Amedeo, or “Dedo,” Modigliani was the youngest of four children born to Jewish parents, Flaminio and Eugenia, in Livorno, Italy, home to a large Jewish community. A central participant in the Ecole de Paris, Modigliani modernized two of the enduring themes of art history: the portrait and the nude. Characterized by a sense of melancholy, elongated proportions, and mask-like faces influenced by such sources as Constantin Brancusi and African art, Modigliani’s portraits are both specific and highly stylized, each uniquely revealing its sitter’s inner life, while at the same time unmistakably “Modiglianized,” to use the words of one critic. Modigliani’s nudes scandalized audiences with their depiction of features such as pubic hair and their frank, unadorned sexuality.
Modigliani upended the tradition of the nude. Modern in their candid sensuality, his works in this genre are noticeably devoid of the modesty and mythological subtext present in many earlier depictions of nude figures. Because of these qualities – along with the artist’s notorious womanizing – Modigliani’s nudes were scandalously received at the time they were created.
Modigliani’s portraiture achieves a unique combination of specificity and generalization. His portraits convey his subjects’ personalities, while his trademark stylization and use of recurring motifs – long necks and almond-shaped eyes – lends them uniformity. Modigliani’s portraiture also serves as a vital art historical record, comprising a gallery of major figures of the Ecole de Paris circle, to which he belonged following his move to Paris in 1906.
The work of the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi was perhaps the single most important influence on Modigliani’s creative development. Although Modigliani is best known as a painter, he focused on sculpture early on in his career, and, some writers have argued, may have regarded his true calling as that of a sculptor. The sculptures Modigliani created in 1909-14 – of which twenty-five carvings and one woodcut survive – were highly influential on his work as a painter, helping him arrive at the abstracted and linear vocabulary of his painting.
After being diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1901, Modigliani recuperated in southern Italy with his mother. Visits to the museums in Naples, Rome, Florence, and Venice familiarized him with classical Italian painting and sculpture, fueling his enthusiasm for the fine arts. After their return to Livorno, he convinced his mother to allow him to move to Florence, where he studied figure drawing at the Scuola Libera di Nudo. Possibly inspired by his admiration for Michelangelo, he moved to Pietrasanta in 1903 to devote his time to sculpture but found his strength insufficient for the strenuous and time-consuming stone-carving process.
As Modigliani settled into Paris in 1906, he enrolled in the Académie Colarossi and spent the first few months visiting area galleries and museums. He was soon absorbed into the Bateau Lavoir circle, which included Juan Gris, Max Jacob, Pablo Picasso, and André Salmon, among other well-known artists and literary figures. Searching for an innovative style that could compete with those practiced by the Parisian avant-garde, Modigliani concentrated on painting. Works from this period show high regard for the Post-Impressionists.
In 1916, Modigliani began associating with the Polish poet and art dealer Leopold Zborowski, who arranged the artist’s first and only solo exhibition in his lifetime, at the Berthe Weill Gallery in December 1917. To entice passersby, Weill installed an attractive nude in the front window. Scandalized, the local police temporarily shut down the exhibition, but the unintended publicity resulted in better sales than usual for the habitually impoverished artist.
Familial responsibilities, combined with Modigliani’s professional obligations to Zborowski, spurred Modigliani to increase productivity despite his fading health. A self-portrait from 1919 suggests a sense of calm and confidence in his work, which afforded him some measure of peace toward the end of his life. Yet, the artist’s health ultimately gave way, with Modigliani succumbing to tubercular meningitis the following year.
Although his works were not commercially successful during his lifetime, they became increasingly popular after his death. Modigliani is now among the celebrated artists of the twentieth century. While not closely associated with any one particular early-twentieth-century “ism,” Modigliani arrived at a signature style that fused aspects of contemporary European artistic developments such as Cubism with non-Western art forms like African masks. His portraits and nudes overturned the conventions of both genres, uniquely combining innovative formal experimentation with probing candor and psychological insight, and earning the admiration of Modigliani’s artistic contemporaries such as his close friend and fellow Ecole de Paris artist, the painter Chaim Soutine.