Amedeo Modigliani. Part 1 – The birth of an artist

Amedeo Modigliani (1884 - 1920)
Amedeo Modigliani (1884 – 1920)

The artist I am featuring today has a connection with my last few blogs as, whilst he was living in Paris, he befriended Suzanne Valadon’s son, Maurice Utrillo, and became one of his drinking companions.  Today and in my next blog I want to look at the life of the Italian figurative painter and sculptor, Amedeo Modigliani.

Amedeo Clemente Modigliani was born into a Jewish family in the Italian sea port of Livorno, on the Ligurian Sea on the western coast of Tuscany.  Livorno at the time had a thriving Jewish community, as like many others, Modigliani’s Jewish forefathers had settled in the Italian city to escape religious persecution.  In the early 17th century Ferdinando I de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, had enacted an edict of tolerance for Jews and their right to practice their religion and the Tuscan seaport became a safe haven for the Spanish Jews who had suffered persecution at the hands of the Catholic Spanish rulers.  In return the Jewish community played a major part in creating the mercantile wealth of the city. 

Eugene Garsin and Flaminio Modigliani parents of Amedeo Modigliani in a picture taken c.1884 a few months before the birth of Amedeo
Eugene Garsin and Flaminio Modigliani parents of Amedeo Modigliani in a picture taken c.1884 a few months before the birth of Amedeo

Amedeo Modigliani’s mother was Eugénie Garsin whose family came from Marseille.  Her parents were elite and wealthy Sephardic Jews whose ancestors had established themselves along the Mediterranean coast.  The Garsins belonged to the great tradition of Jewish scholars.  Her parents had been involved in finance and real estate.  Eugénie was well educated and a highly intelligent and resourceful woman.   Amedeo’s father was Flaminio Modigliani, whose family came from Rome and the Roman Campagna region and who had descended from a family of business people, bankers and entrepreneurs.  Flaminio Modigliani moved from Rome to Livorno in 1849.  

Villa Modigliani, Grugura, Sardinia
Villa Modigliani, Grugura, Sardinia

Flaminio’s father, Emanuele and his grandfather, Abramvita had purchased an estate on the outskirts of Cagliari, Sardinia and owned swathes of Sardinian land, about thirty thousand acres in all, around Grugua were they built a beautiful and opulent residence.  Their wealth came from the fertile farmland, timber from their forests and, around the end of 1863, zinc ore and coal deposits were discovered on their land close to the small town of Iglesia. 

Flaminio Modigliani was a talented mining engineer and forestry manager, who, along with his brothers, Abramo and Alberto, had become wealthy with their involvement in their mineral mining venture and forestry work on their estate in Sardinia.    Flaminio and Eugénie Garsin married in Livorno in 1872.  Amedeo was their fourth child, having two elder brothers, Giuseppe Emmanuel (Mene), who became a senior union leader and Socialist Deputy, Umberto, who would become a mining engineer, and an elder sister, Margherita, who became a primary school teacher.  The family lived in a two storey mansion at No.38 Via Roma in Livorno.  They had an opulent lifestyle with a household full of servants. 

Amedeo, who was affectionately known as “Dedo”, was born on July 12th 1884 at their Via Roma home in Livorno.  It was a very traumatic time for the Modigliani family for their fortunes had suddenly changed for the worse.  There had been an economic decline in Europe and with it came a sudden drop in the price of metals which resulted in Flaminio Modigliani’s business empire crashing and he was made bankrupt.  The only thing which prevented the family losing all their wealth was an ancient Italian statute which stated that creditors could not seize the bed of a pregnant woman or as in the case of Eugénie, a mother about to give birth and so, the story goes, that on the day of Amedeo’s birth, the family quickly collected all the household and family valuables and put them on the bed in which Eugénie lay, giving birth to her son.   When the bailiffs arrived to take away all the family possessions they found that the most valuable of them had been piled high on top of Eugénie as she lay in bed and therefore they could not be confiscated!   Modigliani is quoted as saying later in life that he was born under the auspices of the ruin. 

