Modigliani was born into a Sephardic Jewish family in Livorno, Italy. A port city, Livorno had long served as a refuge for those persecuted for their religion, and was home to a large Jewish community. His maternal great-great-grandfather, Solomon Garsin, had immigrated to Livorno in the 18th century as a refugee.
Modigliani’s mother, Eugénie Garsin, born and raised in Marseille,
was descended from an intellectual, scholarly family of Sephardic
ancestry that for generations had lived along the Mediterranean
coastline. Fluent in many languages, her ancestors were authorities on
sacred Jewish texts and had founded a school of Talmudic studies. Family legend traced the family lineage to the 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza.
The family business was a credit agency with branches in Livorno,
Marseille, Tunis, and London, though their fortunes ebbed and flowed.
father, Flaminio, was a member of an Italian Jewish family of
successful businessmen and entrepreneurs. While not as culturally
sophisticated as the Garsins, they knew how to invest in and develop
thriving business endeavors. When the Garsin and Modigliani families
announced the engagement of their children, Flaminio was a wealthy young
mining engineer. He managed the mine in Sardinia and also managed the almost 30,000 acres (12,141 ha) of timberland the family owned.
reversal in fortune occurred to this prosperous family in 1883. An
economic downturn in the price of metal plunged the Modiglianis into
bankruptcy. Ever resourceful, Modigliani’s mother used her social
contacts to establish a school and, along with her two sisters, made the
school into a successful enterprise.
Modigliani was the fourth child, whose birth coincided with the
disastrous financial collapse of his father’s business interests.
Amedeo’s birth saved the family from ruin; according to an ancient law,
creditors could not seize the bed of a pregnant woman or a mother with a
newborn child. The bailiffs entered the family’s home just as Eugenia
went into labour; the family protected their most valuable assets by
piling them on top of her.
Modigliani had a close relationship with his mother, who taught
him at home until he was 10. Beset with health problems after an attack
of pleurisy when he was about 11, a few years later he developed a case of typhoid fever. When he was 16 he was taken ill again and contracted the tuberculosis
which would later claim his life. After Modigliani recovered from the
second bout of pleurisy, his mother took him on a tour of southern
Italy: Naples, Capri, Rome and Amalfi, then north to Florence and Venice.
mother was, in many ways, instrumental in his ability to pursue art as a
vocation. When he was 11 years of age, she had noted in her diary: “The
child’s character is still so unformed that I cannot say what I think
of it. He behaves like a spoiled child, but he does not lack
intelligence. We shall have to wait and see what is inside this
chrysalis. Perhaps an artist?”
Modigliani is known to have drawn and painted from a very early age, and thought himself “already a painter”, his mother wrote,
even before beginning formal studies. Despite her misgivings that
launching him on a course of studying art would impinge upon his other
studies, his mother indulged the young Modigliani’s passion for the
At the age of fourteen, while sick with typhoid fever, he raved
in his delirium that he wanted, above all else, to see the paintings in
the Palazzo Pitti and the Uffizi in Florence. As Livorno’s local museum housed only a sparse few paintings by the Italian Renaissance
masters, the tales he had heard about the great works held in Florence
intrigued him, and it was a source of considerable despair to him, in
his sickened state, that he might never get the chance to view them in
person. His mother promised that she would take him to Florence herself,
the moment he was recovered. Not only did she fulfil this promise, but
she also undertook to enroll him with the best painting master in
Livorno, Guglielmo Micheli.
Micheli and the MacchiaioliEdit
This section needs additional citations for verification.
Portrait of Pablo Picasso, 1915, private collection
His home in Venice.
Modigliani worked in Micheli’s Art School from 1898 to 1900. Among his colleagues in that studio would have been Llewelyn Lloyd, Giulio Cesare Vinzio, Manlio Martinelli, Gino Romiti, Renato Natali, and Oscar Ghiglia.
Here his earliest formal artistic instruction took place in an
atmosphere steeped in a study of the styles and themes of 19th-century
Italian art. In his earliest Parisian work, traces of this influence,
and that of his studies of Renaissance art, can still be seen. His nascent work was shaped as much by such artists as Giovanni Boldini as by Toulouse-Lautrec.
Modigliani showed great promise while with Micheli, and ceased
his studies only when he was forced to, by the onset of tuberculosis.
In 1901, whilst in Rome, Modigliani admired the work of Domenico Morelli,
a painter of dramatic religious and literary scenes. Morelli had served
as an inspiration for a group of iconoclasts who were known by the
title “the Macchiaioli” (from macchia —”dash
of colour”, or, more derogatively, “stain”), and Modigliani had already
been exposed to the influences of the Macchiaioli. This localized landscape
movement reacted against the bourgeois stylings of the academic genre
painters. While sympathetically connected to (and actually pre-dating)
the French Impressionists, the Macchiaioli did not make the same impact upon international art culture as did the contemporaries and followers of Monet, and are today largely forgotten outside Italy.
