About Modigliani

Childhood

Amedeo Clemente Modigliani was the fourth child born into a Jewish family on July 12, 1884 in Livorno, Italy. His great-great grandfather had immigrated to Livorno in the 18th century to escape religious persecution like many other Jews during that time. Modigliani was the son of Flaminio Modigliani and Eugenia Garsin. Flaminio was a moneychanger, and when his business failed, his family was forced to live in poverty. Because of an ancient law, Amedeo, before he was even born, was able to save his family from ruin. According to this law, creditors could not take the bed of a pregnant woman. When creditors came to take Modigliani family possessions, Eugenia went into labor with Amedeo, and the family piled as many of their belongings onto the bed as they could in order to keep them. Amedeo had two brothers and one sister. Amedeo’s father died at a young age, so he was not around for most of his childhood.

In order to make ends meet Eugenia taught English and French, as well as other subjects in her home. She taught Amedeo at home until he was 10 years old. He was a sickly child and was plagued with health problems throughout his life. He suffered from pleurisy when he was 11 years old. At the age of 14 he developed typhoid fever, and in 1900, when Modigliani was 16, he contracted tuberculosis. Soon after contracting tuberculosis, he suffered another case of pleurisy. While feverish from typhoid, Modigliani ranted about wanting to see the paintings in the Palazzo Piti and the Uffizi in Florence. Eugenia promised her son that she would take him when he was well enough. Modigliani drew and painted from an early age and thought himself already a painter before having done any formal training. When Modigliani was well enough to travel, his mother kept her promise, and took her son to see the paintings of the Palazzo Piti and the Uffizi. She then took her son on a tour of southern Italy to see Naples, Rome, Amalfi, and Capri.

As a young boy, Modigliani was introduced to the philosophical ideas of Nietzsche, Baudelaire, Carducci, and Conte de Lautreamont by his maternal grandfather, Isaco Garsin. The writing of Lautreamont and Les Chants de Maldoror was also popular with the Parisian Surrealists, Modigliani’s contemporaries. Modigliani was so enamored with Les Chants de Maldoror, he memorized it. He continued to read and allow these ideas to influence his art. In 1901, Modigliani wrote to his friend and fellow art student, Oscar Ghiglia, from Capri while recovering from tuberculosis. Ghiglia served as a sympathetic ear to Modigliani’s ideas that “the only true route to true creativity was through defiance and disorder.”

When Modigliani and his mother returned to Livorno from Capri, Modigliani began neglecting his schoolwork to paint. He also frequented the local quarry to sculpt. Eugenia enrolled her son with the master painter Guglielmo Micheli. Modigliani received his earliest instruction in Micheli’s studio from 1898 to 1900. This instruction consisted mainly of styles and themes from 19th century Italian art. This influence can be seen in Modigliani’s earliest Parisian paintings. Micheli’s genre was so popular and unoriginal for the time that Modigliani rejected it. Micheli encouraged Modigliani to paint outside as the Impressionists did, but Modigliani didn’t enjoy painting “en plein air” or in cafes. He preferred to work indoors in his own studio and chose a proto-Cubist style similar to Cezanne.

Modigliani studied nudes, landscapes, portraiture, and still life under Micheli. It is with the nude that Modigliani blossomed. This talent may have been perpetuated by the fact he was intrigued by his housemaid. Micheli nicknamed Modigliani “Ubermensch” because he was such a skilled artist and often recited from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.