This Day in Jewish History

1920: Notoriously Dissolute Artist Modigliani Dies, Aged Just 35

'Hello, I am Jewish': 'Dedo' Modigliani only turned fully to painting when too debilitated to continue to sculpt.

Amadeo Modigliani, 1918.
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On January 24, 1920, sculptor, painter and notoriously dissolute bad boy of the Paris art world Amedeo Modigliani died, at the tender age of 35.

Amedeo – called Dedo by family and friends – was born on July 12, 1884, in the Italian port city of Livorno, an important commercial center for Sephardi Jews.

Both his parents were from prominent Sephardi families: Flaminio Modigliani, a mining engineer, managed his family’s lead mines and their 30,000 acres of timberlands. Eugenie Garsin, his mother, was from a family that claimed lineage back to Baruch Spinoza, and that owned credit bureaus around the Mediterranean basin.

Unfortunately, the birth of Amedeo, the couple’s fourth child, coincided with a periodic financial setback for both families. Eugenie went into labor just as bailiffs arrived at the family home to haul off its property. Invoking an ancient law that forbid the removal of the bed of a woman who is before or after birth, family members piled as many assets of value as could fit onto the bed of the post-partum mother.

Better an addict than sick with TB?

Dedo’s chronic poor health began with a bout of pleurisy at age 11, typhoid a few years later, and a diagnosis of tuberculosis when he was 16.

One possibly apocryphal story is that a 14-year-old Dedo, sick with typhoid, expressed a wish to be an artist, to which his mother replied that if he recovered, she would send him for drawing lessons. In truth, there is evidence that Modigliani began drawing at the youngest age.

Starting in 1898, he studied at the school of the famed Livorno painting teacher Guglielmo Micheli, where he distinguished himself in depicting nudes. That was followed by art studies in both Florence and Venice, by which time he had begun reading nihilist philosophy – and consuming hashish and perhaps opiates.

Biographer Merle Secrest believes that Modigliani used drugs and alcohol to cover up his TB, particularly later in life, when he was living and working in Paris. An artist was permitted to be intoxicated, but during a period where consumption was the number-one cause of death in France, he was reluctant to acknowledge his illness, even to his many lovers.

Modigliani came to Paris in 1906, taking up residence in Montmartre, and hanging out with Picasso (who commented at one point that, “There’s only one man in Paris who knows how to dress and that is Modigliani”), and his close friends Maurice Utrillo and Chaim Soutine. Before he focused exclusively on painting, Modigliani was a sculptor, and his long-necked figures appeared in his sculptures before they came to characterize his painting. He apparently only moved to canvases when sculpture became too physically demanding for him

A steady stream of nudes

Modigliani was dirt-poor until he was taken under the wing of poet and art dealer Leopold Zborowski, who began paying him a daily stipend to turn out a steady stream of nudes. In 1917, through the efforts of Zborowski, the Berthe Weill gallery in Paris hosted what turned out to be his only solo show during his lifetime.

The police, who had a station across the street from Weill, ordered it shut down on the day it opened, apparently on grounds of obscenity (some of the nudes revealed pubic hair), but the show reopened after one of the offending canvases was removed from the gallery window. (In 2015, one of the pieces from that show, “Nu Couche,” or “Red Nude,” was sold at Christie’s in New York for more than $170 million.)

Nu Couché au coussin Bleu
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As noted, Modigliani’s wretched health did not detract from his attractiveness to women (he was known for introducing himself with the words, “Hello, I am Jewish”). His many lovers included the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, the South African critic and writer Beatrice Hastings, and finally, his model and muse, Jeanne Hebuterne, who was with him from 1917 until the end of his life – and hers. Her Catholic family renounced her over the relationship, but she bore Amedeo’s daughter in 1918, and was eight months’ pregnant with their second child when he died of tubercular meningitis, on this date in 1920. Two days later, she killed herself and the fetus by jumping from a window.

Portrait of Paulette Jourdain
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