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Modigliani and La Vie de Bohème

by David Fox

“With one eye you are looking at the outside world, while with the other you are looking within yourself.”

A participant in the Ecole de Paris, Modigliani modernized two of the enduring themes of art history: the nude and the portrait; his nudes and portraits- characterized by asymmetrical compositions, elongated figures and simple but monumental use of line- are among the most important portraits of the 20th century.

Amadeo Clemente Modigliani was born on July 12, 1884, into a household of faded luxury to Jewish parents, Flaminio and Eugenia, in Livorno, Italy. Shortly before his birth, the family businesses, had fallen onto hard times, forcing the Modiglianis to declare bankruptcy- his father squandered the family fortune and left.

Amadeo’s timely arrival may have resulted in the rescue of many valuable heirlooms; according to family legend, soldiers were forced to avoid Eugenia in childbirth as they came to repossess the furniture, in accordance with an old Italian custom that forbade the seizure of any possessions in the bed of a woman in labor.

His mother, Eugenia, an independent woman, went to work, which was nearly unheard of for a woman in Italian bourgeois families. She translated D’Annunzio for an American writer, opened an experimental school and instructed her children to read Henri Bergson and Nietzsche.

The atmosphere at home was religiously unobservant, liberal, and pluralistic.


Illnesses and The Fundamentals

In 1895, Amadeo contracted the first of several serious illnesses, typhoid, that he battled throughout childhood. His mother preferred an academic education for his son, but later acceded to his wishes to be an artist.

The following year, Amadeo gave up his regular schooling entirely to study with his drawing teacher Guglielmo Micheli, who instructed Modigliani in the fundamentals of the classical art.

After being diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1901, Modigliani recuperated in southern Italy, visiting museums in Rome, Naples, Florence and Venice. These visits familiarized him with classical Italian painting and sculpture, fueling his enthusiasm for the fine arts.

After the recuperation, he moved to Florence to study figure drawing at the Scuola Libera di Nudo.

Post-Impressionism in Italy and France

In Florence, intrigued by Manuel Ortiz de Zerate’s descriptions of Paris and the avant-garde, Amadeo decided to pursuit his ambitions there. But, encouraged by his mother to stay in Florence and restless for new opportunities, he moved to Venice and enrolled in the Scuola Libera di Nudo at the Istituto di Belli Arti, which he found overly traditional in its curriculum.

Growing increasingly dissatisfied with the art scene in Italy, with the mother’s blessing, Modigliani moved to Paris in 1909.

In Paris, he settled in an artist commune in the Montmartre and enrolled in de Académie Colaross. He threw himself feverishly into his work which by this time showed the influence of Post-Impressionism and painters such as Paul Cézanne and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Very soon, he was absorbed into the Bateau Lavoir circle, which included Max Jacob, Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, among other well-known art and literary figures.

Searching for an innovative style that could compete with those practiced by Parisian avant-garde, Amadeo Modigliani concentrated on painting. In this period, his work shows a high regard for the Post-Impressionists. Head of a Woman Wearing a Hat, from 1907, makes use of a curvilinear style, as a characteristic of Art Nouveau, but also, reveals the influence of Henri de Toulouse- Lautrec in the tilt of the woman shoulders and expressive face, revealing Modigliani’s early interest in representing psychological states.

In 1906, exhibition of three paintings at the Laura Wylda Gallery failed to generate any interest in his work. Frustration with his lack of success led Modigliani to abuse alcohol and drugs, further exacerbating his health problems.

But, his meeting with Paul Alexandre, a young physician, in 1907, who became his close friend and much-needed patron of his work, gave Modigliani a renewed sense of accomplishment and a steady source of work.

The piece named Jewess from 1908, a one of the Alexandre ‘s favorite works by artist is a thickly painted canvas influenced by German Expressionist and Paul Cézanne. Although wearing a composed expression, the stark whiteness of the sitter’s face contrasts harshly with her dark apparel, giving the composition and inner tension and suggesting strong emotions lying beneath the surface.

The painting’s melancholic overtones have invited comparison with the work of Pablo Picasso’s Blue Period. This piece is also one of the few Jewish-themed works by Modigliani, who was of Sephardic Jewish descent and publically embraced his Jewish identity.

Modigliani’s Sculptures

Trying to refocus his attention on sculpture, Modigliani looked to Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi, who he met in 1909. Although Modigliani is best known as a painter, he focused on sculpture early on in his career, and, some scholars have argued, may have regarded his true calling as that of sculptor.

The simple elegance of Brancusi’s forms made a strong impression on Modigliani and his style began to manifest itself in Modigliani’s work, as in the limestone Head, from 1910-12.

Modigliani Sculpture Limestone Head
Modigliani Sculpture Limestone Head

In this piece, abstracted features and graceful contours suggests Brancusi’s influence, while elongated proportions, especially the swan-like neck, is reminiscent of ancient Egyptian busts, among the non-Western art forms that also influenced Modigliani’s work.

The subject’s elongated neck and nose, also slit-like eyes closely resemble the artist’s handling of these features in his nudes and portraits, suggesting the close connection between his work in sculpture and two-dimensional media.

The sculptures Modigliani created in 1909-1914, on which twenty-five carvings and one woodcut survive, were highly influential on his work as a painter, helping him arrive at the linear and abstracted vocabulary of his painting.


