Cursed Superman: Amedeo Modigliani


At the request of readers Lauren, Nerak, and Katie, today we'll take a look at Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920). This past Saturday was the 124th anniversary of Modigliani's birth, so now is the perfect time to take a look back at the Italian painter's legendary life and iconic artwork.

1. The birth of Amedeo Modigliani saved his family from ruin. At the time Modigliani was born, the fourth child to Flaminio and Eugenia, his father's business was bankrupt and the family was in poverty. Just as Eugenia went into labor, bailiffs entered the home. Thanks to an old law, creditors weren't allowed to seize the bed of a pregnant woman or a mother with a newborn child. So, the Modigliani family piled all their most valuable assets around and on top of Eugenia, saving as much as they could.

2. According to classmates, Modigliani excelled at painting nudes while studying under Guglielmo Micheli as a teen. He was often aggravated that "Women of beauty worth painting or sculpting, often seem encumbered by their clothes." Later, he enrolled in the Scuola Libera di Nudo (Free School of Nude Studies) at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence to further pursue his interest. His first one-man show was closed within hours of its opening because Paris' chief of police thought Modigliani's nudes were scandalous. (Pictured above is Modigliani's "Nude on a Blue Cushion.")

3. Over the years, Modigliani earned several nicknames. Micheli, his teacher, referred to him as "Superman," both a reflection of Modigliani's great skill and his frequent quotations from Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra. After he moved to France in 1906, he was known by Parisians as Modì, or "cursed." His family and friends simply called him Dedo.

4. During his time in Paris, Modigliani became quite the epitome of the tragic, bohemian artist. He was an alcoholic and drug addict, frequently using absinthe and hashish, who carried on numerous affairs and would strip while drunk at parties. He even tore apart his well-decorated studio and destroyed almost all his early work, describing the paintings as "childish baubles, done when I was a dirty bourgeois."

5. Modigliani's work is hard to classify, in large part because he was influenced by so many different styles and artists. The work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec inspired him, while Paul Cézanne's work fascinated him. He admired Pablo Picasso, except his taste in clothes. (Supposedly, he remarked that Picasso's genius did not excuse his uncouth appearance.) During his sculpting phase, Modigliani met Constantin Brancusi, who introduced him to African sculptures. Living in Montparnasse, he painted his friends and fellow artists, including Picasso, Diego Rivera, Jean Cocteau, and Moise Kisling.

6. When Modigliani died on January 24, 1920, his lover Jeanne Hébuterne was 9 months pregnant with their second child. Two days later, distraught over his death, she threw herself out of a fifth-floor window while staying with her parents. Both she and the unborn baby died. Her family had disowned her because Modigliani was a Jew (they were Catholic) and a debauched derelict, so it wasn't until 1930 that they allowed her to be buried alongside Modigliani. Their tombstone bears two epitaphs: "Struck down by Death at the moment of glory" (his) and "Devoted companion to the extreme sacrifice" (hers).

A larger version of "Nude on a Blue Cushion" is available here. Fans should check out the Modigliani galleries on Gallery of Art and The Jewish Museum; the exhibition guide to Modigliania & the Artists of Montparnasse; Esther Nussbaum's "How Jewish is Modigliani?"; and the Archives Légales Amedeo Modigliani. Current Exhibitions featuring "Feel Art Again" artists:History of Artelier Brancusi (Paris: through October 6, 2008)Monet to Picasso, feat. Monet, Picasso, Degas, van Gogh, Dali, Matisse, & Renoir (Salt Lake City: through September 21, 2008)Frida Kahlo (San Francisco: through Sept. 28, 2008) "Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. E-mail us at with artist suggestions or details on current exhibitions.