The Tragic Life of Amedeo Modigliani: Biography, Works & Facts

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Amedeo Clemente Modigliani (July 12, 1884 – January 24, 1920) was an Italian painter and sculptor who mostly worked in France. He is best known for portraits and nudes in a modern style typified by a surreal elongation of features, necks, and bodies, which were not well appreciated during his lifetime but have since become highly sought-after.

Modigliani spent his childhood in Italy, where he studied antique and Renaissance art. He moved to Paris in 1906, where he met artists like Pablo Picasso and Constantin Brâncuși. Modigliani was showing highly stylized sculptures alongside Cubists from the Section d’Or group at the Salon d’Automne by 1912. Paintings and sketches are among Modigliani’s works. From 1909 until 1914, he concentrated on sculpting. Portraits and complete figures were his major subjects, both in pictures and sculptures. Modigliani had limited success while alive, but rose to fame after his death. He died in Paris at the age of 35 from tubercular meningitis.

Related articles: Wild at Heart: Antonio Ligabue; The Most Unsettling Paintings in Italian Art History

Modigliani, Picasso and André Salmon in front the Café de la Rotonde, Paris. Image taken by Jean Cocteau in Montparnasse, Paris in 1916
Modigliani, Picasso and André Salmon in front the Café de la Rotonde, Paris. Image taken by Jean Cocteau in Montparnasse, Paris in 1916.


Modigliani was born in Livorno to a Sephardic Jewish family. Livorno, a port city, has long acted as a haven for individuals persecuted for their faith, and it was home to a sizable Jewish population. His great-great-grandfather, Solomon Garsin, came to Livorno as a refugee in the 18th century. Flaminio Modigliani was born into an Italian Jewish family of prominent traders and entrepreneurs. In 1883, this rich family’s fortunes were turned upside down. The Modiglianis were forced to declare bankruptcy due to a drop in metal prices. Modigliani’s mother utilized her social connections to start a school, which she and her two sisters turned into a profitable business.

Amedeo Modigliani while at school circa 1892 Modigliani is the boy in the right at the front line (source)

Amedeo Modigliani was the fourth child, born at the same time that his father’s commercial interests went bankrupt. Amedeo’s birth rescued the family from disaster; creditors could not confiscate the bed of a pregnant lady or a mother with a newborn child, according to ancient law.

Modigliani was close to his mother, who schooled him at home until he was ten years old. In many respects, his mother was essential in his capacity to pursue painting as a career. After suffering from pleurisy when he was around 11 years old, he acquired typhoid fever a few years later. When he was 16, he became ill again and acquired TB, which took his life.

Female Head, 1911/1912

Modigliani is known to have drew and painted from a young age, and considered himself “already a painter,” according to his mother, even before commencing official studies. Despite her concerns that enrolling him in an art program might interfere with his other academics, his mother encouraged the young Modigliani’s interest in the topic.

From 1898 until 1900, Modigliani was a student at Guglielmo Micheli‘s Art School. In 1902, Modigliani began what would become a lifelong obsession with life drawing by enrolling in the Accademia di Belle Arti’s Scuola Libera di Nudo, or “Free School of Nude Studies.” He traveled to Venice a year later, still suffering from TB, and enrolled in the Regia Accademia ed Istituto di Belle Arti. He initially used hashish in Venice and, rather than studying, began to spend time in the city’s seedier areas.

Four sculptures by Modigliani exhibited at the 1912 Salon d'Automne along with the Cubists
Four sculptures by Modigliani exhibited at the 1912 Salon d’Automne along with the Cubists

Having been exposed to erudite philosophical literature as a young boy under the tutelage of his maternal grandfather, Isaco Garsin, he continued to read and be influenced by the writings of Nietzsche, Baudelaire, Carducci, Comte de Lautréamont, and others through his art studies, and developed the belief that the only path to true creativity was through defiance and disorder.

Modigliani traveled to Paris, the avant-epicenter, garde’s in 1906. He later befriended Jacob Epstein, with whom he aimed to establish a studio with a shared vision of creating a Temple of Beauty for all to enjoy, for which Modigliani created drawings and paintings of the intended stone caryatids for ‘The Pillars of Tenderness,’ which would support the imagined temple.

Amedeo Modigliani, 1907, Portrait of Maude Abrantes, oil on canvas, 81 x 54 cm, Reuben and Edith Hecht Museum, Haifa
Amedeo Modigliani, 1907, Portrait of Maude Abrantes, oil on canvas, 81 x 54 cm, Reuben and Edith Hecht Museum, Haifa

Modigliani squatted at Montmartre’s Bateau-Lavoir, a community for impoverished artists, and rented a studio on Rue Caulaincourt. He immediately attempted to disguise himself as a bohemian artist, but even in his brown corduroys, scarlet scarf, and enormous black hat, he appeared to be slumming it, having fallen on hard times.

