Modigliani: Melancholy, Mystery and Magnificence

By Sarah Balcombe

Perhaps the most compelling image at the Jewish Museum’s Modigliani Unmasked is a photograph of the artist himself: jet black hair with knowing eyes and an arrogance that belied his youth. “How beautiful he was, my God, how beautiful!” exclaimed his model, Aicha  (Kenneth E Silver, ‘Too Many Last Words!’).
 700h_tjm_672-modi_f002-modigliani                                Amedeo Modigliani, c. 1912
His looks were legendary. “Modigliani was handsome, virile, with his wavy locks, his large forehead and his diamond-black eye,” stated his friend and writer, André Salmon. When asked if Modigliani was handsome, Jean Cocteau stated “No. He was something better….I was fascinated by his…handsome appearance….. He looked aristocratic even in his worn-out corduroys.” (K Silver)


Modigliani, Picasso and André Salmon in front the Café de la Rotonde, Paris. Image taken by Jean Cocteau in Montparnasse, Paris in 1916

It was reported that  “Before the war Modigliani had magnificent beauty but that now he had lost it through debauchery and alcohol.” With fragile health, a wish to conceal his  tuberculosis was apparently the main cause of his addictions and alleged self destructive behaviour. In  her autobiography of the artist, Meryle Secrest claims that he drank to avoid the stigma of tuberculosis, which, was the leading cause of death in France at the time. It was highly contagious and incurable. Secrest writes: “Drunks were tolerated; carriers of infectious diseases were not.””


Rue du Delta- Dr Paul Alexandre invited artists to stay here but it was demolished in 1913.

Almost as transfixing and infinitely more curious is the photograph next to Modigliani’s portrait. It shows the other artists with whom he lived, unloading from a horse and cart into an artist commune on Rue du Delta (above), funded by his patron and friend, Dr Alexandre. Every poor artist needs a patron and every patron needs a productive artist. It seems the two were well matched, and only three years apart in age, although due to Dr Alexandre’s modest means, Modigliani actually received very little actual remuneration. Despite Dr Alexandre’s attempts to further Modigliani’s career (many of Modigliani’s portrait sitter’s were family members of this patron) Modigliani’s work was often often exchanged for food and lodging or the price of a cup of coffee in a Montparanasse cafe.

His prolific output should not be underestimated and “from 1913-early 1920 Modigliani produced over 250 oil paintings”, a remarkable quantity especially considering that “this period included the four years of the First World War, when materials and portrait commissions were scarce.” (Simonetta Fraquelli, A Personal Universe: Modigliani’s Portraits and Figure Paintings)

Final Known Study for L’Amazone 1909. Black crayon 30.8 x 23.2 cms (12 1/8 x 9 1/8 inches)    (Paul Alexandre Collection)       

Accumulation of his work was valuable. Dr Alexandre amassed a staggering cache of approximately 400 drawings  during M’s most prolific period of 1906-14, many of which are displayed at Modigliani Unmasked. They capture an energy well-suited to the performance artists he sketched, such as Columbine Wearing Culottes and Studies for The Amazon (above), which reveal an expressive suggestive quality.

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Roger Dutilleul, 1919. Oil on canvas. 39½ x 25½ in. (100.4 x 64.7 cm). Collection of Bruce and Robbi Toll (The Jewish Museum)

Whilst in his male portraits (above) this translated into an arabesque slightly comical quality, Modigliani became a master of capturing nuance, featuring exaggerate stance, and limbs. When painting the female form this abstraction added a sensual element to his work.

Despite Modigliani socialising with Pablo Picasso and Brancusi, his palette was very much his own. Echoing the frescoed walls of Italian palaces and the damp plaster of crumbling buildings, it is possible that M’s use of a delicate patina, mixing dove greys with sage greens and light- infused yellows, was inspired by his visually rich Italian heritage. By gradually replacing his subjects’ eyes with slots of iridescent color,  he imbued faces with mask -like visages. This abstraction combined with elongating necks and tilting heads, added to the commanding, beguiling aura of his work.

Amedeo Modigliani, Lunia Czechowska, 1919. Oil on canvas. 31½ x 20½ in. Museu de Arte de São Paulo. Photograph by João Musa (The Jewish Museum)

His method of elongation is also a derivation of his profound interest in sculpture at the time. 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. The similarity between his sculptures, and those of Brancusi is remarkable. Indeed the curator makes this point by displaying a letter affirming Modigliani’s admiration for this similarly displaced artist (Brancusi was Romanian) also living in the artist colony at Rue d’Delta. The sculptures that followed are elegant and long necked, alluding to the Primitivism movement that was sweeping Paris at that time. Modigliani claimed that he was a sculptor first, but his ill health and financial limitations restricted his development in the medium of stone.

Amedeo Modigliani, Head of a Woman, 1910-11. Limestone, 25⅝ x 7½ x 9¾ in. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Chester Dale Collection (The Jewish Museum)

Many of these sculptures are displayed at Modigliani Unmasked, at The Jewish Museum. Also shown is a prolific collection of Greek caryatids, Rose Caryatid and Caryatid 1914. Nevertheless it is the iridescent reclining nudes and enigmatic elongated female portraits, such as that of his lover, Jeanne Hébuterne with Yellow Sweater (1918-1919) (below), which will be forever synonymous with the artist, Modigliani.

Amedeo Modigliani, Jeanne Hébuterne with Yellow Sweater, 1918-19. Oil on canvas. 39⅜ x 25½ in. (100 x 64.7 cm). Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, By gift 37.533. Image provided by Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation / Art Resource, New York (The Jewish Museum)

With his genius rewarded too late, he died destitute and ill. Hébuterne, pregnant with Modigliani’s child, threw herself to her death two days later. In contrast to this catalogue of death and destruction, his cache of work survived. It seems that his artistry had been recognized, but Modigliani had not been compensated for its value. “An hour after (his death) dealers and collectors, wallets in  hand, desperately grabbed every painting and drawing by Modigliani they could find,” reported Gustave Coquiot.

With no living descendants, “the work was suddenly worth a great deal”  (Kenneth E Silver)  and one painting reportedly fetched one million francs three decades later in 1952. In 2015 the increasing value of his work, was dramatically inflated by the sale of  his “Nu Couché,” (Reclining Nude) 1917-18 which achieved $170 million at Christies auction. A remarkable achievement, especially when considering that Modigliani’s first and only solo show of  paintings  during his lifetime, had been shut down by the chief of Paris police upon its opening night in December 3rd 1917, due to its display of nudity. History has a way of repeating itself and recent controversy surrounding the Doge’s Palace in Genoa resulted in the closure of its Modigliani exhibition, this year, when a significant number of paintings were considered fakes (Hyperallergic).

Try to catch a glimpse of this maverick’s muses in Modigliani Unmasked at the Jewish Museum until Feb 4th and  if you can get to London you can also see Modigliani, at the Tate Modern, London until April 2018. Whilst The London show claims “Modigliani’s nudes are a highlight of the exhibition – with 12 nudes on display, this is the largest group ever reunited in the UK” it is the intimacy of Modigliani’s drawings, sculptures and paintings that has been successfully conveyed in Manhattan. With his artwork beautifully curated and displayed, make sure you visit. You will not be disappointed.