Art Styles in 20th century Art Map


Amedeo Modigliani



(1884 - 1920)

The Poetry of Seeing




Life and Work

1884 Amedeo Clemente Modigliani is born on July 12, the fourth and youngest child of Flaminio and Eugenia Modigliani, in Livorno (Leghorn). Tuscany. The family belongs to the more secularised Jewish bourgeoisie and at the time of Modigliani's birth is in a precarious financial situation. Because of an economic crisis in Italy, the family business goes bankrupt and in order to contribute to the family income Modigliani's mother begins to give private lessons and to take on translations. Modigliani grows up in an environment interested in literature and philosophy.

1898 Modigliani contracts typhoid fever and his destiny as an artist is revealed to him in a legendary delirious dream. After his recovery he leaves school and takes lessons from the painter Guglielmo Micheli at the Art Academy in Livorno. His brother Emanuele, who later becomes a famous representative of the Italian Socialist Party, is sent to prison for six months because of his political activities.

1900 Modigliani contracts tuberculosis and spends the winter of 1900/01 in Naples, on Capri and in Rome. Amongst his few remaining, written documents are the five letters that he wrote during this period of recuperation and study to his friend, the artist Oscar Ghiglia.

1902 On May 7 Modigliani enrols in the Scuola libera di Nudo (Free School for Nude Studies) in Florence and takes instruction with Giovanni Fattori. He visits Florence's museums and churches and studies the art of the Renaissance.

1903 Modigliani follows his friend Oscar Ghiglia to Venice, where he remains until moving to Paris. On March 19 he enrols in the Institute di Belle Arti di Venezia and its life-drawing classes. In Venice's museums and churches he occupies himself intensely with the art of the old masters. At the Biennial in 1903 and 1905 he sees the works of the French Impressionists, sculptures by Rodin and paintings belonging to the genre of Symbolism. In Venice Modigliani becomes acquainted with the "joys of hashish" and is said to have taken part in seances. He befriends artists such as Ortiz de Zarate and Ardengo Soffici and will meet them again in Paris. Very few works exist from this period of Modigliani's studies in Italy.

1906 At the beginning of the year Modigliani goes to Paris. He moves into a simple studio on Montmartre and takes life-drawing classes at the Academie Colarossi. He makes the acquaintance of Maurice Utrillo, with whom he will remain friends throughout his life. In the autumn he meets the German painter Ludwig Meidner, who describes him as the "last, true bohemian".

1907 The painter Henri Doucet takes Modigliani along to the house on the Rue de Delta, which the young doctor Paul Alexandre and his brother have established to support young artists. Alexandre becomes Modigliani's first patron. He buys paintings and drawings from him and gets him commissions for portraits. Modigliani is probably represented with a few works in the autumn Salon. He visits the Cezanne retrospective and is deeply impressed. His paintings are strongly oriented towards Symbolist models as well as the painting of Toulouse-Lautrec and Edvard Munch.

1908 Modigliani exhibits six paintings in the Salon des Independants, including The Jewess. Despite his poor health, he participates in the sensual, dissipated life of the artists on Montmartre. He moves house several times.


