A brilliant talent brought down by drink, drugs and women

A brilliant talent brought down by drink, drugs and women. No, not Johnny Depp, but the genius who has inspired the Hollywood icon’s new film

Pressing up against the window of a small Parisian art gallery one cold winter’s day in December 1917, the crowds could hardly believe their eyes.

There, prominently displayed on an easel for all to see, was a portrait of a naked and very voluptuous young woman — and this was no coy Renaissance nude of the kind depicted by such masters as Titian, Raphael and Botticelli.

This model was shown in all her full anatomical glory including, controversially, her body hair. That was something almost never seen in art up until that point, and certainly not on public display in a street full of Christmas shoppers.

Arriving quickly on the scene, the police ordered that the offending picture, along with other nudes displayed inside, should be removed from view. And so the first and only solo exhibition devoted to the works of the now celebrated Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani in his lifetime came to an abrupt end.

A century later, one of those pictures, a nude entitled Nu Couché, would be auctioned for £130 million at Sotheby’s New York, making it one of the 20 most expensive paintings in art history. Known for their elongated bodies and blank eyes, others of his distinctive pictures and sculptures are similarly sought after. But Modigliani lived to see none of that success — dying in poverty in 1920.

At the time, he was known principally for the debauched lifestyle which is about to become the subject of a movie directed by Johnny Depp.

The Pirates Of The Caribbean star is, of course, notorious for his own turbulent private life, this new film marking a return to directing since domestic abuse allegations by his ex-wife Amber Heard — which he always denied — saw him blacklisted by much of Hollywood.

Johnny Depp will be directing the new film which will feature Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani and his debauched lifestyle as the subject

Depp will be co-producing the film with Al Pacino and Barry Navidi in what will be the first film he has directed since the 1997 drama The Brave

In some ways their stories are similar — with tales of extraordinary drunken excess and drug-taking that saw Modigliani’s behaviour judged outrageous even by the Bohemian standards of early 20th century Paris. There, his social circle included such luminaries as Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Pablo Picasso, with whom he once shared a mistress, and his first meetings with both demonstrated the outspoken arrogance for which he was known.

On being invited to Renoir’s studio, Modigliani objected to being offered unsolicited advice about how he should approach portraits of nudes. ‘You must paint with joy, the joy with which you make love to a woman,’ Renoir told him. ‘Before I paint, I caress the buttocks for hours.’

‘I don’t like buttocks,’ Modigliani snapped, slamming the door behind him as he left.

Picasso fared little better, ridiculed by the Italian for the faded and patched blue overalls he wore.

‘He may have talent,’ Modigliani remarked to a friend, ‘but that’s no reason why he shouldn’t dress decently.’

Unaware of this, Picasso was flattering about Modigliani who became a familiar figure around the artistic quarter of Montmartre in his trademark black hat, scarlet scarf and brown corduroy suit.

This dapper appearance was just part of the remarkable appeal Modigliani held for the opposite sex. ‘How beautiful he was, my God, how beautiful!’ remarked Aicha Goblet, one of his models.

Although only 5ft 3in tall, he was very handsome, with a brooding gaze and dark looks inherited from his parents — Italian-Jewish mining engineer Flaminio Modigliani and his wife Eugenia.

Modigliani’s distinctive pieces and sculptures, known for their elongated bodies and blank eyes, are very sought after

They lived in the Tuscan port city of Livorno and Amedeo’s birth in 1884 saved the family from financial ruin.

His father had recently been declared bankrupt and, even as Eugenia was in childbirth, bailiffs had descended on the house but had gone away empty-handed. This was because of an old Italian custom that forbade the seizure of any possessions from the bed of a woman in labour. To protect their most valuable belongings, they had piled them on top of her.

Their newborn son’s first name Amedeo means ‘beloved of God’ but he was a sickly youngster. Having survived the lung disease pleurisy at 11, he caught typhoid fever at 14, suffering weeks of delirium that are said to have determined the subsequent course of his life.

