The enduring allure and eroticism of Amedeo Modigliani

Curator and historian Phyllis Tuchman examines the magical charm of one of Modernism’s cherished masters, who was admired by Picasso, Gris and Rivera but died tragically young


(Left, detail) Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Nu couché, 1917-1918. (Right) Modigliani in his studio, rue Ravignan, 1915. Photo: © RMN-Grand Palais (musée de l'Orangerie) / Archives Alain Bouret, image Dominique Couto

Why is Modigliani so revered?

There are few artists who engender greater ardour from experts and laymen alike than Amedeo Modigliani. From the start, his painted portraits and nudes, sculpted heads and caryatids, and numerous works on paper were admired by his colleagues, hailed by critics, and supported by collectors. They still are. 

Asked for her reasons for the artist’s enduring popularity, Museum of Fine Arts Houston curator Alison de Lima Greene replies, ‘Sex. His nudes are hot. I know people who don’t like art, who love his nudes. And there’s even eroticism in his clothed women that makes you want to undress them.’

Was Modigliani as admired in his lifetime as he is now?

‘There’s no small measure of myth around him,’ says Conor Jordan, deputy chairman of Impressionism and Modern Art at Christie’s New York. Before the artist’s death in 1920 from tubercular meningitis (he was just 35), his admirers included Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, Jacques Lipchitz, and Diego Rivera, fellow painters with whom he posed and partied. 

Posthumously, critics and curators such as John Russell of the New York Times  and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s William Lieberman organised and wrote texts for Modigliani retrospectives at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Tate. More recently, collectors and institutions bidding at auction have set record prices for his work.

What were the main themes of his work?

Modigliani’s subjects are appealing, to be sure. Lieberman, the late curator whose stint at resulted in MoMA acquiring a substantial number of works from the collection of Gertrude Stein, once declared, ‘He created many of the [20th] century’s most sensitive portraits.’ 

Jordan describes the artist’s themes as being of a ‘particular and recognisable idiom — the subject matter of bohemian figures and bohemian settings are presented to the viewer in rhythmic construction.’


Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Jean Alexandre, 1909. 31⅞ x 23⅝ in (81 x 60 cm). Sold for $7,557,000 on 14 May 2015 at Christie’s in New York

How would you describe Modigliani’s style — and who, and what were his influences?

Modigliani’s style, influenced by both French Modernism and Italian Mannerism, occupies a unique middle ground. Although he exhibited with his Cubist friends, the men and women he depicted with elongated heads and necks, sloping shoulders, and expressive hands are more stylised. His sitters also are instantly recognisable. Among them is 1916’s Portrait de Béatrice Hastings  (below), sold at Christie’s New York in May 2015 for more than $16 million.

What was Modigliani's background?

Born in 1884 to a formerly wealthy, newly penniless Jewish banker in Livorno, a port town in northwest Italy, Modigliani was a sickly child, suffering from pleurisy, typhoid fever and recurring tuberculosis. His mother home-schooled her son and, early on, recognised and encouraged his artistic talent. 

After touring the great museums of Italy as a teenager and studying art in Livorno, Florence, and Venice, Modigliani arrived in Paris in 1906. He looked like a movie star: dark and handsome. He had curly black hair and dressed like a wealthy bohemian in brown corduroys, a scarlet scarf, and large black hat. Eventually, he became an alcoholic and a drug addict.

During his first years in Paris, Modigliani, initially based in Montmartre and later in Montparnasse, enjoyed the patronage of Paul Alexandre, a young doctor he saw several times a week. Although the artist destroyed some of his early works, the portraits of Alexandre and his family survive. A 1909 work of Jean Alexandre, Paul’s younger brother (above), was sold in May 2015 for $7,557,000.


Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Beatrice Hastings, 1916. 25 ½ x 18⅛ in (64.9 x 45.9 cm). Sold for $16,069,000 on 14 May 2015 at Christie’s in New York

Why did he give up painting at one point?

