Long underestimated, Modigliani never achieved the success he enjoys today during his lifetime. He fell victim to his frail state of health and frequent mood swings that rocked his short, eventful life spent between his homeland of Italy and Paris, where he struggled to make it as a painter. Today, this major early 20th-century artist continues to fascinate the public, as proven by the sales of his famous Lying Nude (1917) for $170 million in 2015 and Lyding Nude, On the Left Side (1917) for $157.1 million in 2018.

Nu Couche, Amedeo Modigliani. Nu Couche, Amedeo Modigliani.

Amedeo Modigliani was born in 1884 into a family of four children in Livorno, Italy. He would later say an arrival under “the auspices of ruin” because his father, a wood and coal dealer, had just gone bankrupt. His French mother, descended from Jewish elites who had immigrated to Spain, quickly instilled in him a taste for travel and art, and urged him to take drawing lessons; however, his youth was punctuated by serious health problems. As a teenager, he suffered from typhoid, then pleurisy and tuberculosis. Despite his illnesses, he was inspired by the magic of painting. The young Modigliani practiced his skills in museums, enrolling in the Scuola Libera di Nudo of the Fine Arts Academy of Florence. Then, at age 22, he set off with his paintbrushes for Paris, where he lived in a commune in Montmartre.

Amedeo Modigliani, ‘Bust of a Young Woman’, 1916-17 Amedeo Modigliani, ‘Bust of a Young Woman’, 1916-17

In the Parisian district favored by avant-garde artists, Modigliani led a bohemian life with women, alcohol, opium and art. He met Pablo Picasso, devoted himself to stone sculpture, and became friends with his future patron Paul Alexandre, who amassed a large collection of his works. His first paintings, inspired by Cubism and the works of Paul Cézanne, didn’t yet bear his signature traits. It was only from 1911 onwards that one of his quickly-executed pieces, Bust of a Young Woman, revealed his iconic representation of a pared-down face with almond eyes and a distinctive long neck. His first passion remained sculpture, but his health forced him to give it up due to the dust particles that affected his lungs.

Amedeo Modigliani, ‘Reclining Nude with Loose Hair’, 1917 Amedeo Modigliani, ‘Reclining Nude with Loose Hair’, 1917

He immersed himself in painting, favoring portraits, at times smiling, at others anguished, with faces bearing a striking resemblance to African masks. As Paul Alexandre would say about this portraits, "Each portrait is the result of deep meditation in front of the sitter. The fakes, however clever, are too empty or too crude, which ought to give them away at first glance. Modigliani never painted without meaning." During this period, the painter had a string of stormy liaisons with poets Anna Akhamatova and Béatrice Hastings, who served as his models.

Amedeo Modigliani, ‘Béatrice Hastings’, 1915 Amedeo Modigliani, ‘Béatrice Hastings’, 1915

He also produced sensual nudes – which sometimes complicated the exhibition of his works. For example, in 1917, at Bertge Weill’s avant-garde Parisian gallery, his Reclining Nude with Loose Hair (1917), as well as other paintings representing languid bodies were judged offensive to passers-by, and the police demanded that they be withdrawn from the gallery windows.

Amedeo Modigliani, ‘Portrait of Jeanne, Seated', 1918 Amedeo Modigliani, ‘Portrait of Jeanne, Seated', 1918

1917 was also the year when he met Jeanne Hébuterne, a 19 year old art student from an upstanding family who would soon become his favorite model and his wife. Although her family strongly disapproved of Amedeo because of his alcoholism and drug use, she became pregnant with a daughter, who was born in November 1918 on the French Riviera. It was also during this period that he produced a few rare landscape sketches while taking in fresh air around Nice upon his doctor’s advice.

Amedeo Modigliani, ‘Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne with a Scarf’, 1919 Amedeo Modigliani, ‘Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne with a Scarf’, 1919

Alas, when he returned to Paris in the spring of 1919, his health rapidly declined. In 1920, while his works were on display in eight European galleries, he died of tubercular meningitis at the age of 35 in complete isolation and impoverished. The story would take an even more tragic turn when Jeanne Hébuterne, pregnant with their second child, committed suicide the day after his death.

Amedeo Modigliani, ‘Lying Nude’, 1917 Amedeo Modigliani, ‘Lying Nude’, 1917

Nearly one century later, this modern master is as fascinating as ever. The man who dreamed of becoming a sculptor and who preferred painting his friends clothed became an icon praised for nudes that sell by the million on postcards and for millions at auction. His painting Lying Nude is the tenth most expensive painting ever sold and Lying Nude, on the Left Side was the most expensive painting sold in 2018. His nude series, painted in 1917, are a reinterpretation of the classical nude in the context of modern art. As Simon Shaw, co-head of Sotheby's Impressionist and Modern Art department, said, "There is the nude before Modigliani, and the nude after Modigliani."

Retrospectives in top museums (including those in Milan, New York, Jerusalem, Paris, Buenos Aires and Osaka) further perpetuate the fame of the artist – a popularity that is perhaps all the more poignant as Modigliani never had a chance to enjoy it during his lifetime.

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