Fruitful Ideas



Perhaps it is the name. Amedeo Modigliani - it sounds like an elegiac melody, like a well-chosen name for a tragic, poetic figure in a novel, and perhaps it also has something to do with the fact that Modigliani, who has always fired the imagination, was not a figure who called forth factual and sober description. And this sensual-sounding name is not even a pseudonym. Amedeo Modigliani is the name of the artist who was born on July 12, 1884, in Livorno (Leghorn), Italy, into a bourgeois Jewish family. His portraits and nudes were to become some of the most popular pictures of the twentieth century. No other painter of modern times has been as heavily burdened with as many legends, myths and cliches as Amedeo Modigliani. Novels and a play have been written about him, his Bohemian lifestyle has been excessively idealised in films, and art criticism is also full of glorifying anecdotes. In contrast to all of this is the very small number of authenticated documents about Modigliani's life, so that it really is not easy to recognise the true Modigliani under all of these fiction-like features. Entwined with the name of Modigliani are all manner of ideas about the Bohemian life in Paris, the fateful poverty of the artist and his grand passions. Modigliani is the prototype of the artist who executes his work in the draughty studios of Montmartre and Montparnasse, intoxicated by alcohol, hashish, love and poetry; who, around the time of World War I, lives in the artistic heart of Paris and at the same time stands isolated on the fringes of the belle epoque; who, in the capital city of the European avant-garde, surrounded by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Georges Braque (1882-1963), Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), never seems to waver in pursuing his own path; who experiences little or no success and is so poor that he can only just pay his bills in the legendary bars at the junction of the Montparnasse and Raspail boulevards with quickly sketched portraits of the customers; who dies - at the young age of 35 - of tuberculosis, penniless and emaciated at the end of a life which has been entirely devoted to art. To heighten the tragedy of his life even more, on the day after his death, his pregnant young fiancee, Jeannne Hebuterne, jumps from her parents' fifth-floor flat, leaving behind their small daughter as an orphan.
The few biographical details that did exist were well-suited to embellishment, thereby becoming an artist's biography par excellence. The creation of the Modigliani legend began immediately after his early death in 1920. The main perpetrators in this were those who had known him the best, the friends and colleagues in Paris, who often wrote of their impressions of this proud, stubborn Italian. Although contacts with his family in Livorno during his years in Paris from 1906 to 1920 were rather lapse, they would also play a not insubstantial role in the posthumous creation of the Modigliani myth. To begin with, there was Amedeo's mother, Eugenia Modigliani, a French lady who must have been remarkably emancipated for her age.


Amedeo Modigliani





 She came from the upper-class Jewish Garsin family in Marseilles and believed that she was descended from the famous philosopher, Spinoza. When Eugenia married Flaminio Modigliani, the son of one of her father's Italian business partners, in 1872 and moved to Livorno, she had entered a family whose best times were just over. In the middle of the 1880s, when Amedeo, their fourth and youngest child, was born, an economic slump in Italy caused the family business in wood and coal to go bankrupt. Eugenia contributed to the family income with translations of D'Annunzio's poetry, book reviews published under a pseudonym and private lessons. Her open mind and intellectual interests undoubtedly opened the world of literature and art to Modigliani at an early age. In her diaries, his mother recounts how Modigliani's interests were fired and writes of the support that she gave him. Extracts from the diaries were published after Modigliani's death. It all began with a bad case of pleurisy, which confined the eleven-year-old Dedo - as he was affectionately known by his family - to bed for many weeks. "I have still not recovered from the terrible fright that it gave me", Eugenia records, and in her concern for her youngest child, she adds: "The child's character is still so unformed that I cannot say what I think of it. He behaves like a spoiled brat, but he does not lack intelligence. We will have to wait and see what is hidden in this doll. Perhaps an artist?"
He did indeed become an artist but, as family lore had it, a second decisive factor was needed in order for this to happen. Once again it was illness that served as a catalyst for Modigliani's career. When he was fourteen he caught typhoid fever - at the time still a fatal disease - and, according to his mother, in his delirium her son revealed his ardent desire to become an artist. He had fantasies of the masterpieces in Italy's museums and churches and when, as if by a miracle, he regained his health he was permitted to leave school and enrol at the art academy in Livorno. One may doubt the veracity of Modigliani's mother's recollections, as the artist's daughter, Jeanne Modigliani, does in her biography Modigliani: Man and Myth; nevertheless, this story fulfils an important function. Mapped out in Modigliani's childhood were all of the tragic highs and lows that would determine his later life. It was only by becoming an artist that he was able to recover and it was this which allowed his family to legitimise his unconventional life. The pain and hallucinations of illness ironically helped the young Modigliani recognise his goal in life, and help us to understand his later life. The "spoiled brat" becomes a dandy and "the last real Bohemian". The small, sickly boy in Livorno becomes the great, suffering artist in Paris, the painter who spares neither his strength nor his health in the creation of his work.
When Modigliani began his art studies at the age of fourteen, he was the youngest in his class. The small academy in Livorno was headed by Guglielmo Micheli (1886-1926), a student of Giovanni Fattori (1825-1908), the most famous representative of the group of Italian Impressionists known as the Macchiaioli. Like the French painters they modelled themselves on - Claude Monet (1840-1926), Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) and Alfred Sisley (1839-1899) - the Macchiaioli also sought to bring scenes from nature to canvas in small blobs of colour (It. macchia: spot, stain).


