Painting

The History of Amedeo Modigliani’s Portraits

Pola Otterstein 7 May 2022 min Read

Amedeo Modigliani painted so many portraits of women – especially nude ones – that people began to see him as a reckless playboy, an image that he undoubtedly did not seek to change. Discover the story behind Modigliani’s portraits.

Amedeo Modigliani was an infamous early 20th-century Italian-Jewish painter and sculptor who developed a unique, modern style in the artistic quarters of Paris. He is particularly noted for his portrayal of people – including nudes – with a characteristic and easily recognizable style of elongated faces, necks, and bodies in many of his paintings. Although Modigliani’s style is difficult to classify into the established art movements of his time, to some critics his work is reminiscent of Cubism as well as African, Egyptian, and Asian face masks.

Woman with red hair, Amadeo Modigliani, 1917, National Gallery of Art, Washington, The History of Amadeo Modigliani's Portraits
Amedeo Modigliani, Woman with Red Hair, 1917, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA.

The history and influences behind Modigliani’s portraits are the subjects of many debates. It is difficult to judge whether the novel form and expression of his subjects are the result of exotic influences or perhaps of his study of Northern Italian medieval art as well as the work of the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi.

To be sure, Modigliani brought the timeless artistic themes of the portrait and the nude into modern times. Working both with sculpture and the canvas he created a style of his own that fascinated both his contemporaries as well as modern audiences.

The Little Peasant, Amadeo Modigliani, 1918, Tate Modern, London, The History of Amadeo Modigliani's Portraits
Amedeo Modigliani, The Little Peasant, 1918, Tate Modern, London, UK.

The artist started drawing and painting at a very early age and called himself a “painter” even before starting art school. Between the years of 1904 and 1914, he was strongly devoted to sculpting. However, many of his best-known pieces are paintings that were created between 1916 and 1919, with a series of nudes commissioned by his friend Léopold Zborowski, a Polish poet and art dealer who supplied him with working materials, a basic income, and models for his work.

Portrait of a Young Woman, Amadeo Modigliani, 1918, New Orleans Museum of Art, The History of Amadeo Modigliani's Portraits
Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of a Young Woman, 1918, New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, LA, USA.

This period contrasted with his earlier career, when he lived a purposefully chaotic and rebellious existence. He typically portrayed and sculpted his friends and lovers under the influence of excessive alcohol and drugs. Also, he often sold his paintings for just a few francs to be able to cover his restaurant tab.

Nude, Amadeo Modigliani, 1917, Private Collection,The history of Amadeo Modigliani's portraits
Amedeo Modigliani, Nude, 1917, private collection. Modigliani Foundation.

Amedeo Modigliani painted so many portraits of nude women that people began to look at him in a certain way. He was recognized as a playboy, a role that he did not want to abandon. It is important to remember that at the time the symbols of sexuality that he expressed were widely considered to be scandalous.

Juan Gris, Amadeo Modigliani, 1915, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The history of Amadeo Modigliani's Portraits
Amedeo Modigliani, Juan Gris, 1915, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

Amedeo Modigliani died in 1920 at the age of 35, ravaged by tuberculosis and years of substance abuse. He left behind a 21-year-old, pregnant fiance, Jeanne Hébuterne, who committed suicide a day after his death by jumping from a fifth-floor window. By the end of his life, his addictions and illness had made it almost impossible for him to work and to create. When he passed away, many people who had known him attended his funeral, but as an artist, he died destitute and largely unappreciated outside his circle of friends. This starkly contrasts with the present day in which his pieces fetch some of the highest prices paid for any artist.

Woman with a fan, Amadeo Modigliani, 1919, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, The history of Amadeo Modigliani's portraits
Amedeo Modigliani, Woman with a fan, 1919, Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris, France.

Portrait of Picasso, Amadeo Modigliani, 1915, Private collection
Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Pablo Picasso, 1915, private collection. Modigliani Foundation.

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