A century ago this month, on 24 January 1920, Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920) died of tuberculous meningitis, at the time a fearsome and untreatable consequence of tuberculosis. He was only thirty-five when he died, but in little more than a decade of ‘serious’ painting he had created some of the foremost Modernist figurative paintings of the early twentieth century. Tragically, he also became addicted to alcohol and drugs, which played a significant role in his early death.
In this short series of articles, I’m going to look primarily at the development of his figurative painting during his period in Paris. He was also a sculptor, and I will show a couple of examples of his sculptures where they cast light on his painting.
Modigliani was born and brought up in the Italian port of Livorno, in a Sephardic Jewish family who had been successful in business, his father managing a metal mine in Sardinia and large forests. However, shortly before his birth, the family business went bankrupt, and they moved into education. Like many children of the time, he suffered several serious childhood diseases, including typhoid, and when he was sixteen, he contracted tuberculosis. He studied in a local studio run by the master Guglielmo Micheli, then in 1901 moved to Rome, where he came to admire the paintings of Domenico Morelli. In 1902, he moved to Florence to take life classes there, then on to Venice, where he adopted a bohemian lifestyle.
In 1906, Modigliani moved to Paris, where he drew from life at the Académie Colarossi, then radically changed his lifestyle and destroyed most of his earlier work, concentrating on sculpture.
Modigliani’s major influences during his early years in Paris were Toulouse-Lautrec, Edvard Munch and Cézanne, but he quickly established an independent style. This Portrait of Maude Abrantes from 1907 shows his departure from Post-Impressionism.
In these early portraits and nudes, such as this Seated Nude, Little Jeanne from 1908, he is already starting to exaggerate the proportions of his sitters, as if making their caricature, with a long neck and stylised face.
Modigliani exhibited in the Salon des Indépendants in 1908, but his paintings there were overshadowed by the arrival of Cubism and more radical works such as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. He was introduced by the painter Henri Doucet to Dr Paul Alexandre, who provided Modigliani with modest patronage.
His Seated Nude from 1909 is more conventional, if heavily outlined.
His sculpture appears to have been influenced by art from well beyond Europe, perhaps including the Easter Island monumental statues or moai and carvings in Cambodia, as shown in this limestone carving of the Head of a Woman from 1910-11. Modigliani made friends with the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuși, who became his mentor for a period prior to the Great War.
Shortly before the war, Modigliani embarked on a major project to draw, paint and sculpt female figures acting as columns, caryatids. These were quite widely adopted in Classical architecture, and continue to be used in more modern buildings. He had conceived the idea of a ‘temple to humanity’ which would be surrounded by hundreds of these carved columns. In all, he made more than seventy preparatory drawings for them, using a range of media.
This gouache of a Caryatid from about 1914, now in Houston, shows his concept, of a nude woman supporting the upper structure with her raised arms and head.
Some of his most distinctive drawings were made using blue crayon, as in this example of a Caryatid from about 1913-14. His curves have become crisp and stylised.
This watercolour of a Caryatid from 1913 shows his concept even more clearly, its figure more detailed, and still using many of his distinctive curves.
He carved a couple of these, such as this limestone Caryatid from about 1914, which shows the upper plinth which the figure supports.
The outbreak of war made materials for his sculpture difficult to obtain, and in 1914, after being declared unfit for military service, Modigliani decided to return to painting. At the same time, his consumption of alcohol and drugs also increased.