In addition to the training he received in Guglielmo Micheli's class, Modigliani also attended a life-drawing class in Gino Romiti's studio in Livorno. In July 1900 Modigliani celebrated his sixteenth birthday. Once again, however, he fell seriously ill. To help bring about a more speedy recovery, he spent the winter of 1900/01 in Italy's warmer south - Naples, Capri and Rome - accompanied by his mother. "... I am now rich in fruitful ideas and I must produce my work", were the dramatic words of the young art student to Oscar Ghiglia, his friend from the art academy in Livorno, to whom he wrote a number of letters during this period of convalescence and study. Modigliani's enthusiasm for Rome was boundless: "... As I speak to you, Rome is not outside but inside me, like a terrible jewel set upon its seven hills as upon seven imperious ideas. Rome is the orchestration which girds me, the circumscribed arena in which I isolate myself and concentrate my thoughts. Her feverish sweetness, her tragic countryside, her own beauty and harmony, all these are mine, for my thought and my work".


In the spring of 1901, Modigliani followed Ghiglia - nine years his senior - to Florence where, after once again spending the winter in Rome, he enrolled at the Scuola libera di Nudo (Free School for Nude Studies). In 1903 he went with Ghiglia to Venice, where he also took life-drawing classes. He was quickly at home in Venice's world of cafes and artists. At the time, he was a young man with "... a graceful countenance and gracious features. Neither tall nor short, he was slim and dressed with simple elegance"; this is how the painter Ardengo Soffici (1879-1964) remembers him from his visit to Venice in 1903. He found Modigliani to be a knowledgeable guide to the city. Soffici was impressed by Modigliani's "passionate interest in the painting techniques of the Sienese Trecento painters, and particularly in the Venetian, Carpaccio, whom he seemed to love the most at the time".
Modigliani appears to have spent the time before he moved to Paris more in the intensive study of Italian art history than in any further training as an artist. Nevertheless, his studies in Italy, the visits to original paintings and sculptures and thus the appreciation of an art historical tradition, the discovery of "forms full of beauty and harmony", as he put it in his letter from Rome, were some of the most important foundations for the later development of Modigliani's art. If Modigliani took in more than he produced during the time he was in Venice, his friend Oscar Ghiglia, with whom he shared a studio for a time, was all the more industrious. In 1903 Ghiglia succeeded in showing a painting - a rather traditional portrait of a woman - at the Venice Biennial. At this exhibition, contemporary painting was chiefly represented by the now universally respected French Impressionists. As far as sculpture was concerned, great homage was paid to the genius of Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). There were, however, also many works which can be
described as Symbolist, many dream-like pictures with surreal scenarios; these must have had a strong impression on Modigliani, who loved the poems of Baudelaire and Rimbaud. Unlike Impressionism, which had originated solely in France, at the end of the nineteenth century Symbolism was a pan-European movement, encompassing literature as well as the fine arts. The Symbolists shared a common goal, namely to create pictures that were contrary to visible reality. Through the irrational contents of their pictures, they wished to show that another, hidden reality could at least be conceived. The end of the nineteenth century saw Sigmund Freud in Vienna researching the effects of hallucinogenic drugs and hypnosis and preparing his seminal work on the interpretation of dreams. At the same time, artists such as the Belgian Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921) and James Ensor (1860-1949), the French Odilon Redon (1840-1916) and Gustave Moreau (1826-1898), the Norwegian Edvard Munch (1863-1944) and the Austrian Alfred Kubin (1877-1959) were attempting to develop pictorial symbols for spiritual and mystic contents, for psychological moods and for suggestive apparitions in dreams.
There are too few surviving paintings from Modigliani's student years to allow one to ascertain a direct influence of Symbolist painting. Later, however, during the first years in Paris, a few paintings adopted the motifs of fin de siecle painting. These include the half-figure Sorrowful Nude of 1908. If one compares Modigliani's gaunt, female figure to the figures of the Belgian Art Nouveau painter, George Minne (1886-1941), or with Edvard Munch's lithograph Madonna, the similarity in the perception of the body becomes all too evident. In the motif of the head bent back and the mouth slightly opened as if in pain, suffering and ecstasy, sensuality and pain are rendered as being close to each other. These figures present themselves to us removed from reality. They are locked in silence and introspection. All expression of the individual person is completely hidden behind a mask-like countenance.


