The bohemian artist Amedeo Modigliani was a very complicated personality. However, going by Picasso's comment about never seeing him drunk anywhere except 'at the corners of the boulevard Montmartre and the boulevard Raspail', it seems he made an extra-special effort to be obnoxious. When he forgot to keep up appearances, he could be a charming and soft-spoken man, who was popular with the ladies and could converse intelligently on a variety of topics. He was very fond of poetry, particularly that of Lautreamont, the man who wrote 'Maldoror', a copy of which Modigliani always carried everywhere with him. He was an excellent painter and sculptor - if not as daringly innovative as some of his contemporaries, then with a distinct individuality expressed in the trademark sensual elongations of the face and neck.
Known as 'Modi' to his friends and 'Dedo' to his family, he was born in Livorno, Italy on 12 July 1884, the fourth and youngest child of Flaminio Modigliani and his wife Eugenia. Flaminio was an unsuccessful businessman with a small money-changing enterprise, while Eugenia, an unconventional and strong woman, ran an experimental school and was known for her somewhat radical political views. Her views filtered down to her sons and led Modigliani's older brother Emmanuele to be imprisoned as an Anarchist for six months in 1898, at the age of twenty-six. The Modiglianis were also Sephardic Jews. Although he was in no way religious, Amedeo's Jewish identity strongly influenced his life, and he was known to often introduce himself to people as 'Modigliani, Jew'. Being a Jew was not easy in the Europe of that period. They were not widely persecuted as they would be later on, but they were not regarded with a great degree of acceptance either. This becomes more evident in Amedeo's life when the Roman Catholic family of his mistress Jeanne Hebuterne, disowned her for associating with a Jew. He faced many more such circumstances in the daily course of his life.
He also had to contend with poverty and constant ill-health. He suffered from Tuberculosis since his early childhood, and this was to dog him throughout his life. His mother, perhaps to entertain him while he was sick, had encouraged him to take up art. As he showed a marked talent for it, she arranged for him to take proper lessons in 1898 when he was fourteen. His teacher, Guglielmo Micheli was a student of Giovanni Fattori, the leader of the Italian Impressionists (the Macchiaiola). In May 1902, at the age of eighteen and after having toured Naples, Amalfi, Capri, Rome, and Florence with his mother, he decided to leave home and study under Fattori at the Scuola Libera di Nudo dell'Accademia di Belle Arti (Free School of the Nude) in Florence. It was here that he first tried his hand at sculpture. However, the next year in March 1903, he transferred to the Scuola Libera del Nudo in Venice. Here, he met Umberto Boccioni and Ardengo Soffici, future Futurists, and also Ortiz de Zarate, an artist friend with whom he attended the Biennial Exhibition of Modern Art in Venice and studied the works of Cezanne and Van Gogh. In this period, he also made his first trip to England and, unfortunately, also got initiated into drinks and drugs.
He went to Paris in the winter of 1906 on a small allowance from his mother, settled in Montmatre, and attended the Academie Colarossi. Paris was a happening place for art then, with many talented artists converging around the avant-garde influence of the poet Guilliame Apollonaire. Modigliani came to be greatly influenced by the works of artists like Cezanne, Ganguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen. However, being Jewish and being made strongly aware of this for the very first time by French Anti-Semites, he remained on the periphery of the art scene and associated mainly with other Jewish artists like Chaim Soutine, Kisling, the sculptor Lipchitz, and the poet Max Jacob (Picasso's friend). He also befriended Cocteau, Gris, Rivera, and art dealers Paul Guillaume and Zborowski. In 1907, he came into contact with Dr. Paul Alexandre, who became his first patron and paid for him to stay with other artists in a sprawling tenement building in rue Delta 7. Modigliani sold him paintings until the First World War. He also exhibited paintings in the 'Salon d'Automne in 1907 and in the 'Salon des Independants' in 1908. It would seem that he was doing well, but in reality, he was spending more and more time in binging and had gained quite a reputation in all quarters for drunken, disorderly behavior. It was his penchant for stripping stark naked while on a binge that gave him the nickname 'Modi' - it was not just a take on his surname, but a pun on the French word for accursed 'maudit'. Finally, in 1909, his excesses became too much for him to take, and he went home to Livorno to recuperate.
Soon, he decided to become a sculptor rather than a painter, returned to Paris, and took up residence in the new artists' quarter of Montparnasse. His sculptures, stark and minimalist, were influenced by the African and Oceanic Art that he had seen in the Musee de l'Homme, and by the work of Brancusi, whom he had met earlier in 'Cite Faulguiere' in Montparnasse and had worked with for a while. While he found artistic fulfillment in sculpting, his finances and his health showed no improvement. He couldn't afford to buy stones for carving, so he stole them from the building sites that were cropping up all over Paris, and then ruined his health with the long hours and hard physical labor needed for sculpting them. With the outbreak of the First World War, most of the building projects got shelved and the easy supply of stones dried up. Modigliani, who was by now extremely frail, was once more forced homewards.
