Amedeo Modigliani was born in Livorno in 1884; he began studying painting under Guglielmo Micheli, one of the “Macchiaioli” artists at a very young age. He then went on to the academies in Florence (where he studied nudes) and Venice (where he enrolled in 1903). It was there, at the early editions of the Biennale, that he first saw the Impressionists. From the beginning his favorite subjects were the portraits and female nudes that would be constants in his later works. After his academic studies he departed for Paris in 1906. There he developed an interest in contemporary French art, especially Toulouse-Lautrec’s graphics and paintings and then the works of Cézanne – that were fundamental to his development – and the Fauves. He attended the Académie Colarossi and frequented the bohemian circles of Montmartre and Montparnasse where he met the greatest artists of the period – Picasso and mainly Brancusi whose influence was a determining factor in his appreciation for African and primitive sculpture. In the meantime, although the nudes he showed in an exhibition organized by Léopold Zborowski at the Berthe Weill gallery triggered a scandal they aroused the interest of the other great artists. In 1907 he was introduced to the physician and patron of the arts, Paul Alexandre who opened the doors to the foremost artistic circles such as the Salon des Indépendants where he showed five pieces. After intensive work on sculpture, that left pieces such as the Heads, in 1914 Modigliani began to dedicate himself exclusively to painting. Some of the canvases from this period, such as the Cariatide rosa (1914), bear a clear imprint of his sculptural language. In addition to the members of the artistic circles, his repertory of subjects included working people, especially women: maids, flower-sellers, beggars and, naturally his lovers some of whom are portrayed in the famous nudes. Amedeo Modigliani died in Paris in 1920 after a long illness that was exacerbated by his lifestyle of drug and alcohol abuse.
Cariatide in piedi
Modigliani did many paintings of standing or kneeling caryatids and they coincide with the final period of his sculptural output. In fact, there is a close formal relationship among the sculptures, with their elongated, essential lines and these archaically structured figures that resemble votive figurines from primitive art. The critics considered these paintings as the pictorial, color-dominated version of the plastic experience.
This is a portrait of the young Lithuanian artist, Chaim Soutine. He arrived in Paris in 1913 where he became a follower and protégé of Modigliani who dedicated several paintings to him. As in his other portraits from this period, the subject’s name appears in large letters. The marked traits and intense color reveal Modigliani’s affection for the cheerful and generous Soutine.
Beatrice Hastings davanti a una porta
Modigliani had a tormented two-year long affair with the English writer Beatrice Hastings that began in 1914. Modigliani had resumed painting about one year before, after a period in which he had concentrated on sculpture following his 1909 meeting with the Romanian sculptor, Costantin Brancusi. In this painting we can feel the echo of his plastic studies in the fusion of the design and the vertical development of the shapes – including the famous “long necks” that would become a constant in Modigliani’s paintings.
Modigliani rendered the elongated and gangling appearance of the writer Jean Cocteau in a succinct manner. Cocteau was one of the protagonists of the Parisian cultural scene and held memorable soirées. The diversity between the right and left sides of the face, between the eye with the pupil and the black, hollow eye gives the features a mobility which in turn reveals what must have been the subject’s expression.
Max Jacob davanti a una porta
Modigliani met the writer and poet Max Jacob shortly after his arrival in Paris when both lived in Montmartre. Artists congregated their at the turn of the century and subsequently shifted to Montparnasse. Jacob was one Modigliani’s dearest friends. It was through him that the Italian artist met the art merchant Paul Guillaume who would become one of his main collectors. Modigliani had painted two portraits of Jacob, in one the subject looks more sophisticated, with a top hat; in this one the few physiognomic notations such as the aquiline nose render the poet’s particular expression.
Modigliani met the art merchant and collector Paul Guillaume through his friend Max Jacob in 1915; Guillaume was to become his main supporter. Modigliani painted several portraits of him, and always depicted him with utmost naturalness, cigarette in hand or in a seated, three-quarter view as in this case. The artist translated the broad face and massive neck into essential lines that focus on the substance of the figure rather than a faithful and naturalistic rendering.
Modigliani dedicated this portrait to the poet Blaise Cendrars, who had lost his right forearm in World War I. That same year the poet wrote the introduction to Modigliani’s first one-man show at the Berthe Weill gallery in Paris. At the show he presented several nudes that caused a great scandal because of the sensual poses and chromatic intensity.
Modigliani met the young Jeanne Hébuterne, a student at the Académie Colarossi in 1917. They had a daughter, named Jeanne, after her mother precisely when Modigliani’s health began to deteriorate. He painted many portraits of Jeanne in this period and this is one of the most intense in which the woman’s gaze is profound and melancholy. A few hours after his death, his wife followed him by jumping out of the window.
La piccola Marie
In the last years of his life Modigliani painted almost only portraits reflecting on the experiences of the artists who had preceded him in blazing the trail of modernity. In this case the references seem to point to Cézanne and Degas. At first we connect the sense of structure so that the figure takes on its own weight in space, then we perceive the decisive sign and his extraordinary ability to render young femininity that is still a little immature, but ready for the transformation into womanhood.
Modigliani painted various portraits of Lunia Czechowska, a relative of the Zborowskies, the artist’s Polish friends. This particular painting confirms his interest in primitive art. As Lionello Venturi wrote, “the elongation in Modigliani’s picture that is excessive in relation to natural sizes, was the essential need of a taste that embodied the antithesis of depth and surface, of the structured and decorative, of the cognitive ideal of reality and the pure phantasm of grace.”
Hanka was the wife of the Polish poet, Léopold Zborowsky whom Modigliani had met in 1916. A very close friendship developed between the two men: Zborowsky became an enthusiastic supporter of the artist from Livorno and collected a goodly number of his works in his Paris apartment, including many portraits of his wife and a young relative, Lunia Czechowska. The head is shown in a three-quarter view and its volumetric tension is similar to the heads Modigliani had sculpted a few years before. The Zborowskies remained close to Modigliani to the end and cared for his daughter Jeanne after the death of her parents.