born July 12, 1884 , Livorno , Italy
died Jan. 24, 1920 , Paris
Italian painter and sculptor whose portraits and nudes, characterized by asymmetry of composition, elongation of the figure, and a simple but monumental use of line, are among the most important of the 20th century. They have also earned popularity for the entirely personal atmosphere with which they are invested: a kind of mute sympathy between the artist and sitter that implicates the spectator.
Modigliani was born into a Jewish family of small merchants. After suffering from pleurisy and typhus in 1895 and 1898, he was forced to give up a conventional education, and it was then that he began to study painting. After a brief stay in Florence in 1902, he continued his artistic studies in Venice , remaining there until the winter of 1906, when he left for Paris . His early admiration for Italian Renaissance painting-especially that of Siena -was to last throughout his life.
In Paris Modigliani was overwhelmed by the painting of Paul Cézanne, which exerted a decisive influence on the earliest phase of his work. His initial important contacts were with the poets André Salmon and Max Jacob, with Pablo Picasso, and with-in 1907-Paul Alexandre, a friend of the avant-garde artists and the first to become interested in Modigliani and to buy his works. In 1908 he exhibited five or six paintings at the Salon des Indépendants. He also met the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi, by whose work he was impressed and on whose advice he made a serious study of African sculpture. To prepare himself for sculpture, he intensified his graphic experiments. He detested what he considered the false Impressionism of Auguste Rodin, with its pictorial modelling and susceptibility to the play of light. In his drawings he tried to give to his contours the function of limiting or enclosing the volume. In 1912 he exhibited eight stone heads at the Salon d’Automne whose elongated and simplified forms reflect the influence of African sculpture.
Modigliani soon returned entirely to painting, but his experience as a sculptor had fundamental consequences for his style. The characteristics of Modigliani’s sculptured heads-long necks and noses, simplified features and long oval faces-soon invaded his painting. By reducing and almost eliminating chiaroscuro-that is, the use of gradations of light and shadow to achieve the illusion of three-dimensionality-he achieved, by the strength of his contours and the richness of juxtaposed colours, a solidity in the flat image that is similar to that of sculpture.
The outbreak of war in 1914 increased the difficulties of Modigliani’s life. Alexandre and other friends were at the front; his pictures did not sell; his already delicate health was deteriorating because of his poverty, feverish work, and the abuse of alcohol and drugs. He was in the midst of a troubled affair with the English poet Beatrice Hastings, with whom he lived for two years, from 1914 to 1916. He was assisted, however, by the art dealer Paul Guillaume and especially by the Polish poet Leopold Zborowski, who bought or helped him to place a few paintings and drawings.
Modigliani was not a professional portraitist; for him the portrait was only an occasion to isolate a figure as a kind of sculptural relief through firm and expressive contour drawing. He painted his friends, personalities of the Parisian artistic and literary world, but also unimportant people: models, servants, girls from the neighbourhood. In 1917 he began painting a series of large female nudes that, with their warm, glowing colours and sensuous, rounded forms, are among his best works. In December, Berthe Weill organized a one-man show for him in her gallery, but the police judged the nudes indecent and had them removed.
His last love affair began in the same year, 1917, with the young painter Jeanne Hébuterne, with whom he went to live on the Côte d’Azur . Their daughter Jeanne was born in November 1918. This was also a happy period for his painting, which became increasingly refined in line and delicate in colour. A more tranquil life and the climate of the Mediterranean , however, did not restore the artist’s undermined health. After returning to Paris in May 1919, he became ill in January 1920 and10 days later died of tubercular meningitis. Next day, Jeanne Hébuterne killed herself and an unborn child by jumping from a window.
Little known outside avant-garde Parisian circles, Modigliani seldom participated in official exhibitions, and his single one-man show was the one held in 1917 at Berthe Weill’s. Fame came after his death with the 1922 exhibition at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune and, later, with a monograph by the poet André Salmon.
His original sculptures, mostly in sandstone, are 25 in number; the number of drawings cannot be determined. Except for some 30 large female nudes (1916-19) and 4 landscapes (1919), his paintings are almost always portraits of relatives, artists, writers, musicians, actors, dealers, and collectors, along with many of unidentified persons. The names of the individuals portrayed may give an idea of the Montparnasse milieu frequented by the artist: Constantin Brancusi, Diego Rivera, Henri Laurens, Pablo Picasso, Chaim Soutine, Juan Gris, Max Jacob, Jean Cocteau, Jacques Lipchitz. Some-such as Paul Guillaume, Hanka and Leopold Zborowski, Beatrice Hastings, and Jeanne Hébuterne-were painted several times. Of Modigliani himself, there is only a single self-portrait, painted in 1919, shortly before his death.