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Amedeo Modigliani

Italian, 1884 - 1920

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Amedeo Modigliani was active as a painter, draughtsman, and sculptor, and during his relatively short working life he established a distinctive style in each of these mediums. Born in the coastal town of Livorno (or Leghorn) in 1884 of Jewish parents, he began his artistic studies there at age fourteen with a local practitioner of Italian plein air painting, but these were interrupted by the recurrent bouts of lung disease that he had suffered since early childhood. After traveling to Naples, Capri, Amalfi, Rome, and Florence with his mother, the young man enrolled at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence in 1902 and the next year moved to Venice for three more years of study.

Almost nothing remains of Modigliani's earliest work, but he came into his own in 1906 when he settled in Paris, where he was exposed to a lively artistic scene centered around the famed Bateau-Lavoir, a complex of artists' studios--including those of Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, and Kees van Dongen--on rue Ravignan in Montmartre. Out of this ferment of inspiration Modigliani rapidly established his own idiosyncratic style, with its easily recognizable elongated figures and heads, almond-shaped eyes, and simple, linear contours. His early portraits, a genre at which he continued to excel throughout his life, show the influence of the Fauves and of Picasso's Blue Period, as well as of the society portraits of Giovanni Boldini and John Singer Sargent. Modigliani knew Picasso and through him may have been exposed to the African, Khmer, and Egyptian sculpture that was a dramatic source of stimulation to the avant-garde artists of the time.

Modigliani also creatively absorbed the lessons of Paul Cézanne's late portraits, with their definition of formal structure through methodically applied patches of color and their powerful contrasts between background and the sitter's face. Modigliani's earliest attempts at sculpture occurred in 1902, and to his close associates he began to define himself primarily as a sculptor. Between 1907 and 1908 he is known to have executed sculptures in wood, none of which are traceable today.

After 1909, when he moved to a new studio in Montparnasse, he produced more sculpture, including twenty-three heads, a standing figure, and, around 1913, the first of his caryatids, now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. It has been suggested that during the period from 1909 to 1914 Modigliani was implementing his own interpretation of African masks, and it is a mark of his style that he absorbed and then creatively transformed the wealth of examples from both his own and foreign cultures so abundantly available for study in the Paris of his day. Modigliani worked directly in stone, following Constantin Brancusi's method, and the result was a studied simplification of form with consequent elimination of surface detail (his stone carvings from this period are discussed in Wilkinson, Alan G. "Paris and London: Modigliani, Lipchitz, Epstein, and Gaudier-Brzeska." In "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, edited by William Rubin, vol. 2, pp. 417 52. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1984, pp. 417-50).

Around the end of 1913 or early in 1914 Modigliani abandoned sculpture to concentrate on portrait painting. He acquired a dealer in Paris in 1914, Paul Guillaume, whose portrait he executed in 1916 (now in the Galleria d'Arte Moderna, Milan), and in 1916 he moved to a new dealer, Leopold Zborowski, who supported him with regular payments.

In 1917 Modigliani established a lifelong relationship with Jeanne Hébuterne. Their daughter, Jeanne, of whom Modigliani painted many portraits, published a reminiscence of her father that furnishes insight into his personality, which is also evidenced by his letters and other surviving documents.

Modigliani's main production during the last years of his life, aside from portraits of people he was close to, was a series of reclining nudes. In 1917 he exhibited a group of these at the Galerie Berthe Weill in Paris, and so frank was their sensuality that the exhibition was closed by the police on the grounds of obscenity. The paintings are not obscene by today's standards, but neither are they generalized, for Modigliani portrayed the models as individuals with recognizable faces. The artist's health deteriorated around this time, a situation aggravated by his devotion to drugs and alcohol, and he died of tubercular meningitis in Paris in 1920.

Mimi Cazort, from Italian Master Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2004), cat. 75.

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