In 1914, the outbreak of World War I increased the difficulties of Modigliani’s life. Aleksandre and some of his other friends were at the front; his paintings did not sell; his delicate health was deteriorating because of his poverty, feverish work ethic and abuse of drugs and alcohol.

He was in the midst of a troubled affair with the South African poet Beatrice Hastings with whom he lived for two years (1914-1916). Beatrice Hastings became the subject of Modigliani’s several paintings and many of these portraits have an angelic quality that suggests a parallel between Dante’s own Beatrice and Hastings-an idea that likely appealed to Modigliani.

Soon after their separation, he fell seriously ill from alcoholism and malnourishment.

Modigliani returned entirely to painting about 1915, but his experience as a sculptor had fundamental consequences for his painting style. He reduced and almost eliminated chiaroscuro (the use of gradations of light and shadow to achieve the illusion of three-dimensionality), and he achieved a sense of solidity with strong contours and the richness of colors.

Modigliani’s Portraits

Modigliani was not a professional portraitist; for him the portrait was only occasion to isolate a figure as a kind of sculptural relief through firm and expressive contour drawing. He painted his friends, usually personalities of the Parisian artistic and literary world, but he also portrayed unknown people, including servants and models.

Modigliani’s portraiture achieves a unique combination of generalization and specificity. His portraits convey his subjects’ personalities, while his trademark stylization and use of recurring motifs-almond-shaped eyes and long necks- lends them uniformity. This part of his work also serves as a vital art historic record, comprising a gallery of major figures of the Ecole de Paris circle, to which he belonged following his move to Paris in 1906.

By this time, he had melded the influences of the Parisian avant-garde and arrived at his signature painting style, characterized by elegant linearity and the depiction of stylized, yet expressive figures. The best of these works give subtle glimpses into the personality of the sitter, such as the artist’s portrait of Jacques Lipchitz and his wife Berthe.

In this double-portrait from 1916, exemplifies Modigliani’s talent for eliciting the inner life of his subjects. Although his stylized method of painting presents two mask-like faces, they reveal subtle clues about the personality of each sitter; Berthe has an open, kindly face, conveyed by the brightness of the paint and downward tilting eyes, and Jacques, with his small, compressed features sloping inward, appears suspicious and calculating.

In the same year Modigliani began associating with the Polish poet and art dealer Leopold Zborowski, who arranged the artist’s first and only solo exhibition in his lifetime, at the Berthe Weill Gallery in December 1917.

Weill installed an attractive nude in the front window. Scandalized, the local police temporarily shut down the exhibition, but the unintended publicity resulted in better sales than usual for the habitually impoverished artist.


Jeanne Hebuterne

In 1917, Amadeo met Jeanne Hebuterne, a young art student and the two fell in love. When Modigliani entered into a relationship with Hebuterne, his close friend hoped that the serious young woman would inspire Modigliani to curb his excesses.

Hebuterne, however, loved the artist with a blind adoration that made no demands. There were no fundamental changes in his behavior, but Modigliani’s portraits of his young lover suggest the artist’s newfound sense of serenity and piece.

The Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne, from 1918, less stylized than those in the artist’s earlier works, the sitter’s features, especially the sly, sideways gaze, suggests a psychological clarity that communicates Jeanne’s inner character.

Modigliani’s Nudes

In 1917, he began painting a series of about 30 large female nudes that, with their glowing colors and sensuous, rounded forms, are among his best works.

Modigliani’s nudes are often frank depictions of sensuality that frequently reference the traditional handling of this theme, but without the mythological context of their artistic precursors. For instance, The Standing Blonde Nude with Dropped Chemise, from 1917, suggests Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, a painting with which Modigliani was pretty familiar from his studies in Florence, through such features as the subject’s long blonde hair, tilted head and the figure’s contrapposto.

However, the classic composition is skillfully subverted and modernized. While Botticelli’s subject artfully covers her genitals with her flowing locks and smiles placidly, Modigliani’s sitter draws attention to this area with her dropped chemise and confronts the viewer with a slight smirk.

Tragic End for the Limestone Thief

In 1918, Hebuterne gave birth to a daughter and new familial responsibilities combined with his professional obligations to Zborowski, spurred Modigliani to increase productivity despite his fading health.

Yet, the artist’s health ultimately gave way, with Modigliani succumbing to tubercular meningitis and died on January, 24, 1920. The next day Hebuterne killed herself and their unborn child by jumping from a window.

Modigliani’s legacy is inextricably bound up with his tragic and bohemian life: his fragile health, which plagued him since childhood; his perpetual pennilessness and-most famously- his over-the-top, self-destructive lifestyle, which included sexual debauchery and overuse of alcohol and drugs.

The cliché is that he was never without his bow of hashish pills or a glass of absinthe. When he wasn’t nursing a café-crème and a hangover at la Rotonde, he was trading portrait sketches for a few centimes; or dancing naked with a woman at the Place Jean-Baptiste Clément at 3 in the morning; or picking fights; or swiping limestone from abandoned buildings for his sculptures because he was too poor to buy his materials.

He was a prototypical handsome, promiscuous, inebriated, pugnacious, misunderstood, tragically ill, vulnerable, gifted and short-lived examplar of la vie de bohème.


About David Fox

David Fox is an artist who created to talk about art and creativity. He loves to write, paint, and take pictures. David is also a big fan of spending time with his family and friends.

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