Pablo Picasso
Woman in a Chemise


Sorrowful Nude



The eyes - "mirrors of the soul" - play an unusually important role in the work of the Symbolist painters. Whether closed as in sleep, open or blind, they are always a visionary organ, one which can be directed both outwards and inwards. This is significant for Modigliani's later development as a painter, insofar as the eyes of his sitters also take on the visionary role they had already played for the Symbolists. Moreover, the silent introversion and the depersonalised visage, in which all subjectivity has been relinquished for an expression beyond all individualism, characterise Modigliani's later portraits and document his lasting intellectual connection to Symbolist painting.
The Venice Biennial of 1903 certainly offered art which was new and exciting, but did not display the latest trends. After spending two years in Venice, Modigliani took the only step possible for a young, ambitious artist of this time: he went to Paris.
Paris in 1906: France's capital had 2.73 million inhabitants, and 978 kilometres of streets; the boulevards designed by Haussmann were the pride of the Parisians. 9,622 arc lamps and almost half a million electric light bulbs illuminated the "city of lights", whose emblem had become the Eiffel Tower built for the World Exposition in 1889. "In the richness and diversity of its art treasures, Paris stands alone" was how an encyclopedia of 1906 put it. Under the entry "fortification" it reads: "While Paris in 1840 was an open city, it is now the world's largest military fortification".
Modigliani arrived in Paris eight years before the outbreak of World Warl. These years were amongst the most eventful in the history of European art. It was during these years that the seeds were sown of further developments in the twentieth century - a process that was violently interrupted by the first international catastrophe of the twentieth century. In the Paris of 1906, however, there were no signs of an approaching war for an Italian artist looking to the future. Other things - which, at the time, could not be read about in an encyclopedia - were of far greater importance to him. He would have been interested in the fact that Paris was the unqualified capital of European avant-garde painting; that many progressive art dealers in the city were on the lookout for young talent; that only in the preceding year a violently colourful and wild style of painting had conquered the Salon d'Automne. This was a style linked to the unknown names of Henri Matisse, Andre Derain (1880-1954) and Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958), upon whom the critics had bestowed the sarcastic name "Les Fauves" ("wild beasts"). Modigliani would also have been interested in the fact that the art scene was still centred around Montmartre - indeed, that it had actually just been renewed and rejuvenated by figures such as Picasso, Juan Gris (1887— 1927) and other residents of the legendary Bateau Lavoir - and that this area still had the reputation for good times in the cafes, theatres and dance halls which had been immortalized by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). Paris in 1906: the start of the second phase of the modern movement. With the death of Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) on October 22, 1906, the last - after Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) - of the three Post-Impressionist "founding fathers of the modern movement" had died. In the same year, the French state bought Edouard Manet's (1832-1883) Dejeuner sur I'herbe, a work that had been considered outrageously modern in 1863. Its depiction of a naked woman at a picnic in the forest with properly dressed gentlemen had caused an enormous scandal in the French art world.


