Why is Modgliani 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. Pondering the reason for the artist’s enduring popularity, Museum of Fine Arts Houston curator Alison de Lima Greene arrives at her conclusion: ‘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 he 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 at the age of 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, Jean Alexandre, 1909. Oil on canvas. Sold for $7,557,000 in the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale in New York on 14 May 2015
How would you describe his 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 homeschooled 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. Mid-height, with curly black hair, he 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, was sold in May 2015 for $7,557,000.
Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait de Béatrice Hastings, 1916. Oil on canvas. Sold for $16,069,000 in the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale in New York on 14 May 2015
Why did he give up painting at one point?
Soon after meeting Constantin Brancusi that same year, 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.’
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. 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,’ says Jordan.
And what about his most famous works?
Then there’s Modigliani’s rogues gallery comprised of a who’s who of the Parisian avant-garde, from fellow artists and their dealers to wives and lovers. Viewers can find a remarkable double portrait of Jacques Lipchitz in a dark turtleneck accompanied by his white-collared wife Berthe at the Art Institute of Chicago, and an astonishing depiction of poet Max Jacob in a top hat and polka dot cravat in Dusseldorf’s Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen. Both works were completed in 1916.
Amedeo Modigliani, Nu couché (Reclining Nude), 1917-18. This work was offered for sale on 9 November 2015 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $170,405,000
This period also includes the nudes, including Nu couché (Reclining Nude), executed in 1917-18 and offered for sale in New York in November 2015, that 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.
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. There, in the Midi, the painter limned 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.
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 Matisse, André Derain, and Suzanne Valadon.
So he died young...
Modigliani died on January 24, 1920. The next night, Hebuterne committed suicide. 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.’
Main image at top: Modigliniani in his studio, rue Ravignan, 1915. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (musee de l’Orangerie)/Archives Alain Bouret, image Dominique Couto
For more features, interviews and videos, see our Christie’s Daily homepage