part of the vibrant avant-garde art world.
He rented a studio in the shabby Le Bateau-Lavoir, a commune for penniless artists in Montmartre. Other broke wannabe artists who rented at Le Bateau-Lavoir at different times include Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Jacob, Apollinaire, Utrillo, Marie Laurencin, Vlaminck and Matisse to name a few.
When he first arrived, Modigliani had a rather sophisticated look, unlike his bohemian peers. He decorated his studio with elegant drapes and hung Renaissance reproductions on his walls. He wrote in a letter to his mother that he couldn’t believe how shabby Picasso dressed!
Paris Dreams Turn Sour for the Young Italian Painter
However, within a year of arriving in Paris, Modigliani’s appearance and reputation declined dramatically. Those around Modigliani described him as the ‘Prince of Vagabonds’, dressed shabbily, drunk, broke and addicted to drugs.
His self-destructive behaviour may have stemmed from his battle with tuberculosis. Drinking himself into oblivion took the focus away from his severe illness and the stigma attached to his disease. In those days, tuberculosis was not curable and was also highly contagious. It was one of the leading causes of death in France. Meryle Secrest wrote the following:
Modigliani’s self-destructive and wild behavior stood out even in the bohemian art world. He drank alcohol constantly, smoked hashish, used absinthe and had non-stop affairs, one after the other or even a few at the same time. Sometimes when drunk at social events, he would strip naked.
His life in Paris was difficult. He spent most of his art career battling with failure. He lived in poverty.
Amedeo Modigliani & Jeanne Hébuterne’s Doomed Relationship
Jeanne Hébuterne, a talented artist, also made her way to Paris to continue her art studies. In the spring of 1917, Jeanne Hébuterne met the handsome Amedeo Modigliani. They had an affair and the two fell deeply in love. Her parents were against this union but she moved in with Modigliani anyway.
In the fall of 1918, they left Paris and moved to Nice in Southern France. Modigliani’s agent hoped that the artist may have more success in selling his art to the wealthy art patrons who spent their winters in Nice. During their period in Nice, their first daughter was born.
The following spring, they returned to Paris and Jeanne became pregnant again. However on 24 January 1920, the doomed artist died of tuberculosis. Jeanne Hébuterne’s family brought her to their home but Jeanne threw herself out of the fifth-floor apartment window the day after Modigliani’s death, killing herself and her unborn child.
Both Modigliani and Hébuterne are buried side by side at the Pere-Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
Amedeo Modigliani Paintings and Artwork
When Modigliani arrived in Paris, he spent the first few years working at a furious pace. He drew constantly. Modigliani sketched as many as a hundred drawings a day. However, dissatisfied with his works, he destroyed many. Other drawings and artworks he gave away to girlfriends and they not appreciating his talents tossed them out. Many other artworks were lost as Modigliani continually moved apartments.
Modigliani’s Exposure to the Impressionists & Post Impressionists
Here in Paris, Modigliani discovered the artworks of Renoir, Degas, Gauguin, Picasso and Matisse. However, it was the post-impressionists Toulouse-Lautrec and Cezanne who most influenced Modigliani’s style. Later, the Italian artist found his own unique style, not belonging to any of the art movements of that period.
Modigliani exhibited now and then but barely sold any artwork. Desperately needing to sell his paintings, he sometimes approached galleries door to door or bartered his paintings for food or rent. Frustrated with his failures further exacerbated his drugs and alcohol abuse.
His 1907, Modigliani met a young doctor, Paul Alexandre, who became his friend and patron of his artworks. This made him a little hopeful and provided him with a source of income and encouragement that he desperately needed.
Modigliani Starts Experimenting with Sculpture
Although Amedeo Modigliani is most famous for his paintings, he actually considered himself a sculptor. He studied art in his youth in Florence and Rome and loved the classical masters.
In 1909, Modigliani starts experimenting with sculpture. Through Paul Alexandre, he meets the patriach of modern sculpture Constantin Brancusi. The basic elegance of Brancusi’s artworks make a strong impression on Modigliani. The young Italian art spends an entire year learning from Brancusi before starting his own creative sculptures.
Modigliani created a unique series of 26 sculptures between 1911 and 1914. Similar to his painting style, his sculptures have elongated female heads but also with elements of African tribal art and of Ancient Egypt & Greece.
However, by 1914 Modigliani’s health was deteriorating due to his tuberculosis and his heavy substance abuse. He no longer had the energy to physically carve the stone. Modigliani there stopped sculpting and return to painting. However, he left a small but incredible series of sculptures that are worth millions today.
His One and Only Solo Exhibition Causes a Scandal
Modigliani focused on portrait painting only. In 1917, the artist met a Polish art dealer Leopold Zborowski, who arranged a first and only solo exhibition for Modigliani.
For this exhibition, Modigliani painted a series of nudes, which are today among his most famous paintings. (However back then, it caused a different reaction!!)
Installed in the front window of the Exhibition was a beautiful Modigliani nude in order to entice people inside. The nude figure displayed pubic hair which created a huge scandal. In addition, Modigliani’s ‘modern women’ in this exhibition were painted as defiant and sexual. Their unapologetic poses and stares conveyed women comfortable with their bodies and as painter’s models. This, in itself, was a scandalous statement.
The police shutdown the exhibition temporarily. However this scandal worked in favor of Modigliani and the exhibition became far more successful because of the scandal it caused.
People were starting to notice Modigliani’s art. That summer, Modigliani and Utrillo were the stars of a major art exhibition in London. The influential novelist and critic Arnold Bennett wrote the following in the exhibition’s catalog:
Modigliani’s portraits have a suspicious resemblance to masterpieces
Only at his Funeral Did Amedeo Modigliani’s Paintings Skyrocket in Price
On one page in his sketch book at the beginning of 1920, Modigliani scrawled,
“A new year. Here begins a new life.”
Ironically, he wrote these words only three weeks before he died. Modigliani was at this stage extremely weak and emaciated. He collapsed at home, fell unconscious and was taken to hospital. He died two days later, penniless….
Everyone in the Paris art world attended Modigliani’s funeral. Painters who paid their final respects were Picasso, Léger, Derain, Brancusi and hundreds more. Ironically, at the funeral procession, art dealers approached mourners eager to by Modigliani paintings.
Only days later, galleries stocking Modigliani paintings raised their prices tenfold. Art dealers marked them up even more. Modigliani forgeries flooded the art market.
Sadly, Modigliani’s mother and siblings in Italy did not own any paintings. Modigliani’s daughter, Jeanne, only 14 months old, inherited a small collection organized by her father’s fellow artists.
Amedeo Modigliani Paintings Sell Today For Millions
Did you know that a Modigliani nude auctioned at Christie‘s in 2015 sold for $170.4 million dollars? In May, 2018 Sotheby sold another Modigliani nude sold for $157.2 million dollars. This was the most expensive painting ever sold at Sotheby’s. The irony of ironies for Modigliani!!
Where to View Modigliani Paintings in Paris
And don’t forget to pop into the Pere-Lachaise cemetery to see the graves of Modigliani and his lover, Jeanne Hébuterne