Modigliani, Amedeo

born July 12, 1884, Livorno, Italy
died Jan. 24, 1920, Paris, France

Italian painter and sculptor.

After studying art in Italy, he settled in Paris (1906), where he exhibited several paintings at the Salon des Indépendants in 1908. Following the advice of Constantin Brancusi, he studied African sculpture and in 1912 exhibited 12 stone heads whose simplified and elongated forms reflect African influence. When he returned to painting, his portraits and nudes
characterized by asymmetry of composition, elongation of the figure, and a simplification of outline
reflected the style of his sculpture. By almost eliminating chiaroscuro, he achieved a sculptural quality by the strength of his contours and the richness of juxtaposed colours. In 1917 he began painting a series of female nudes that, with their warm, glowing colours and sensuous, rounded forms, are among his best works. His work reflects his lifelong admiration for Italian Renaissance masters, as well as the influence of Paul Cézanne and Brancusi. He died at 35 of tuberculosis.

Self-Portrait, oil on canvas by Amedeo Modigliani, 1919; in the Museum of Contemporary Art ...

Courtesy of the Museu de Arte Contemporanea da Universidade de Sao Paulo, gift of Mr. Francisco M. Sobrinho and Mrs. Yolanda Penteado; photograph, Gerson Zanini

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▪ Italian artist
born July 12, 1884, Livorno, Italy
died January 24, 1920, Paris, France
  Italian painter and sculptor whose portraits and nudes—characterized by asymmetrical compositions, elongated figures, and a simple but monumental use of line—are among the most important portraits of the 20th century.

      Modigliani was born into a Jewish family of merchants. As a child he suffered from pleurisy and typhus, which prevented him from receiving a conventional education. In 1898 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 became interested in the Post-Impressionist (Post-Impressionism) paintings of Paul Cézanne (Cézanne, Paul). His initial important contacts were with the poets André Salmon and Max Jacob (Jacob, Max), with the artist Pablo Picasso, and—in 1907—with Paul Alexandre, a friend of many avant-garde artists and the first to become interested in Modigliani and to buy his works. In 1908 the artist exhibited five or six paintings at the Salon des Indépendants.

      In 1909 Modigliani met the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi (Brancusi, Constantin), on whose advice he seriously studied African sculpture. To prepare himself for creating his own sculpture, he intensified his graphic experiments. In his drawings Modigliani tried to give the function of limiting or enclosing volumes to his contours. In 1912 he exhibited at the Salon d'Automne eight stone heads whose elongated and simplified forms reflect the influence of African sculpture.

      Modigliani returned entirely to painting about 1915, but his experience as a sculptor had fundamental consequences for his painting style. The characteristics of Modigliani's sculptured heads—long necks and noses, simplified features, and long oval faces—became typical of his paintings. 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 juxtaposed colours.

      The outbreak of World War I in 1914 increased the difficulties of Modigliani's life. Alexandre and some of his other friends were at the front, his paintings did not sell, and his already delicate health was deteriorating because of his poverty, feverish work ethic, and abuse of alcohol and drugs. He was in the midst of a troubled affair with the South African 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 sell 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, usually personalities of the Parisian artistic and literary world (such as the artists Juan Gris (Gris, Juan) and Jacques Lipchitz (Lipchitz, Jacques), the writer and artist Jean Cocteau (Cocteau, Jean), and the poet Max Jacob (Jacob, Max)), but he also portrayed unknown people, including models, servants, and girls from the neighbourhood. In 1917 he began painting a series of about 30 large female nudes that, with their warm, glowing colours and sensuous, rounded forms, are among his best works. In December of that year Berthe Weill organized a solo show for him in her gallery, but the police judged the nudes indecent and had them removed.

      In 1917 Modigliani began a love affair 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. His painting 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; 10 days later he died of tubercular meningitis. The next day Jeanne Hébuterne killed herself and her unborn child by jumping from a window.

      Little-known outside avant-garde Parisian circles, Modigliani had seldom participated in official exhibitions. Fame came after his death, with a solo exhibition at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in 1922 and later with a biography by André Salmon. For decades critical evaluations of Modigliani's work were overshadowed by the dramatic story of his tragic life, but he is now acknowledged as one of the most significant and original artists of his time.

Additional Reading
André Salmon, Modigliani, sa vie et son oeuvre (1926), the first biography of the artist, is important because it was written shortly after the artist's death by a poet and writer who was close to him. Other biographies include Jeanne Modigliani, Modigliani: Man and Myth (1958), written by Modigliani's daughter and containing letters and unedited documents; André Salmon, Modigliani: A Memoir (1961; originally published in French, 1958), written in the form of a novel; and Pierre Sichel, Modigliani: A Biography of Amedeo Modigliani (1967). Catalogs of the artist's work include Arthur Pfannstiel, Modigliani (1929), and Modigliani et son oeuvre: étude critique et catalogue raisonné (1956); and Arthur Pfannstiel and Ch.-A. Cingria, Dessins de Modigliani (1958), a short text on the drawings, with reproductions and an annotated catalog. Ambrogio Ceroni, Amedeo Modigliani: dessins et sculptures avec suite du catalogue illustré des peintures (1965), contains an important catalog and a bibliography focusing on the drawings and sculpture. General examinations of the artist's work are Claude Roy, Modigliani (1958, reissued 1985; originally published in French, 1958); William Fifield, Modigliani (1976); Carol Mann, Modigliani (1980, reissued 1991); Werner Schmalenbach, Amedeo Modigliani: Paintings, Sculptures, Drawings, trans. from German, French, and Italian (1990); and Anette Kruszynski, Amedeo Modigliani: Portraits and Nudes, trans. from German (1996, reprinted 2000). Alfred Werner, Modigliani the Sculptor (1962, reissued 1965), is an important study of the artist's sculpture.

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Universalium. 2010.

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