When he initially came in Paris, he wrote to his mother on a regular basis, drew his nudes at the Académie Colarossi, and drank wine in moderation. Those who knew him at the time thought he was a little reticent, bordering on asocial.

However, his demeanor and image had altered radically within a year of his arrival in Paris. He turned himself from a stylish academician artist to a vagrant prince.

Caryatid, 1912

The poet and writer Louis Latourette discovered the artist’s formerly well-appointed studio in chaos following his change, the Renaissance replicas removed from the walls, the sumptuous curtains in disarray. By this time, Modigliani was an alcoholic and a drug addict, and his studio reflected this.

He not only removed all traces of his bourgeois upbringing from his studio, but he also set about destroying virtually all of his early work, which he described as “Childish baubles, done when I was a dirty bourgeois.

Amedeo Modigliani

Modigliani purposefully created a theatrical identity for himself, cultivating a reputation as a hopeless alcoholic and voracious drug addict. Modigliani’s increasing use of drugs and alcohol may have been a way for him to conceal his TB from his friends, most of whom were unaware of his illness. Tuberculosis was the main cause of mortality in France by 1900, there was no cure, and individuals who had it were feared, shunned, and despised. Modigliani utilized alcohol and narcotics as palliatives to alleviate his physical agony, allowing him to preserve a youthful appearance and continue to make art.

Modigliani’s usage of alcohol and narcotics increased about 1914. After years of remission and return, this was the time when his TB symptoms intensified, indicating that the disease had progressed to an advanced state.

Bride and Groom, Amedeo Modigliani, 1915
Bride and Groom, Amedeo Modigliani, 1915

Even in these bohemian settings, Modigliani’s behavior stood out: he had many relationships, drank frequently, and used absinthe and hashish. He would occasionally strip nude at social occasions when inebriated. He died at the age of 35 in Paris. He became the sad artist’s embodiment, producing a posthumous mythology almost as widely known as Vincent van Gogh‘s.

Modigliani worked quickly during his early years in Paris. He was continuously sketching, producing up to a hundred sketches every day. Many of his creations, however, were lost—destroyed by him as inferior, left behind in his repeated moves, or given to lovers who did not maintain them.

Amedeo Modigliani Nu Couché au coussin Bleu, 1916
Amedeo Modigliani Nu Couché au coussin Bleu, 1916

Modigliani returned to Livorno in 1909, unwell and exhausted from his wild lifestyle. He was soon back in Paris, renting a studio near Montparnasse. He considered himself as a sculptor rather than a painter at first, and was inspired to keep going after Paul Guillaume, an ambitious young art dealer, took an interest in his work and connected him to sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi. For one year, he was Constantin Brâncuși’s disciple. By 1914, he had abandoned sculpture and concentrated completely on painting, a decision prompted by the difficulties in obtaining sculptural materials owing to the start of war, as well as Modigliani’s physical debilitation. Modigliani attempted to enroll in the army at the start of World War I but was turned down due to his bad health.

Grande nudo disteso Modigliani
Grande nudo disteso

In the spring of 1917, the Russian artist Chana Orloff introduced him to Jeanne Hébuterne, a 19-year-old art student who had posed for Tsuguharu Foujita. Hébuterne, from a strict bourgeois family, was condemned by her devout Roman Catholic family for her affair with Modigliani, whom they considered as little more than a debauched derelict. Despite her family’s opposition, they were soon living together.

Modigliani left Paris with Hébuterne at the conclusion of World War I to escape the conflict and traveled to Nice and Cagnes-sur-Mer. They planned to spend a year in France. They had a bustling social life at the time, with numerous acquaintances including Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Pablo Picasso, Giorgio de Chirico, and André Derain.

In Montparnasse, Modigliani produced a series of portraits of current artists and acquaintances, including Cham Soutine, Mose Kisling, Pablo Picasso, Diego Rivera, Marie “Marevna” Vorobyev-Stebeslka, Juan Gris, Max Jacob, Jacques Lipchitz, Blaise Cendrars, and Jean Cocteau.

Despite continuing to paint, Modigliani’s health steadily worsened, and his alcohol-induced blackouts grew increasingly regular. After not hearing from him for many days, a neighbor went to check on the family and discovered Modigliani in bed, disoriented and clutching Hébuterne. A doctor was called, but there was nothing that could be done because Modigliani was in the last stages of tubercular meningitis. On January 24, 1920, he died in the Hôpital de la Charité.

There was a massive funeral, attended by many members of the Montmartre and Montparnasse creative communities. When Modigliani died, Hébuterne was twenty-one years old and eight months pregnant with their second child.

Hébuterne was escorted to her parents’ house the day after Modigliani died. She pushed herself out of a fifth-floor window, killing herself and her unborn child, because she was distraught.

Modigliani was laid to rest in Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Amedeo Modigliani Grave

On August 15, American actor and director Johnny Depp revealed that he will direct “Modigliani“, a biopic about the Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani, and will co-produce alongside Al Pacino and Barry Navidi.


Topic: Amedeo Modigliani art style


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