Amedeo Modigliani was born in Livorno, Italy in 1884. He began to study painting at age 14 and displayed immense talent. In 1906, Modigliani moved to Paris, which was the avant-garde center of Europe at that time. There, amid some of the brightest lights of the artistic community, he began to develop his own unique style, as seen in the sculptures and portraits he created during this period. However, throughout his life, Modigliani was plagued by poor health, made worse by his often self-destructive habits. In 1920, he died in Paris at the age of 35.
Amedeo Clemente Modigliani was born in Livorno, Italy, on July 12, 1884. His parents were Jewish money-changers who had fallen on hard times and had to raise Modigliani and his three older siblings in impoverished conditions. A sickly child, Modigliani was taught at home primarily by his mother who exposed him to literature, philosophy and art, for which he developed a strong and early passion. In 1898, after he had recovered from one his frequent bouts of poor health, his mother arranged for him to study painting with local master Guglielmo Micheli, who instructed Modigliani in the fundamentals of classical art. His young student displayed such immense talent that Micheli often referred to him admiringly as “Superman.”
Unfortunately, in 1900, Modigliani’s studies were interrupted when he contracted tuberculosis, and his mother took him to recuperate in southern Italy. Though he was frequently too weak to work during this time, Modigliani furthered his artistic education through visits to the many museums of Rome and Naples, and when his health improved the following year, he was able to move to Florence to study figure drawing. In 1903, he moved to Venice, where he was enrolled at the Reale Istituto di Belle Arti. In Venice, Modigliani’s talents as an artist continued to grow, but so did his appetites, and he was soon drinking heavily and smoking hash.
In 1906, Modigliani left Italy for Paris, which was then the thriving hub of the European avant-garde world. He studied at Académie Colarossi and settled in an artist commune in the Montmartre section of the city. He threw himself feverishly into his work, which by this time showed the influence of French painters such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Cézanne. His became associates with other artists, including Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris and poet Max Jacob, which morphed what was once a more traditional artistic style into a fusion of many and eventually evolved into something bold and unique. Rejecting more than artistic convention, he also persevered in his self-destructive intake of drugs and alcohol and became involved in numerous love affairs.
But despite his prolific output, neither a 1906 gallery exhibition nor the inclusion of several of his paintings—including The Jewess—in the Salon des Indépendants of 1908 generated any widespread interest in Modigliani’s work, and he was often forced to exchange it for basic necessities. However, he was saved from utter destitution by the steady patronage of a young doctor named Paul Alexandre, who appears in several of Modigliani’s portraits from that period. In 1909, Modigliani’s prospects were further bolstered by his introduction to sculptor Constantin Brâncuși, who introduced him to tribal art. Brâncuși’s revelation can be seen in the African-influenced sculptures that Modigliani would display at the Salon d’Automne in 1912, elongated stone heads that are now considered among his most important work.
The eruption of World War I in 1914 marked the beginning of yet another difficult period for Modigliani, whose perpetually poor health was exacerbated by his continued substance abuse and tumultuous romantic life. However, he produced much of his finest work during this time. Bringing with him the bold lines and geometric abstraction that he had mastered in his sculptures, Modigliani returned to painting portraits, rendering his subjects—which featured the people from his neighborhood, the women who passed through his life and his many friends among the Parisian artistic community—with lines that were bold but simple and masklike faces that were simultaneously flat and evocative.
During the war, Modigliani also drew on his earlier training to create more than 30 female nudes in his new and distinctive style. Berthe Weill featured them in her gallery in late 1917 in what would be the only solo exhibition of Modigliani’s work held during his lifetime. However, Modigliani was given little time to exult in the honor, as the police caught wind of the exhibition and shut it down for “indecency” on the day that it opened.
In 1918, as the German army grew ever closer to Paris and Modigliani’s health continued to decline, he sought refuge in Nice with a young art student named Jeanne Hébuterne, with whom he had become involved the previous year. Their daughter, Jeanne, was born that November. Modigliani’s work from this period—which frequently features Hébuterne—shows a brighter palette and softer lines, perhaps reflecting his more peaceful frame of mind.
But whatever serenity Modigliani might have been experiencing, it would be short-lived. Due to his worsening health, he returned to Paris in 1919 and began a rapid decline. He died of tubercular meningitis on January 24, 1920, while Hébuterne held him in her arms. She in turn was so distraught that, despite being nine months pregnant, she threw herself from a fifth-story window, killing herself and their unborn child.
Modigliani’s embodiment of the self-destructive artist eclipsed his work until after his death; he has since been the focus of several films. With time, his importance and well-deserved place in the history of modern art has come to be recognized, and he is considered among the greatest of his era.
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