In his feverish state, he was babbling away about his ardent desire to become an artist and his mother, grateful for his eventual survival, set about making that come true.

Despite the family’s still limited means, she enrolled him with Guglielmo Micheli, the best painting master in Livorno.

Under his tutelage, Modigliani studied landscape, portraiture, still life and the nude.

According to his fellow students, he gained first-hand experience of the latter by seducing his teacher’s housemaid.

His studies with Micheli ended when he was 16 and caught tuberculosis. Then incurable, this was one of the biggest killers of the time but, on his recovery, Modigliani did little to prevent future recurrences of the symptoms that remained with him for the rest of his life.

Moving to Venice where he was supposed to be continuing his art studies, he spent most of his time smoking hashish in local cafes by day and visiting houses of ill repute in the evenings.

‘I learn more in a night in a brothel than I do in any academy,’ he would say.

Modigliani’s behaviour was seen as outrageous even by the Bohemian standards of early 20th century Paris. Pictured: The Italian artist in his studio during the 1910s.

His move to Paris in 1906 gave him unfettered opportunity to continue that unusual education in art. Then 22, he survived on the few hundred francs given to him by his mother, moving from squat to squat in Montmartre and setting up his studio in a derelict wooden shed he found abandoned on wasteland awaiting development following the Paris Exposition of 1900.

His neighbours were the tramps, beggars and a few other artists who had set up shacks there, but this did not deter the numerous women keen to be his models.

Many of his drawings were inspired by Mado, the svelte blonde who had been Picasso’s former mistress, and biographer Meryle Secrest suggests that this was part of the appeal which led Modigliani to have a brief relationship with her.

‘Years before Picasso won worldwide fame, Modigliani recognised his genius and… may have felt superstitiously that through Mado he could acquire some of his power.’

For all his success as a Lothario, he struggled as an artist, with the likes of Picasso, Degas and Matisse regarding him as no more than a dabbler and referring to him dismissively as ‘the beautiful boy’.

Modigliani’s social circle included such luminaries as Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Pablo Picasso, with whom he once shared a mistress

Resorting to approaching galleries door to door, and even trading his art for food and other essentials, he sometimes painted shop-signs for a living, but could never earn enough to pay for all the absinthe, opium and hashish he consumed. He eventually became so dependent on alcohol that he would offer his drawings to passers-by in return for a drink and was often so intoxicated that he stripped off at parties and stood there naked, shouting: ‘Am I not a God?’

In the coming years, women came and went, then in 1914 he met Beatrice Hastings, the bisexual English author and poet who was a former lover of New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield.

Sent to Paris to write a newspaper column about scandals in the Parisian art world, she initially described Modigliani as ‘a complex character. A pig and a pearl’. But he soon began to intrigue her, both as a man and as an artist who painted her at least ten times.

Both were strong characters and their relationship was often violent, on both sides. Beatrice, who had formerly been married to an English boxing champion, could hold her own and after one fracas he complained bitterly to a friend that she had ‘bitten him in the b***s’. 

Their relationship ended in 1917 when Modigliani, then 33, met 19-year-old art student Jeanne Hebuterne. She came from a devout Catholic background and was renounced by her family after she and Modigliani moved into a studio together.

Like so many of his lovers, she features in a number of his works and their relationship was thoroughly approved of by Leopold Zborowski, the art dealer who caused such controversy by placing that Modigliani nude in his gallery window.

The following year, Hebuterne and Modigliani welcomed the arrival of a baby daughter, also named Jeanne. By then, Modigliani already had three other children born of extra-marital relationships, but Zborowski hoped this might prove the beginning of a more stable period in his life. So it proved.

Critics point to a new calm in works such as his 1919 self-portrait, but still they failed to sell and when he died of tubercular meningitis the following year, it was in a charity hospital.

The day after his death, Hebuterne, who was pregnant with their second child, threw herself out of the window of their fifth-floor apartment, killing both herself and their unborn baby.

It was a tragic final twist in the tale of Amedeo Modigliani — the artist whose works sell for many millions today but who once gave them away for the price of a drink.

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