Returning yet again to Paris, he began painting delicately stylized, elegant, and amazingly insightful portraits that showed an undoubted influence of his sculpting experience. In 1910 and 1911, he exhibited his work again at the 'Salon des Indépendants', and in 1912 at the 'Salon d'Automne'. His painting 'Cellist' had won favorable reviews from the Art Critics in 1910, and he had exhibited sculptures as well as paintings at the artist Souza Cardoso's Montparnasse Studio in 1911. He went to Normandy with his Aunt Laure, and then back to Livorno for a while. Returning to Paris, he met up often with Lipchitz, Augustus John, and Jacob Epstein. He received his first art contract from the dealer Cheron in 1913, and around the same time began sharing a studio in Boulevard Raspail 216 with Chaim Soutine. After the War broke out and he gave up sculpting, he moved to a studio in Montmartre. He also began a passionate, two-year affair with the South African Poetess Beatrice Hastings. She was five years older than him, had a grander drinking reputation, and they had major brawls in public. The fact that it was her money that was more or less supporting him in this period did not stop him from throwing her out of their window on one occasion.
It was a good time for him professionally, as not only was he working well, but he was also taken on by the upcoming and ambitious art dealer Paul Guillaume in 1916, thanks to Max Jacob. He also held an exhibition of his work at Emile Lejeune's Studio in Paris. However, he couldn't keep a steady course for long. By 1917, he had broken contact with Paul Alexandre and many of his old friends, got rid of both Beatrice Hastings and Paul Guillaume, and embarked on new personal and professional relationships with Jeanne Hebuterne and the Polish dealer Zborowski, respectively.
Jeanne Hebuterne, whom he met at the Academie Colarossi, was nineteen at the time and a subdued, colorless personality in comparison to Beatrice. However, she too wasn't spared any public scenes, and stories abounded around Montmatre of her ill-treatment at the hands of a drunken Modigliani. She remained devoted to him despite all that, and he painted a number of her portraits. They started living together, to her conservative family's outrage, in a studio rented for them by Zborowsky in rue de la Grande-Chaumiere in Montparnasse. About this time, Modigliani had his first solo exhibition at the Berthe Weill Gallery. Unfortunately, his sensual nudes offended the local Police Chief and the exhibition was shut down on the opening day itself.
In early 1918, Zborowski arranged for Modigliani as well as his other clients, Soutine, Kisling, Survage, Foujita, Cendrars, and Osterlind, to move to Southern France. It was here in Cagnes that he painted the only four landscapes of his career. It wasn't a genre that interested him, and he spent the rest of his time painting portraits indoors and missing the ambiance of Paris. He also missed a group exhibition at the Paul Guillaume Gallery, featuring his works as well as those of Picasso and Matisse. Jeanne became pregnant during this period and gave birth to a daughter, Giovanna, on 29 November 1918. Although he acknowledged her as his daughter (he hadn't acknowledged a child by an earlier girlfriend), he never got around to registering the child officially. It seems he got drunk on the way to the Registry Office and forgot about the matter entirely.
On 31 May 1919, temporarily leaving behind the once again pregnant Jeanne and his new daughter in Nice, he returned to Paris. His paintings had begun to sell well at long last - one of his paintings, exhibited in a critically successful group show called 'Modern French Art', organized by Zborowski at the Mansard Gallery in London, had been sold at a very high price to the famous writer Arnold Bennett. Jeanne and their daughter joined him in June and they moved into their first real home together, an apartment in the Rue de la Grande Chaumiere that was immediately above the one previously occupied by Gauguin. However, the end was near for the artist.
He had refused to give up drinking despite its obvious ill-effects on his health, and right after the New Year Celebrations of 1920, he collapsed. For nearly five days, he writhed in bed in excruciating pain and high fever. Jeanne, who was now nine months pregnant, sat with him, but extraordinarily enough, did not think of summoning a doctor in all this time. This was left to his old friend Ortiz de Zarate, who lived downstairs, and not having seen the couple in a while, came to check on their whereabouts. By then there was really nothing any doctor could do beyond diagnosing the illness as Tubercular Meningitis, and moving the now comatose artist to a clinic. He died without regaining consciousness on 24 January 1920. The whole of Montmatre turned up for his funeral. Two days later, Jeanne committed suicide by throwing herself out of the fifth floor window of her parents' home. Her embittered family buried her at the Bagneux Cemetery, agreeing only in 1930 to let her rest beside Modigliani at the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
Their daughter Giovanna was adopted and brought up by Modigliani's family. She later wrote a definitive book on her father, titled 'Modigliani, Man and Myth'.