Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani has been called the ‘prince of the vagabonds’, as famous for his drinking and drug use as he was for his artwork. Although his work was not well received during his lifetime, he has since been praised for his nude paintings, characterized by the elongated bodies and faces of his subjects, and their unabashed portrayal of female sensuality. Singulart will be focusing on one of the most celebrated artworks of the series, Large Seated Nude.
Who was Modigliani?
Born in Italy in 1844, Modigliani entered the world in a dramatic fashion, foreshadowing the way he lived his life. Following his father’s disastrous financial ruin, bailiffs arrived at the Modigliani household just as his mother went into labor. The family quickly piled their most valuable possessions onto the bed where she lay, knowing that by law the bailiffs could not touch the bed of a pregnant woman.
Modigliani showed a precocious talent from a young age. When he was 14, delirious from typhoid fever, he raved to his mother that he wanted to see the work of great Italian artists in the Palazzo Pitti and the Uffizi. It was on this trip to Florence that his mother enrolled him to study in Livorno with Gugliemo Mucheli.
After moving to Paris in 1906, Modigliani acquired the nickname ‘Modi’, a play on the French word ‘maudit’, meaning cursed. He became known as almost a caricature of the depressed, bohemian artist. From 1914 his drug and alcohol use greatly increased, and he became known as a vagabond, throwing himself into the bohemian lifestyle. Art critic André Salmon wrote that “from the day that he abandoned himself to certain forms of debauchery, an unexpected light came upon him, transforming his art. From that day on, he became one who must be counted among the masters of living art”.
Large Seated Nude and Modigliani’s Broader Nudes Series
In 1916 Modigliani was commissioned by his friend and dealer Leopold Zborowski to paint a series of nudes. Unlike Modigliani’s previous nude paintings, which depicted his friends or lovers, for this series Zborowski brought in professional models, and lent Modigliani his apartment and supplied his painting tools. During this time, Modigliani painted 22 reclining nudes and 13 seated nudes.
Modigliani showed the works at an exhibition at the Berthe Weill Gallery in 1917. Crowds were drawn to the large nude painting in the window, however the blatant sensuality of the paintings quickly offended the gendarmes, who closed down the show on its opening night. The show was allowed to reopen, but only after the ‘indecent’ works had been removed from the window.
The works were considered shocking not only because of the sensuality of the subject matter – the intimate nature portraits suggested they were painted post-coital, although this was not the case – but reportedly because the officer was so shocked to see nudes with pubic hair. They were painted without modesty, and without any mythological context, which was revolutionary at the time.
Large Seated Nude
Large Seated Nude was painted in 1917. It portrays a woman sensually gazing at the viewer, her nude body being covered by a scrap of white fabric. The use of rich reds and pinks give his work a warm, sumptuous feel, inviting us into this intimate moment captured on canvas.
Modigliani’s history as a sculptor is evident in his work, seen in the bold lines and angular shapes of his subject. Like the other subjects in his Nudes series, the eyes of the woman in the portrait are painted in a single color, making her appear absorbed in her thoughts – thoughts which are kept secret from the viewer. As Mogdigniali explained, “When I know your soul, I will paint your eyes.” By painting the eyes all in one color, Modigliani had to convey the emotion of his subject through their gestures and body positions.
The females he painted were almost Rubenesque in the lushness of their bodies, however Modigliani’s nudes are more angular and almost caricatured with their elongated faces and shapes.
Death and legacy
Since the age of 16, Modigliani battled tuberculosis. It has been speculated that his heavy drinking and drug use occurred partly to hide the effects of the illness. He died at 35, leaving behind a pregnant fiancée, Jeanne Hébuterne, who jumped from a fifth floor window after hearing of Modigliani’s death.
Modigliani’s legacy is not only his incredible artwork but also his wildly bohemian lifestyle. Some critics have argued that the copious amounts of drugs and alcohol unleashed something that greatly improved his artwork, and that he would have remained a mediocre artist if he hadn’t succumbed to the vices around him. However, his antics were wild and unpredictable; often he would strip naked at parties and insult the Parisian upper class. It seems almost impossible to separate Modigliani’s life from his artwork.
Although Modigliani’s art was not fully appreciated during his life, he found fame after his death. His work Nu couché sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $157.2 million dollars, making it the most expensive painting ever sold through the auction house (Large Seated Nude sold for $68.8 million). His Nudes series is recognised as one of the most important milestones of modern art.