Modigliani’s connection with the movement was through Guglielmo
Micheli, his first art teacher. Micheli was not only a Macchiaiolo
himself, but had been a pupil of the famous Giovanni Fattori,
a founder of the movement. Micheli’s work, however, was so fashionable
and the genre so commonplace that the young Modigliani reacted against
it, preferring to ignore the obsession with landscape that, as with
French Impressionism, characterized the movement. Micheli also tried to
encourage his pupils to paint en plein air,
but Modigliani never really got a taste for this style of working,
sketching in cafés, but preferring to paint indoors, and especially in
his own studio. Even when compelled to paint landscapes (three are known
to exist), Modigliani chose a proto-Cubist palette more akin to Cézanne than to the Macchiaioli.
While with Micheli, Modigliani studied not only landscape, but
also portraiture, still life, and the nude. His fellow students recall
that the last was where he displayed his greatest talent, and apparently
this was not an entirely academic pursuit for the teenager: when not
painting nudes, he was occupied with seducing the household maid.
his rejection of the Macchiaioli approach, Modigliani nonetheless found
favour with his teacher, who referred to him as “Superman”, a pet name
reflecting the fact that Modigliani was not only quite adept at his art,
but also that he regularly quoted from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Fattori himself would often visit the studio, and approved of the young artist’s innovations.
In 1902, Modigliani continued what was to be a lifelong infatuation with life drawing, enrolling in the Scuola Libera di Nudo, or “Free School of Nude Studies”, of the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence. A year later, while still suffering from tuberculosis, he moved to Venice, where he registered to study at the Regia Accademia ed Istituto di Belle Arti.
It is in Venice that he first smoked hashish
and, rather than studying, began to spend time frequenting disreputable
parts of the city. The impact of these lifestyle choices upon his
developing artistic style is open to conjecture, although these choices
do seem to be more than simple teenage rebellion, or the cliched hedonism and bohemianism
that was almost expected of artists of the time; his pursuit of the
seedier side of life appears to have roots in his appreciation of
radical philosophies, including those of Nietzsche.
Early literary influencesEdit
Having been exposed to erudite philosophical literature as a young
boy under the tutelage of Isaco Garsin, his maternal grandfather, he
continued to read and be influenced through his art studies by the
writings of Nietzsche, Baudelaire, Carducci, Comte de Lautréamont, and others, and developed the belief that the only route to true creativity was through defiance and disorder.
Letters that he wrote from his ‘sabbatical’ in Capri in 1901
clearly indicate that he is being more and more influenced by the
thinking of Nietzsche. In these letters, he advised friend Oscar
(hold sacred all) which can exalt and excite your
intelligence… (and) … seek to provoke … and to perpetuate …
these fertile stimuli, because they can push the intelligence to its
maximum creative power.
The work of Lautréamont was equally influential at this time. This doomed poet’s Les Chants de Maldoror became the seminal work for the Parisian Surrealists of Modigliani’s generation, and the book became Modigliani’s favourite to the extent that he learnt it by heart.
The poetry of Lautréamont is characterized by the juxtaposition of
fantastical elements, and by sadistic imagery; the fact that Modigliani
was so taken by this text in his early teens gives a good indication of
his developing tastes. Baudelaire and D’Annunzio similarly appealed to the young artist, with their interest in corrupted beauty, and the expression of that insight through Symbolist imagery.
Modigliani wrote to Ghiglia extensively from Capri, where his
mother had taken him to assist in his recovery from tuberculosis. These
letters are a sounding board for the developing ideas brewing in
Modigliani’s mind. Ghiglia was seven years Modigliani’s senior, and it
is likely that it was he who showed the young man the limits of his
horizons in Livorno. Like all precocious teenagers, Modigliani preferred
the company of older companions, and Ghiglia’s role in his adolescence
was to be a sympathetic ear as he worked himself out, principally in the
convoluted letters that he regularly sent, and which survive today.
Dear friend, I write to pour myself out to you and to
affirm myself to myself. I am the prey of great powers that surge forth
and then disintegrate … A bourgeois
told me today–insulted me–that I or at least my brain was lazy. It did
me good. I should like such a warning every morning upon awakening: but
they cannot understand us nor can they understand life…
, 1911/1912, Tate
In 1909, Modigliani returned home to Livorno, sickly and tired from
his wild lifestyle. Soon he was back in Paris, this time renting a studio in Montparnasse. He originally saw himself as a sculptor rather than a painter, and was encouraged to continue after Paul Guillaume, an ambitious young art dealer, took an interest in his work and introduced him to sculptor Constantin Brâncuși. He was Constantin Brâncuși’s disciple for one year.
Although a series of Modigliani’s sculptures were exhibited in the Salon d’Automne
of 1912, by 1914 he abandoned sculpting and focused solely on his
painting, a move precipitated by the difficulty in acquiring sculptural
materials due to the outbreak of war, and by Modigliani’s physical debilitation.
In June 2010 Modigliani’s Tête, a limestone carving of a woman’s head, became the third most expensive sculpture ever sold.
Friends and influencesEdit
Modigliani painted a series of portraits of contemporary artists and friends in Montparnasse: Chaim Soutine, Moïse Kisling, Pablo Picasso, Diego Rivera, Marie “Marevna” Vorobyev-Stebeslka, Juan Gris, Max Jacob, Jacques Lipchitz, Blaise Cendrars, and Jean Cocteau, all sat for stylized renditions.