During his short and turbulent life, Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920) had difficulty finding buyers for his visionary and haunting artwork. His first and only one-man show, at a small Paris gallery in 1917, closed even before it officially opened. On opening night, a crowd gathered in the street to gawk at a large nude in the gallery’s front window. Across the street was a police station. Wandering over to investigate, the gendarmes discovered an array of large painted nudes inside and out, with insouciant half-smiles and unconcealed pubic hair. The police inspector ordered them all taken down. Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism – none of these caused outrage anymore. But full-blooded Parisians displaying themselves so brazenly, without even the fig leaf of allegory, was more than the guardians of public morals could tolerate.

Although Modigliani today is one of the great icons of early 20th-century art, he has always stood outside the usual currents of aesthetic fashion. Even to the Modernist artists he hobnobbed with in Paris, his fascination with painting voluptuous nudes, like his devotion to portraiture, marked him as an outsider. He was an Italian Jew in Catholic France, a Dante-loving intellectual prone to fistfights; and, at a time when the avant-garde disdained figurative painting, a vocal champion of the fleshy Renaissance nudes of Titian and Correggio. And he threw himself into portrait-painting (despite being too ornery to paint paying clients the way they wanted to be seen).

MODIGLIANI IN HIS STUDIO. © BETTMANN/CORBIS/GETTY.

“Modigliani has always been an anomaly,” says Mason Klein of New York’s Jewish Museum, who curated the blockbuster exhibition Modigliani: Beyond the Myth in 2004. “His work does not fit into the standard art-historical categories, like Expressionism or Cubism. Not to paint any still lifes and to be so exclusively focused on portraiture was very unusual, if not unique, in his time.” In a way, Modigliani’s scandalous, almost operatic life has overshadowed the seriousness of his art. Until the last two or three decades, Klein says, “We have not really included him within the canon of academic art history.” Well-received exhibitions, like the Jewish Museum’s, along with Modigliani: ange au visage grave at Paris’s Musée du Luxembourg in 2003 and the Royal Academy of Arts’ Modigliani and his Models in London in 2006, have helped to redress this.

Amedeo Modigliani was born in the Tuscan port of Livorno, in 1884. At 16, he contracted tuberculosis, the disease that would eventually kill him. Perhaps he filled his remaining two decades with carousing, drink, hashish and womanizing – “une vie brève mais intense,” as he imagined his epitaph – because he knew his time on earth was short.

After studying academic art in Italy, Modigliani moved to Paris in 1906. The flamboyant, hot-tempered 21-year-old knew from reading Nietzsche that the French capital was the only suitable home for a true artist. Modi, as he took to calling himself – a play on peintre maudit, or damned painter – quickly became a familiar figure in the bohemian circles of Montmartre and, later, of Montparnasse. His artist friends included Maurice Utrillo, Chaïm Soutine and Constantin Brancusi, and he painted portraits of Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso. (Once, needing canvas, the Spaniard is said to have painted over a Modigliani oil that had come into his possession.)

His work does not fit into the standard art-historical categories, like Expressionism or Cubism… to be so exclusively focused on portraiture was very unusual, if not unique, in his time.

Modigliani’s early paintings were somber, heavily outlined portraits that owed an obvious debt to Paul Cézanne and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Within a few years, his portraits had become more stylized and distinctively “Modiglianesque,” with the rapid brushwork, elongated faces and blank eyes that became his trademark.

Modigliani’s first patron was a young surgeon and would-be art dealer, named Paul Alexandre, who let him paint rent-free in a rundown art colony, of sorts. In return, the artist turned over his early canvases to Alexandre for 10 to 20 francs each ($2 to $4). It wasn’t much, but the doctor offered to give back anything for which Modigliani could get a better offer.

Until his last years, better offers were few. He was known around Paris as a character rather than a painter. Long after his death, his daughter, Jeanne, wrote that some people were captivated by his good looks and suave manners, while others regarded him as “an unbearable buffoon.” Hard-pressed to sell his oils, he took to sketching strangers in Left Bank cafés; he would trade the drawings for a few francs, a meal or a drink – “like a fortune-teller,” Cocteau remembered. Modigliani was often drunk and sometimes sobered up in jail. Habitually broke, he was evicted from a string of cheap, rented rooms around Paris.

Yet whatever his demeanor or his finances, he retained a certain elegance and attracted a number of lovers. His affairs tended to be stormy and brief. One of his few long-running liaisons was with Beatrice Hastings, a South African writer. The two fought constantly. Later, recalling their turbulent time together, she described the artist as “a pig and a pearl.”

Embittered by the difficulty of selling his paintings, Modigliani turned to sculpture in the years leading up to the First World War. Though the dust aggravated his tubercular lungs, he carved a series of massive, highly stylized stone heads. With their impossibly long necks and delicate pursed lips, the carvings blended the serenity of early Renaissance tomb sculpture with the exotic eeriness of Easter Island monoliths.

“If you look at Modigliani’s sculpture,” says Mason Klein, “you see the influence of not only African art but Khmer art and the art of archaic Greece, ancient Egypt and Rome. You even see some of the iconic presence of Byzantine art.”

Modigliani rarely sold any of his sculptures. They were too strange looking. (They were also extremely hard to move.) But when he resumed painting, around 1914, his work had a new freshness and energy, says Tamar Garb, an art historian at University College London: “Sculpture helped him think about how you simplify forms, how you can show the essence of something using the simplest possible means.”

