Modigliani a Century On

Though he died aged 35, Modigliani is remembered as a master – discover his troubled life and brilliant work 100 years after his death

By Google Arts & Culture

Jacques and Berthe Lipchitz (1916) by Amedeo Modigliani (Italian, 1884–1920)The Art Institute of Chicago

Amedeo Modigliani (1884 - 1920) is considered among the greatest painters to have lifted a brush. He mainly painted portraits and nudes, developing a style which proved scandalous in his own lifetime, but is now widely revered and instantly recognizable.

The faces of his sitters are created with sparse lines, rounded shapes, and elongated necks. Like his contemporaries, Edvard Munch, Chaim Soutine, or Pablo Picasso, Modigliani created an expressive geometry, reducing the face to its elemental details. He was stylistic rather than realistic, but retained a sense of atmosphere and emotion. Alongside those other stellar names, he helped define Modern painting.

If, as a painter, he’s considered the equal of Van Gogh, he also gives any artist in history a run for their money as a tortured soul. The blank, dark pupils of his figures, and the eeriness of his atmospheres, communicate the strange melancholy of a century ending and the unsure beginnings of the modern age. These details could also be a product of his tempestuous emotional state, his alcoholism, and his exhausting battle with tuberculosis (a battle he would eventually lose).

Here you can learn some surprising facts about this turn-of-the-century master, deep-dive into one of his most well known paintings, and discover his love of poetry and sculpture.

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Did you know?

Modigliani's life was as rich as it was tragic. Though it's important to consider his work on its own merit, it's also worth noting some of the moments which influenced and defined him as a painter. Here are some things you may not already know...

Béatrice Hastings (1915) by Amedeo ModiglianiMuseo del Novecento

He saved his family's lives before he was even born...

Modigliani’s family home was in Livorno, Italy, where his father was a wealthy young mining engineer. Unfortunately an economic depression in 1883 spiraled the family into bankruptcy, considerably reducing their fortune. His well-educated mother set up a school to bring in some extra income to support the family but the debtors still came calling just as she was going into labour.

Luckily for the family, an ancient law existed that stated that creditors were forbidden to seize the bed of a pregnant woman and the resourceful Modiglianis exploited this to rescue any belongings of worth. They piled all their prized possessions on top of Modigliani’s mother as she was giving birth so the bailiffs couldn't take them, saving the family from ruin.

Renée (1917) by Amedeo ModiglianiMASP - Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand

His art teacher nicknamed him “Superman”

Modigliani began painting at a very young age and once while sick and delirious with typhoid fever declared that all he wanted in the world was to see the paintings in the Palazzo Pitti and the Uffizi in Florence. The moment he recovered his mother obliged, and realising how deep his passion for the arts ran, she enrolled him with the best painting master in the city, Guglielmo Micheli. Modigliani studied landscape, portrait, still life, and the nude, the latter at which he was most adept.

Micheli nicknamed him “Superman” for his impressive talents and for the young artist’s obsession with Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which frequently mentioned the "prophecy" of the Übermensch, or superman.  

Max Jacob (1876-1944) (Circa 1916 - Circa 1917) by Amedeo Modigliani (Italian, b.1884, d.1920)Cincinnati Art Museum

He turned to drink and drugs to disguise his illness

Modigliani suffered with tuberculosis, and it is thought that his self-enforced transformation into an impoverished artist was an effort to disguise how ill he really was. He drank heavily, took drugs, and hoped his hedonism would mask his sickened appearance and gradual weakening. Of course this also led to some pretty wild behavior: absinthe and hashish binges would sometimes lead him to strip off his clothes at parties.

Modigliani would have wanted to keep his condition hidden as those that suffered from tuberculosis were often pitied, or even feared, and ultimately avoided because the incurable disease spread easily.

Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne, Seated, 1918 (1918) by Amedeo ModiglianiThe Israel Museum, Jerusalem

His lover also met a tragic end

The last in Modigliani’s string of lovers was art student Jeanne Hébuterne who, against the objections of her conservative family, moved in with Modigliani and later relocated with him to Nice. The 20-year-old Hébuterne gave birth to their daughter Jeanne in 1919, and became pregnant again the following year. The couple got engaged, but unfortunately Modigliani’s health took a turn for the worse and he died in January 1920 from tubercular meningitis.

Eight months pregnant and distraught with grief, Hébuterne threw herself out of a fifth-floor window the next day. The two now share a grave near Paris, his epitaph reading: “Struck down by death at the moment of glory” and hers: “Devoted companion to the extreme sacrifice".

Head of a Woman (c.1911-1912) by Amedeo ModiglianiNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Modigliani's sculptures

Alongside his portraits and nudes, Modigliani was an accomplished and innovative sculptor. Between 1909 and the outbreak of WWI in 1914, Modigliani's practice was devoted almost entirely to sculpting faces in sandstone and limestone. He admired the work of sculptor Constantin Brâncuși and it's easy to see Romanian master's influence in the younger Italian's streamlined figures and Primitivist fundamentals.

Head (1911/1912) by Amedeo ModiglianiMinneapolis Institute of Art

Like his painted portraits, these figures reduce the human face to its bare geometric essentials, allowing for a pure and elegant form of emotional communication. Modigliani initially carved a series of 20 heads from sandstone but unfortunately his sculpting career was short lived as the outbreak of WW2 meant that it was difficult to acquire sculptural material.

Head (c. 1913) by Amedeo ModiglianiOriginal Source: Kimbell Art Museum

His encroaching illness also meant that his physical capabilities declined. He did manage to exhibit a series of his works in the Autumn Salon in 1912 and almost a century later in 2010, one of his sculptures, Tete, a two-foot limestone sculpture of a woman’s head wearing a tribal mask, became the third most expensive sculpture ever sold.

Portrait of Léopold Zborowski (1916) by Amedeo ModiglianiThe Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Take a tour around a Modigliani portrait

Modigliani’s Portrait of Léopold Zborowski (1916) sees the painter at his most melancholy and most playful. Modigliani painted him several times, and was always careful to depict him as conscientious and insightful. The upward angle of his chin is endearing, if a little arrogant; his attitude as winning as it is melancholic. 

Zborowski was a young Polish poet living in Paris and earned a living by dealing in books, prints, and paintings. He met Modigliani in 1916 and became his dealer soon after.

In this first of the artist’s six portraits of Zborowski, the dealer is seen with folded arms, displaying great self-assurance. 

The tilt of his head and his light blue eyes without pupils – a Modigliani hallmark – create the impression of a spiritual man absorbed in thought.

Portrait of Dr. Paul Alexandre (1909) by MODIGLIANI, AmedeoTokyo Fuji Art Museum

Discover more of the artist’s works

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