Soon after meeting Constantin Brancusi in 1909, Modigliani gave up painting for sculpture. He carved exaggerated heads and crouching caryatids from soft, porous limestone blocks he found at building sites. 

London Group sculptor Jacob Epstein, who in 1913 saw Modigliani practically every day for six months, later praised the ‘geniality and esprit’ of his colleague. Epstein recalled how, ‘With friends he was charming and witty in conversation and without any affectations.’

Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Tête, circa 1910-12 . Height 64 cm (25¼ in). Sold for €43,185,000 on 14 June 2010 at Christie’s in Paris

Modigliani gave up sculpture the way he took it up: suddenly. Most of the work we associate with his career was painted during the last five years of his life. This includes a remarkable group of portraits of Beatrice Hastings, an English writer, poet, and literary critic he met in 1914 and lived with until 1916. 

Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Tête, 1911-1912. Limestone. Height: 20⅛ in (51 cm). Offered in Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale on 13 May 2019 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $34,325,000

He also often painted his wife Jeanne Hebuterne, who was 19 when they met in 1917. Describing the way the artist portrayed these two women in his life, Jordan says that Hastings, as an accomplished woman, ‘could go toe to toe with her lover’, adding that the compositions of her suggest ‘a face-off between two powerful actors.’ Hebuterne, by contrast, had ‘a more generous personality, was less abrasive, and brought out a lyrical mode’. 

Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Jeanne Hébuterne (Au chapeau), painted in 1919. 36¼ x 21¼ in (92 x 54 cm). Sold for £26,921,250 on 6 February 2013 at Christie’s in London

And what about Modigliani’s most famous works?

Modigliani painted a who’s who of the Parisian avant-garde, from fellow artists and their dealers (such as Paul Guillaume, below) to wives and lovers. Visitors to the Art Institute of Chicago can see a remarkable double portrait of Jacques Lipchitz accompanied by his wife Berthe, while those going to at Dusseldorf’s Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen can enjoy an astonishing depiction of poet Max Jacob in a top hat and polka dot cravat. Both works were completed in 1916.

Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Paul Guillaume, painted in 1916. 20⅞ x 14¾ in (53 x 37.5 cm). Sold for £6,781,875 on 18 June 2013 at Christie’s in London

This period also includes the nudes, including Nu couché (Reclining Nude), executed in 1917-18 (below) and sold for $170,405,000 at Christie’s in New York in November 2015. The paintings caused a scandal when they were put in the window of Modigliani’s solo show at Berthe Weill in Paris in 1917. 

Independent scholar Kenneth Wayne, who oversees the online Modigliani Project, believes these to be the artist’s best work. ‘In terms of hierarchy,’ he says, ‘the nudes are number one.’ The police shut the exhibition down, claiming the work was pornographic. 


Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Nu couché, 1917-1918. 23⅝ x 36 ¼ in (59.9 x 92 cm). Sold for $170,405,000 on 9 November 2015 at Christie’s in New York

With Modigliani in ailing health, Hebuterne pregnant with their daughter, and Paris ever more dangerous as World War I dragged on, the couple moved to the South of France during the spring of 1918. 

While in the Midi the painter depicted a new cast of characters, including lots of children. Boy in Short Pants, held by the Dallas Museum of Art; Marie Daughter of the People, seen at Basel’s Kunstmuseum; and Servant Girl of the Albright-Knox in Buffalo, all painted that year, are particular standouts. He also executed his only four landscapes.

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When the couple returned to Paris 13 months later, Modigliani’s palette was lighter toned and more mellow. He also depicted his sitters in more recognisable settings. Although his health continued to decline, he still socialised with the likes of Henri MatisseAndré Derain, and Suzanne Valadon.

He died young

Modigliani died on January 24, 1920. Hebuterne committed suicide the following evening. Picasso, Jacob, Lipchitz, Derain, Brancusi, Kees van Dongen, Chaim Soutine, Fernand Leger, and Maurice Vlaminck were among the mourners who attended his burial at Pere-Lachaise cemetery. ‘Death,’ Modigliani’s tombstone declares, ‘gathered him when glory had arrived.’

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