The short lives of Modigliani and his dealers

Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920), Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne (1919), oil on canvas, 92.3 x 54.5 cm, Ohara Museum of Art 大原美術館, Kurashiki, Japan. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1977, the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris became the owner of one of the most valuable collections of modern art in Europe. This had already been on display there for eleven years, and it was only on the death of Domenica Walter (1898-1977) that ownership passed to the French nation. It has long been rumoured that this was all part of a deal to cover up the suspicious deaths of Domenica’s two husbands, Jean Walter, who died in 1957 after being hit by a car, and art dealer Paul Guillaume, who died in 1934 from an “ulcer”. There was also the matter of a claimed attempt on her son’s life.

Paul Guillaume was one of two dealers who had encouraged and supported Amedeo Modigliani, who died tragically at the age of thirty-five. His partner threw herself to her death from a fifth-floor window just two days later, at the age of twenty-one. Guillaume was only forty-two when he died in suspicious circumstances, and Modigliani’s other dealer, Leopold Zborowski, died at the age of forty-three of a heart attack.

Was this a curse, or just coincidence?

Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920), Paul Guillaume (1915), oil on board, 74.9 x 52.1 cm, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OH. Wikimedia Commons.

Guillaume was working in a garage in Paris when he started dealing in art. His first success was a small collection of African sculptures, whose origins remain disputed. The mechanic exhibited the sculptures, which caught the eye of Guillaume Apollinaire, and the nascent dealer was introduced to the drug and alcohol-fuelled Bohemian world of Modigliani and his friends. Both Guillaume and Modigliani had been declared unfit for military service, so were spending the war years consuming ever-increasing amounts of alcohol and drugs in Paris.

Modigliani had moved to Paris in 1906, where he drew from life at the Académie Colarossi before destroying most of his previous paintings and turning to sculpture. No sooner had he embarked on a major project for a ‘temple to humanity’ based on caryatids, female figures acting as columns, than the First World War had broken out and his supply of materials dried up. He was forced to return to painting portraits, including that of his friend and dealer, Paul Guillaume, who was one of the few in Paris who seemed prepared to promote avant garde artists like Modigliani and Chaim Soutine.

By 1916, Modigliani had met another young and aspiring art dealer, Leopold Zborowski, who also wrote poetry and prose. Soon, Guillaume had taken a back seat and it was Zborowski who was amassing Modigliani’s paintings.

Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920), Portrait of Leopold Zborowski (1916), oil on canvas, 65 x 43 cm, Israel Museum מוזיאון ישראל, Jerusalem, Israel. Wikimedia Commons.

That year, when the artist painted this Portrait of Leopold Zborowski, they did a deal. The dealer was to provide the painter with a supply of models to pose in the nude for him. All materials were also provided, without cost, and to cap it off Modigliani could live and work in Zborowski’s apartment. As Modigliani had just broken up with his partner Beatrice Hastings, and was running short of cash, he moved into the apartment in Montparnasse and started to paint one of the most famous series of nudes in European art.

Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920), Nude on a Sofa (Almalisa) (1916), oil on canvas, 81 x 116 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

For Zborowski’s modest investment of 15-20 francs per day which he paid the painter, plus costs, the potential profit was enormous. There was no shortage of pretty models, like Almalisa shown above, and the results were to shock Paris.

Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920), Female Nude Reclining on a White Pillow (c 1917), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart, Germany. Image by José Luiz, via Wikimedia Commons.

In April 1917, Modigliani was introduced to a beautiful young student at the Académie Colarossi, Jeanne Hébuterne, and they moved in together, despite strong opposition from her parents.

By the end of that year, Zborowski had earned himself about thirty of what were to become some of the most precious paintings of the early twentieth century. He was also dealing with other artists, which came to include Chaim Soutine, Maurice Utrillo, Marc Chagall and André Derain. It was time to take a selection of Modigliani’s series of nudes to the public.

On 3 December, at least seven of those thirty paintings featured in an exhibition in the Berthe Weill Gallery in Paris. But on its opening day, it was shut down by the police on grounds of the indecency of several of the paintings on display in the gallery’s windows. It appears to have resumed after those had been removed, and continued to be controversial with both critics and the public.

The following year, the threat of German invasion had grown to the point where Modigliani and Hébuterne left Paris for the Mediterranean coast, where they lived in Nice and Cagnes-sur-Mer. The artist continued painting portraits, which he sent to his dealer in Paris.

Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920), Boy in Short Pants (1918), oil on canvas, 99.6 x 64.7 cm, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas. Wikimedia Commons.

This Boy in Short Pants from 1918 was probably painted when Modigliani was in Nice. Initially, he tried selling these portraits to wealthy tourists, but was only able to get a few francs for them, so sent them to Zborowski in the hope that he might get better prices.

In late 1918, while still in Nice, Jeanne Hébuterne gave birth to their first child, a girl. Shortly after that, more of Modigliani’s paintings were exhibited in Paris. The following year Zborowski arranged for several of his paintings to be shown in London, where they at last began to gain interest from British collectors. Modigliani started planning a trip to Italy, but by the end of the year his health was deteriorating rapidly, and those plans were cancelled.

Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920), Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne (1919), oil on canvas, 92.3 x 54.5 cm, Ohara Museum of Art 大原美術館, Kurashiki, Japan. Wikimedia Commons.

This late Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne is one of the last he made of his partner. Her parents were conservative Catholics, who were understandably very concerned at Modigliani’s reputation, and his extremely bohemian lifestyle. The artist committed himself in writing to marry Hébuterne, but her parents resisted, and the matter was soon overtaken by events.

By the start of 1920, Modigliani was in a very bad way, and died from tuberculous meningitis on 24 January. Jeanne Hébuterne was distraught: their daughter was only just over one year old, and she was pregnant again. Two days after Modigliani had died, she threw herself from a fifth-floor window and died, together with her unborn child.

For the dealers Guillaume and Zborowski with their collections of Modigliani’s paintings, the artist’s tragic death had a golden lining: there would never again be any more Modiglianis. By this time, Guillaume had moved onto bigger game, removing his gallery to the prestigious rue de Faubourg Saint-Honoré and exhibiting Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, and others. He even promoted his artists in a magazine ambitiously titled Les Arts à Paris. When he finally gained the avid collector Dr Albert Barnes of Philadelphia as his client, his fortune was assured.

Zborowski’s enthusiasm to promote the paintings of his late friend knew no bounds, not even allowing onto the market a few of his works which had been painted after the artist’s death. Zborowski was undoubtedly struck by grief when Modigliani suffered his fatal relapse, but he wasn’t so emotionally overwhelmed to forget to stop all sales of his work, knowing how death would increase their value.

Paul Guillaume married Domenica and traded prosperously until he seems to have suffered from an ulcer which his wife treated, and led to his death in 1934; Zborowski’s fortunes were more fleeting. When the Great Depression arrived in the 1930s, he lost his riches, then died from a heart attack in 1932 in poverty in Paris. Anna, his widow, was forced to sell his whole collection, which was rapidly dispersed. In 2003, one of the small portraits of him painted by Modigliani sold for nearly one and a half million dollars.