Pablo Picasso
Woman's Head

Ernst Kirchner
Woman with Hat

Head of a Young Woman



Being the good, bourgeois boy that he was, Modigliani first stayed in a comfortable hotel on the right bank of the Seine upon his arrival in Paris. Soon, however, he moved up to Montmartre where, according to the art critic Adolphe Basler, his quick wit and good looks "quickly made him popular". One of Modigliani's first friendships in Paris was formed with the German artist Ludwig Meidner (1844-1966), who had come to Paris for one year to study at the Academie Julian. Meidner later recalled Modigliani's early days in Paris and, like Basler, he emphasised the impression that Modigliani made on those around him. "In the first decade of our century, one still had a taste for the Bohemian life that had developed in the nineteenth century; in Paris - on Montmartre and Montparnasse - the last representatives of this world were the sophisticated and spoiled sons of the old bourgeoisie. Our Modigliani - or 'Modi' as he was called - was a characteristic and, at the same time, highly talented representative of Bohemian Montmartre; he was probably even its last true Bohemian." Meidner also records, however, that he was impressed by the open-mindedness, esprit and commitment shown by Modi (whose nickname was undoubtedly an illusion to the peintre maudit, or "accursed painter"). And here, too, the Italian origins play an important role. "Never before had I heard a painter speak of beauty with such fire. He showed me photographs of works by early Florentine masters whose names I did not yet know."
In 1907, Modigliani probably participated in the Salon d'Automne (Autumn Salon) in the Grand Palais. Founded a few years earlier, it was reserved for the avant-garde. This exhibition forum, where no jury presided, was still dominated by the Fauvists, whose expressive application of colour represented a further step towards the autonomy of the pictorial plane and away from the illusionistic reproduction of objects. Van Gogh had already shown that pure, unmixed colours could serve to express moods. Gauguin, whose contribution to the development of the modern movement lay in his radical concentration on the pictorial surface, had said: "Before one even knows what the picture represents, one is immediately seized by the magical chords of its colours". Even more radical was Matisse's observation made a short time afterwards: "Seek the strongest colour effect possible - the content is of no importance".
Modigliani's tentative searching in the midst of the different avant-garde movements is apparent in his portrait The Jewess. The statuesque, severe-looking figure betrays the influence of the linear style of Toulouse-Lautrec. There are also echoes of the emaciated figures of Picasso's Blue Period. Despite the loose brushwork, The Jewess is an extremely measured painting whose main aim lies not in achieving an autonomy in the use of colours and planes, but rather in conveying a mood. Scepticism, restraint and the sitter's challenging gaze all demonstrate the painter's interest in the psychology of his subject. There are, however, also parts of this picture which are strongly defined by the purely painterly treatment of the surface, such as the field of colour in the lower right-hand corner to which no concrete object can be assigned. Modigliani must have taken notice of Maurice Denis' (1870-1943) classic definition, namely that "a picture, before being a battle charger, a nude woman or a story, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours arranged in a certain pattern".



Studi for The Jewess


The Jewess


When this painting was exhibited in 1908 in the Salon des Independants,
the explosive colours of Fauve painting still dominated the scene.
In contrast, Modigliani's more muted palette was oriented towards Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Edvard Munch.
Paul Cezanne, who died in 1906 and whose retrospective Modigliani visited in 1907,
also exerted a lasting influence on Modigliani's painting.




Portrait of Maude Abrantes 


Pablo Picasso
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon


Nevertheless, Modigliani's pictures differed from those which reaped success - albeit often too rashly - in the turbulent pre-war years. When The Jewess was exhibited in the Salon des Independants in 1908 the hectic wheel of art "-isms" had turned once again. Cubism came on the scene, shattering conventional notions of space and perspective and thereby ways of looking at paintings. Pablo Picasso - whose Les Demoiselles d'Avignon of 1907 was the introduction to Cubist painting - and Georges Braque were the new heroes of the art world, and Modigliani's work was barely noticed. The most influential critic and poet of the age, Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), did mention Modigliani's name in his discussion of the Salon, although he only "looked briefly" at his exhibited works.

Female Nude with Hat



Seated Nude 

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