Amedeo with his nurse
Amedeo with his nurse

In 1886, the family move to a smaller less luxurious home.  Amedeo’s father was away from home for long periods of time searching for business opportunities and so Amedeo lived with and was brought up by his mother Eugénie, her two sisters Eve Laure and Gabrielle, his maternal grandmother and his maternal grandfather, Isaac Garsin.  In her diary Eugénie wrote about her two year old son Amedeo, describing him as being: 

“…a little spoiled, a bit temperamental but as pretty as a heart…” 

With his father absent for long periods Amedeo formed a close bond with his grandfather, Isaac, an extremely learned man.  During his early childhood Isaac, who was now the only adult male in the household, would spend hours talking to his grandson about art, travel and Jewish history.   Amedeo’s mother, Eugénie, an ever practical and capable person, realised that the family needed an inflow of income and with the help of family friends set up a school in their house on via delle Ville, where she and her sister Laure taught local children. She also received paid work translating the poetry of the Italian poet, Gabriele D’Annunzio and was a book reviewer.

Amedeo was schooled at home up to the age of ten by his mother but throughout his early childhood he had many health problems.  In 1895, aged just eleven, he was struck down with pleurisy.   His mother recalled the time in her diary:

“… Dedo had a very severe pleurisy and I did yet recovered from the terrible fear that made ​​me . The character of the child is not yet formed enough that I can say my opinion here . His manners are those of a spoiled child who does not lack intelligence. We will see later what’s in this chrysalis. Perhaps an artist ?… “.


At the age of ten Amedeo was devastated by the death of his grandfather, Isaac, who had spent so much time with him.  It was also the year in which his elder brothers had left home to study at the University of Pisa.    Amadeo’ health deteriorated further in his teenage years and he contracted typhoid fever when he was thirteen years old but most serious of all when he was sixteen years of age he developed tuberculosis, which twenty years later would kill him.  In August 1898, when he was fourteen years old and still attending his local school, Amedeo had his first artistic tuition when, as the youngest pupil, he attended drawing lessons at the workshop of the Livorno-born artist, Guglielmo Micheli, who had, on the ground floor of Villa Baiocchi, set up and directed a school of design, which many local students attended.  The following year he finished attending the local school for health reasons and all his efforts were now concentrated on art and the tuition given to him by Micheli.  At the school he studied all genres of art – landscape painting, portraiture, still life but his favourite was the painting of the nude and he attended a life-drawing class in Gino Romiti’s Livorno studio.  It was at Micheli’s art school that he was befriended by a fellow student and aspiring artist Oscar Ghilia who would become one of Modigliani’s closest friends.  Unfortunately his artistic studies were cut short in September 1900 when he developed pleurisy and tuberculosis.   In December, his mother decided to take him away from the cold damp climate of Livorno and move to the warmer climate of southern Italy and the two of them travelled to Naples, Capri, and Amalfi and spent the winter of 1901 in Rome.  It was here that he also first developed a love for sculpture.  During his travels he visited the major museums making copies of the paintings by the Italian Masters.   Modigliani fell in love with Rome and in one of his many letters to his friend Oscar Ghiglia he wrote:

“…As I speak to you, Rome is not outside but inside me, like a terriblejewel set upon its seven hills as upon seven imperious ideas.  Rome is the orchestration which girds me, the circumscribed arena in which I isolate myself and concentrate my thoughts.  Her feverish sweetness, her tragic countryside , her own beauty and harmony, all these are mine, for my thought and my work…”

On May 7th 1902, having arrived in Florence, Amedeo enrolled at the Scuola Libera del Nudo of the city’s Accademia di Belle Arti which would be the beginning of life drawing and his love of painting nudes.  His friend Oscar Ghilia was already studying in Florence and he and Amedeo shared the same lodgings. 

The Jewess by Modigliani (1908)
The Jewess by Modigliani (1908)
The Jewess was the first painting Modigliani sold after settling in Paris in 1906. It was purchased by his friend and patron, Paul Alexandre, who was so taken with the work that he had Modigliani paint it into the background of three additional commissioned portraits. Although wearing a composed expression, the stark whiteness of the sitter’s face contrasts harshly with her dark apparel, giving the composition and inner tension and suggesting strong emotions lying beneath the surface. The painting’s melancholic overtones have invited comparison with the work of Picasso’s Blue Period. The painting is also one of the few Jewish-themed works by Modigliani, who was of Sephardic Jewish descent and publically embraced his Jewish identity. – See more at: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-modigliani-amedeo.htm#sthash.3ddvm6uN.dpuf

The Jewess was the first painting Modigliani sold after he moved to in Paris in 1906. It was bought by his friend and patron, Paul Alexandre, who was so taken with the work that he had Modigliani paint it into the background of three additional commissioned portraits. Contrasting her calm and self-possessed expression, is the stark whiteness of the her face against her dark clothes which in some ways gives the picture a strong emotional feel. The painting’s melancholic overtones have often been compared to Picasso’s works during his Blue Period.   Although Modigliani was Jewish by birth, this was on of the few Jewish-themed works by him.