Modigliani’s portrait of Cocteau gave the poet a crooked nose and mismatched eyes yet conveyed its subject’s icy hauteur all the same. A 1915 portrait of his first serious art dealer, a Parisian dandy named Paul Guillaume, is equally revealing. Though the painter was counting on Guillaume to advance his career, says Klein, “you also see his distrust for this cosmopolitan know-it-all in the way he emphasized the cocky tilt of the head, the fancy suit, the cigarette; almost as though Guillaume were a pimp selling Modigliani’s work.” The power of these portraits comes in part from the artist’s success in conveying his own feelings about his sitters.

For most portraits, he recruited friends, neighbours or children. These are not happy pictures. A vague unease, accentuated by so many sightless eyes, clouds his subjects’ faces. “All are like hurt children, albeit some of these children have beards or grey hair,” wrote a Paris friend, novelist Ilya Ehrenburg, years later. “I believe that the world seemed to Modigliani like an enormous kindergarten run by very unkind adults.” The portraits’ edginess may reflect the strain of the painter’s own poverty. Unlike many of his artist friends, Modigliani never stooped to work odd jobs; he would rather have starved.

Modigliani marks a milestone in the treatment of the nude in the history of art… He had an honest reverence for the sensuality of the female body.

In 1916, a young Polish emigré art dealer and poet named Leopold Zborowski took on the prickly Italian as a client. In return for a regular allotment of paintings, Zborowski provided the artist with room and board, studio space, art supplies and a small monthly stipend.

In the winter of 1917, Modigliani embarked on a series of large nudes that are responsible for much of his posthumous reputation. Many of the oils are blatantly erotic. (In the 1950s, postal authorities in New York City decided a Guggenheim Museum postcard of a Modigliani nude was unfit for the US mail.) The models’ anatomy­ – often horizontal, seen from a point both near and low, with the pelvis tilted towards the viewer – is literally “in your face,” which can be unsettling, says art historian Emily Braun, distinguished professor at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY.

“Modigliani marks a milestone in the treatment of the nude in the history of art,” Braun says. “He moved away from the packaged, slick salon nudes and also away from Manet’s parody of those nudes. He had an honest reverence for the sensuality of the female body.” Amongst serious artists of the day, this was atypical. Says Braun: “Modigliani was interested in beauty at a time when a lot of Modernists were interested in monstrosity.”

JEANNE HÉBUTERNE, MODIGLIANI'S COMPANION AND MUSE, WAS A FREQUENT SUBJECT.

The painter’s last and favourite model was Jeanne Hébuterne, a shy 19-year-old art student with light brown hair, whom he met in 1917 and who often sat for him. The pair set up house in a ramshackle apartment on Rue de la Grande Chaumière, though Modigliani’s penchant for drinking and barhopping never abated.

The following year, with Paris under German bombardment, Zborowski took the couple to Provence for an artistic retreat with his family and several other artists. Jeanne gave birth to a daughter in November 1918; Modigliani promised marriage, though he never followed through. By the following summer, still in Provence, Jeanne was pregnant again. “I’m getting fat and becoming a respectable citizen of Cagnes-sur-Mer,” Modigliani told a friend, as though horrified at finding himself bourgeois. “I’m going to have two kids; it’s unbelievable. It’s sickening!”

Though major sales were few, his paintings were finally attracting positive notice. In 1919, he and Utrillo drew raves for paintings they showed at a major exhibition in London. English critic Arnold Bennett observed that some of Modigliani’s portraits “have a suspicious resemblance to masterpieces.”

Back in Paris at the start of 1920, Modigliani scrawled a note to himself in a sketchbook: “A new year. Here begins a new life.” It was wishful thinking: he knew his fragile lungs were failing. He had become weak and emaciated, though he remained a night owl to the last. Towards the end of January 1920, at the age of 35, he collapsed and died. Two nights later, a despondent Hébuterne, now 21 and eight months pregnant, leapt to her death from a fifth-floor window.

AMEDEO MODIGLIANI, NU COUCHÉ (SUR LE CÔTÉ GAUCHE). ESTIMATED TO SELL FOR IN EXCESS OF $150 MILLION. TO BE OFFERED AT SOTHEBY’S IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART EVENING SALE ON 14 MAY IN NEW YORK.

The couple’s tragic end gave a macabre boost to Modigliani’s artistic reputation. Dealers, who hoped to snap up his drawings and paintings at a good price, accosted mourners in the funeral procession. Galleries with his work on hand promptly marked them up tenfold. Few of his friends benefited, having sold what they had. The only inheritance of the artist’s 14-month-old daughter was a collection taken up on her behalf by her father’s artist friends.

Modigliani’s art was defiantly idiosyncratic. He never attracted many followers in the art world. Amongst critics, there will always be a suspicion that his melodramatic life and premature death have helped fuel his widespread popularity. “Admittedly, he was repetitive, but what total, utter originality!” wrote an admirer, the French art critic Gustave Coquiot, shortly after Modigliani died. Coquiot praised him as an artist “who never plagiarized his colleagues, who lived within himself and for himself, with all his virtues and flaws.” Without his flaws – without his stubborn, single-minded pursuit of his eccentric ideal – we might not know or care what Modigliani painted.

 

Doug Stewart is an arts writer and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine. His book, The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare, was published in April 2010.