Modigliani, Amedeo

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON DEMAND > Artists

The artist Amedeo Modigliani was born in Leghorn, Italy, on July 12, 1884. At the moment of his birth, moving men were taking away most of the furniture in his house, for the family business had just failed. The Jewish family had been prosperous, but as Dedo—this was Modigliani's childhood nickname—grew up there was little money. In spite of this, his mother encouraged his early interest in art, and he was given painting lessons at 14.

When he was 16, Modigliani was stricken with tuberculosis, and he was sent south to Naples for the winter. He also visited Rome, Florence, and Venice, and was thrilled by the activity of the big cities. For the first time he saw great Italian painting and sculpture. While he was in Venice he decided that his life's ambition was to be a sculptor—to work directly in stone.

Modigliani went to Paris in 1906. He entered an art school, the Colarossi Academy, and rented a studio in Montmartre, a section of Paris where artists lived, worked, and met. While there, he became friendly with the artists Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall.

Materials for sculpture were expensive, and he begged stone from workers constructing a nearby building. The stone dust irritated his weakened lungs, but he persisted, happy to be pursuing his ambition. When his money ran out, Modigliani moved from place to place, looking for food and lodging. For a few pennies or a drink, he would draw portraits of people sitting in cafés. It is said that he and the painter Maurice Utrillo peeled vegetables together for room and board.

Occasionally he stole ties from subway tracks to make sculptures in wood. His family helped him as much as they could, but he was always in need of money. He started drinking too much and taking drugs. Yet he drew and painted constantly. When he was in moods in which he felt unappreciated, he would destroy some of his paintings. He worked in stone as often as he could, but in 1916 his poor health forced him to stop.

Modi (as he was then called) made friends with many young artists, writers, and poets. He was often seen around the cafés in his corduroy jacket, red scarf, and broad-rimmed hat. In 1914 he sold a few of his paintings for low prices and began to gain recognition. In 1917 he met a young art student named Jeanne Hebuterne; they fell in love. Even her loving care could not restore Modigliani's ruined health, for he died on January 25, 1920. The final tragedy was her suicide the day of the artist's funeral. Their daughter, Jeanne, was adopted by Modigliani's sister.

Portrait painters usually portray their models with noble and serene expressions. But the faces in Modigliani's paintings appear sad. He did not try to portray his subjects realistically. Instead, his human forms are simple and decorative. Modigliani used few colors, and he used them forcefully. He did not soften them with shading.

The figures Modigliani painted have oval faces, long cylindrical necks, and almond-shaped eyes. His painting and sculpture reveal his interest in black African art, which is also created with simplified shapes.

Reviewed by Jeanne Modigliani

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