In 1903 after another bout of illness Amedeo moved to Venice where that May, he enrolled at the Instituto di Belle Arti di Venezia and lived in lodgings in Campielle Centopiere. All this travelling and studying costs money but fortunately for Amedeo he was being financed by his maternal uncle, Amadeus Garsin.  It is whilst in Venice that Amedeo develops a taste for the seedier side of life.  Bouts of heavy drinking, taking of the drug hashish and his association with prostitutes were to him all part of an exciting and stimulating bohemian lifestyle.  He now began to make plans to move to Paris, which was the centre of avant-garde art and where he believed his favoured bohemian lifestyle would fit in well with the artists of Montmartre.  However his high-spending lifestyle and plans to move the French capital came to an abrupt end in 1905 when his uncle, Amadeus, died and the source of his income dried up.  His mother comes to his rescue in December, whether because she was worried about his health or whether it was because she wanted to separate her son from the excesses of Venice, one will never know, but she gave him the money to make the journey to Paris and in January 1906 Amedeo Modigliani descended upon Montmartre. 

After a number of short stays in various hotels, Modigliani went to live in Le Bateau-Lavoir, in Montmartre, a dark and dingy building which was home to many impoverished artists.  Unlike some of the bedraggled and tramp-like characters who lived there, Modigliani, still having some of the money left that his mother had given him, strutted the streets in a quite well-dressed manner and hired himself a studio for himself in Rue Caulaincourt.  It was during those early days that he met artists such as Picasso, Andre Derrain and Diego Rivera and it was then that he concentrated his art work on small-scale portraiture and at the end of 1906 he had three of his works exhibited at the Paris Art gallery of Laura Wylde’s Paris art gallery on the corner of the Boulevard Saint-Germain.   He enrolled in the life drawing classes at the Académie Colarossi.  An artist by day and despite his poor health a reveler by night, during which time he and his fellow artists would drink copious amounts of alcohol in the form of cheap wine or absinthe, take drugs and spend their nights in various women’s beds.   His was a debauched lifestyle which could have done little for his health. He was soon accepted by all the Montmartre artists, who nicknamed him “Modi”.    Ludwig Meidner, the German artist, summed up Modigliani when he said of him:

“…Our Modi was a character and, at the same time, highly talented representative of Bohemian Montmartre; he was probably even its last true Bohemian…”.

Portrait of Doctor Paul Alexandre by Modigliani (1909)
Portrait of Doctor Paul Alexandre by Modigliani (1909)

It was around about this time that Amedeo Modigliani first met Suzanne’s son, Maurice Utrillo and her husband André Utter.  However more importantly he became acquainted with a young doctor, about his own age, Paul Alexandre, who loved Modigliani’s work and bought some of his paintings and sketches and soon became his first patron arranging portraiture commissions for him. 

Doctor Paul Alexandre
Doctor Paul Alexandre

Paul and his brother Jean were so pleased to be part of the Montmartre art scene that they set up a free house in Rue Delta for the artists to work in and stay.   The house was then known as “Delta”.  In a book entitled The Unknown Modigliani by Paul Alexandre’s son Noel, he recounts the tale of how his father and Amedeo first met:

“…It was not entirely by chance that I met Modigliani. From the time I first had a little independence after leaving college I began to associate with artists. It was Doucet who first brought him to the Delta. I think it was in November or December 1907. Doucet had met him in the rue Saint Vincent at Frédéric’s ‘Lapin Agile’ which in those days was only frequented by poor people, poets and artists. Modigliani told Doucet that he had been thrown out of the small studio he had occupied in Place Jean-Baptiste Clement and that he did not know where to go. This was shortly after his arrival in Paris. He was earning nothing, he had exhausted the few resources he had brought from Italy and found himself penniless. Doucet offered to bring him to the Delta where he could stay, if he wanted, and where he could keep his belongings. This was how my friendship with Modigliani began. I was twenty-six years old, Modigliani was twenty three…”

                                                             ……………………….to be continued

 

 

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Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

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