He was born in Livorno, Tuscany, Italy, the fourth child of the Jewish family of Flaminio Modigliani and his French-born wife, Eugénie Garsin and was raised in poverty after his father's money-changing business went bankrupt. Amedeo was also beset by health problems after an attack of typhoid at the age of 14 followed by tuberculosis two years later. His family suffered with a history of depression as did he, and at least some of his siblings seemed to have also inherited his stubborn, independent streak. In 1898 his 26-year-old brother, Emmanuel, was sentenced to six months imprisonment as an anarchist.
In 1902, Amedeo Modigliani enrolled in the Scuola libera di Nudo (Free School of Nude Studies) in Florence and a year later moved to Venice where he registered to study at the Istituto per le Belle Arti di Venezia. It is in Venice that he first tried hashish and, rather than studying, began to spend time frequenting the sleazy parts of the city.
In 1906, Modigliani moved to Paris, the then focal point of the avant-garde, where he would become the epitome of the tragic artist, creating a posthumous legend almost as famous as that of Vincent Van Gogh.
Settling in Le Bateau-Lavoir, a commune for penniless artists in Montmartre, he was soon busy painting, at first influenced by the work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec until Paul Cezanne changed his views. Eventually though, Modigliani developed his own unique style, an oddity of a creative genius who was a contemporary of the Cubists, but not a part of their movement. He is noted for his fast work, usually finishing a portrait in one or two sittings. And, once done, he never reworked any painting. Yet, those who posed for him said that being painted by Modigliani was like having your soul laid bare.
In 1909, Modigliani returned home to Livorno, sickly and worn out from his debauched lifestyle. He did not stay in Italy long and soon he was back in Paris, this time renting a studio in Montparnasse. He had originally seen himself as a sculptor more than a painter, and he began sculpting seriously after Paul Guillaume, an ambitious young art dealer, took an interest in his work and introduced him to Constantin Brancusi.
Seeing Modigliani's sculptures, there is evidence of him being influenced by art from Africa and Cambodia which he probably saw in the Musée de l'Homme. His interest in African masks shows in the treatment of the sitters' faces. They appear ancient, almost Egyptian, created flat and masklike, with distinctive almond eyes, pursed mouths, twisted noses, and elongated necks. Although a series of Modigliani's sculptures were exhibited in the autumn Salon of 1912, for whatever reason he abruptly abandoned sculpting and focused solely on his painting.
Among his works is the portrait of his hard-drinking friend Chaim Soutine plus portraits of many of his other Montparnasse contemporaries such as Moise Kisling, Pablo Picasso, Diego Rivera, Juan Gris, Max Jacob, Blaise Cendrars, and Jean Cocteau.
At the outset of World War I, he tried to enlist in the army but was refused because of his poor health. Perhaps knowing that for health reasons his life would be short, he carried a death wish, drinking continuously and consuming large quantities of drugs.
- Madame Pompadour -
Known as "Modì" to his friends, Amedeo Modigliani was an extremely handsome man to whom females were greatly attracted. Women came and went until Beatrice Hastings entered his life. She stayed for almost two years, was the subject for several of his portraits, including "Madame Pompadour" shown here, and the object of much of his drunken wrath. Drunk, he was a bitter, angry person, always looking for a fight as was depicted in the famous drawing by Marie Vassilieff. Sober, he was graciously timid and charming, would quote Dante Alighieri and recite poems from Lautreamont's book, Les Chants de Maldoror, a copy of which he always carried with him. When the English painter Nina Hamnett arrived in Montparnasse in 1914, on her first evening there the smiling man at the next table in the café introduced himself as "Modigliani, painter and Jew". They became great friends.
In 1916, Modigliani befriended the Polish poet and art dealer Leopold Zborovski and his wife Anna. Modigliani painted them several times, charging only 10 Francs for a portrait. The following summer, the Russian sculptor Chana Orloffa introduced him to a beautiful 18-year-old art student named Jeanne Hébuterne who had posed for Foujita. Jeanne came from a conservative bourgeois background and was renounced by her family, devout Roman Catholics, for her liaison with the painter, who in their eyes was nothing but a debauched derelict, and Jewish besides. Despite her family, soon they were living together and although Jeanne was the love of his life, their public scenes became even more famous than Modigliani's personal drunken exhibitions.
On December 3, 1917, Modigliani's first one-man exhibition was opened at the Berthe Weill Gallery. The chief of the Paris police was scandalized by Modigliani's nudes and forced him to close the exhibition within a few hours after its opening. That same year, Modigliani received a letter from a former lover Simone Thirioux, a French-Canadian girl, who informed him that she had given birth to his son. He never acknowledged the child as his but after moving to Nice with Hébuterne she became pregnant and on November 29, 1918 gave birth to a daughter whom they would also name Jeanne.
While in Nice, a trip organized by Leopold Zborovski for Modigliani, Tsuguharu Foujita and other artists to try to sell their works to rich tourists, Modigliani managed to sell a few pictures but only for a few francs each. Despite this, while there he produced most of the paintings that would ultimately become his most popular and valued works. During his lifetime he sold a number of his works, but never for any great amount of money. What funds he did receive, soon vanished for drugs and alcohol. In May of 1919 he returned to Paris, where, with Jeanne and their daughter, he rented an apartment in the rue de la Grande Chaumière. While there, both Jeanne and Modigliani painted portraits of each other and of themselves.
Although he continued to paint, by then his lifestyle had taken its toll and Modigliani's health was deteriorating rapidly, his alcoholic blackouts becoming more frequent. After not being heard from for several days by his friends, his downstairs neighbor checked in on them and found Modigliani delirious and in bed, holding onto Jeanne, who was nearly nine months pregnant. A doctor was summoned but there was little that could be done because Modigliani was suffering from tubercular meningitis.
Modigliani died without regaining consciousness. There was an enormous funeral, attended by all of the artistic community from Montmartre and Montparnasse. Jeanne Hébuterne, who had been taken to her parents' home, threw herself out of a fifth-floor window two days after Modigliani's death, killing herself and her unborn child.
Modigliani was interred in Pere Lachaise Cemetery. Jeanne Hébuterne was buried at the Cimetiere de Bagneux, near Paris and it was not until 1930 that her embittered family allowed her to be moved to rest beside Modigliani.
Their orphaned 15-month-old daughter Jeanne was adopted by Modigliani's sister in Florence. As an adult, she would write an important biography of her father titled: Modigliani: Man and Myth.
Today, Modigliani is regarded as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, his works on display in the great museums of the world. His sculptures rarely change hands and the few paintings that change hands can sell for more than US$15.6 million. His "Nu couché" (Sur le côté gauche) sold in November of 2003 for US$26,887,500.