Amedeo Modigliani Biography

Amedo ModiglianiAmedeo Modigliani is best known as a portrait painter. A Modigliani portrait contains an almost unrecognizable human form, with stretched and elongated features, a mask-like face and empty, almond eyes. These Modigliani portraits form a bridge of sorts between the abstract art of the Cubists and the swirling, expressionist art of Toulouse Lautrec. Modigliani's painting career was brief, as his life was cut short by longstanding illness and an addiction to alcohol and drugs.


Amedo Modigliani was born in Livorno, Italy, in 1884. His parents were Sephardic Jews. Modigliani's father ran a banking business when Amedo was young, but was forced to work as a merchant when the business collapsed. Amedo's mother, Eugenia, ran an experimental school, and encouraged a sort of bohemian lifestyle for her family. This lifestyle will reappear throughout the Modigliani biography.

Amedo Modigliani was a frail, sickly child. He developed pneumonia multiple times in his childhood, and was nursed back to health by his devoted mother and sisters. He developed tuberculosis as well, leaving him with scarred lungs that would plague him for the rest of his life.

Eugenia Modigliani encouraged her son to paint and draw, and began to coax him to begin a formal study as an artist. In 1898, Modigliani began to study art with Guglielmo Micheli, known as a leader of the Italian Impressionist movement. In 1902, Modigliani moved to Florence, and began a serious study at the Free School of the Nude. This deep immersion in the human form would provide the foundation for the most famous Modigliani paintings the artist would generate late in life. In 1903, Modigliani continued these studies in Venice. He also began to study the oil paintings generated by the masters of the Italian Renaissance. This would have a profound impact on paintings by Modigliani as well. During his time in Venice, Modigliani was introduced to alcohol and drugs and began a lifelong experimentation with the substances.


In 1906, Amedo Modigliani moved to Paris to begin his career as an artist. His mother provided him with a small allowance, but this would prove inadequate to support Modigiani. Amedo had begun to drink heavily and experiment with drugs, and would spend his allowance on these substances, providing him with no money for housing. Modigliani began to live a wild existence, drinking and stripping stark naked, dancing in the streets and landing in jail for public drunkenness. Modigliani was likely, in part, reacting to French anti-Semitism, which he had never encountered in Italy. He began to surround himself with Jewish friends.

In 1907, Modigliani developed a friendship with Paul Alexandre, who bought several paintings by Modigliani and worked to obtain painting commissions on behalf of Modigliani. Few Modigliani paintings from this period survive. In 1909, Modigliani was forced to return home, too ill to continue to work in Paris and live on his own.

When Modigliani returned to Paris later in 1909, he settled in Montparnasse and decided to become a sculptor. For an artist who had spent so much of his educational career studying the human form, this seemed an apt choice. Modigliani began to study with the sculptor Constantin Branusci. While Modigliani would never become famous or wealthy as a result of his sculpting, his education wouldn't go to waste. Branusci introduced Modigliani to African art, including the elongated masks the natives generated. These masks would reappear over and over in the Modigliani portraits he would generate later in his career. In 1914, Modigliani returned to painting. Sculpting stone is difficult, physical labor and Modigliani was never well enough to undertake this sort of manual labor on a day-to-day basis.

In 1917, Modigliani met the young artist Jeanne Hebuterne. He fell madly in love with her, and the two began a relationship that would last through the end of Modigliani's life. The Modigliani portraits of Jeanne Hebuterne are some of the most famous paintings he ever generated. He painted her clothed, nude, seated and lying down. He painted her looking beautiful, and he painted her looking awkward and ungainly. Modigliani began working with the art dealer Paul Guillaume, who secured a one-man show for Modigliani at the Galerie Berthe Weill in December of 1917. Paintings by Modigliani at this show caused a scandal, so much so that the show was closed after only a few hours. Modigliani had painted nudes in a frank manner, juxtaposed with bright blocks of color, and viewers simply didn't know what to make of them. Very few Amedo Modigliani paintings were sold during this show, and the family continued to struggle for money.


In 1918, Jeanne gave birth to the couple's second child, a daughter. Modigliani was delighted, but still had no reliable way to provide financial support for his family. Modigliani got drunk on the way to the registrar's office to claim the daughter as his child, although she was later officially named part of the family. This daughter would go on to write the official Modigliani biography later in her life.

In 1919, Modigliani was included in a show of French art held in London. Modigliani continued to paint the nude form during this period. Le Grande Nu from 1919 contains a large female nude figure, completely free and comfortable with her own body. Modigliani's paintings were well received, and fetched high sale prices. Modigliani was able to buy a home for his family, but his health continued to deteriorate. His lungs were weak from tuberculosis and he continued to drink heavily and use drugs. He celebrated the 1920 New Year in style, but soon became ill and took to bed. His neighbors became concerned and alerted the police, who found Modigliani ill in bed, surrounded by tins of sardines and empty bottles of alcohol. Jeanne was with him, but hadn't called in any medical help. Modigliani was declared terminal with tubercular meningitis and died without regaining consciousness. Jeanne was stricken by the death, and jumped from an open window two days after his death, killing herself and their unborn child.

While the Modigliani biography is brief and tragic in many ways, the paintings by Modigliani remain some of the most touching and popular paintings in modern art. The portraits, in particular, display a sensitivity and a longing that had been missing from previous portrait paintings of the early 1900s. Modigliani brought emotion back to modern art, and this is a huge contribution.