Standing on the enchanting streets in Montparnasse, Paris I just could not think of anything more than artist Amedeo Modigliani and Russian born Anna Akhmatova.
Anna was said to be a “ravishingly beautiful, raven-haired 6-foot tall sensation” in an article I once read. I remember the first time I heard the description of her that I imagined Modigliani fell in love the moment he laid eyes on her.
She was a 21-year-old married woman and Modigliani was a 25-year-old Italian artist with a strong face that I am certain was worthy of painting.
Modigliani had a talent for capturing the beauty of a face but He was not hard to look at himself. With so many works to his credit, I often think that had I been asked to sit for one of his whimsical paintings it wouldn’t have been hard to be still and just stare at his handsome jaw and dark, mysterious eyes while he worked.
Anna by Modigliani
Together I imagine Modigliani and Anna must have been a sight to see. I think it would be something like when Brad Pitt and Angelina are together in a room. One could not help but to stop and look at them and enjoy their strong physical allure.
At the time that Anna and her husband came to Paris they, like me were on their honeymoon. Anyone who was anyone in the artist social circles of Paris would head directly for the beautiful, inspirational, artistic area of Montmartre and later to Montparnasse.
On the left bank of the river Seine, Montparnasse is an amazing place to stand today. It is rich with historic tales of famous artists and writers. Manet, Degas, Picasso, Zola, Salvador Dali, Henry Miller, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce are just a few of the names that spent quality time drawing inspiration from the creative atmosphere in this French intellectual and socially stimulating area. Can you imagine what it would have been like to claim Picasso as a friend ?
In the 1910’s when Anna and Modigliani were here it certainly was not a wealthy community. Jean Cocteau once wrote that poverty was a luxury in Montparnasse. For me, standing here, all I can think is how much it smells like freshly baked bread and crepes.
Montmartre is a cozy little area at the high point in the city of Paris and is filled with tiny streets and lots of up and down and grades that remind me of rollercoasters. You must wear good shoes if you plan to explore this area. We followed a guide for some time before we went out on our own to explore. No good trip to Montmartre will end without a visit to the highest point, the Sacre Coeur. The view back to the Eiffel Tower is the most spectacular one you will ever see and will absolutely be burnt into your memory forever. I am certain I will need to make several posts about our visit to Montmartre on our wedding trip and all that we did while there.
In spite of Anna’s new marriage, she and Modigliani became inseparable and they began an affair. She became the subject of many of his drawings and in my opinion, some of his best work. The Estorick Collection in London claims that he drew her 16 times that we know of and that there were most likely more that were destroyed or lost over the years that we don’t even know about. London is certainly on my list of places that I want to go in the near future but for now I will try to focus on the amazing location underneath my flip-flops.
Modigliani was born in Livorno, Italy and moved to Paris in 1906 after studying in Florence and Venice. His early works were certainly influenced by Cezanne but the works I most love and the ones you think of when you hear the name Amedeo Modigliani are inspired by Italian Primitives.
Elongated figures and stretched oval heads with a lack of detail in the eyes of his subjects. To me, they are in fact, childlike, cartoon-like, and dare I say somewhat like the caricature that modern artists make and sell on the streets of Paris. You know the ones, where you set down and they quickly sketch out a funny little version of you while you watch. This is not an insult. I promise. I have never loved to look at anything on canvas more than Modigliani and at this point I have been lucky enough to have had a chance to see some of the most amazing pieces of art ever created.
I recently tried to paint a sorta copy of one of my favorite Modigliani works. No, I am absolutely not a painter. Prior to this, I have never drawn anything to speak of and I had never used paint for anything that was not on a wall or side of the house. But I wanted to see just how hard is it to do what Modigliani did. I found out pretty fast that it took an insane amount of talent to create something so simple looking. I am absolutely certain that no one will ever give me $7.40 for what I created, let alone $171.4 million !
Modigliani fell out with Picasso and rejected the invitation to join the Futurist movement. His work peaked shortly before his premature death with a series of nudes that were considered pornographic at the time. When they opened at Modigliani’s first exhibit the police were notified of complaints about them and they closed the exhibit within hours.
There is some controversy as to what a complete catalogue of Modigliani’s work actually is. It seems there have been several forgeries over the years since his death. For Christmas I think I will ask for a book of his work.
I am completely captivated by the lack of eyes in the faces that he paints. I sometimes lay for hours and flip through my collection of his work on my Pinterest Board.
Sitting here in Montparnasse surrounded by huge, white stone buildings with ornate details I can’t help but think to myself that it’s sad that they allowed the Tour Montparnasse skyscraper to liter the once beautiful skyline. I find myself moving to the left or right just a little to visually hide it from burning into my memories.
The World Cup Soccer games are going on in Paris at the moment so we won’t even talk about the giant, purple, hideous soccer ball that someone thought would be a good idea to hang from the bottom of the Eiffel Tower. I am certain it will take hours of my life to Photoshop out that stupid, badly thought out advertisement.
While in the Montparnasse area we will be going to the Catacombs of Paris.
I am a little sad that I won’t have time to go to Pere Lachaise Cemetery to see the site of Modigliani’s grave.
When you first go to his burial location it would be easy to miss among the ornate and elaborate headstones filling the area. He is not buried there alone. The grave actually contains 3 people.
Over Modigliani’s life he was known for his excess in relationships with his women as well as with his drink.
In 1917 he met 19-year-old Jeanne Hebuterne and they were soon living together in Montmartre.
Jeanne and Amedeo were known for public scenes about Montmartre. An eyewitness once said that he “was like a madman, crazy with savage hatred” as he “was dragging her along by an arm, tugging at one or another of her long braids of hair, and only letting go of her for a moment to send her crashing against the railings of the Luxembourg”.
I think of this scene and it paints an image in my mind of a passionate Italian, with his long wavy hair gritty from the heat and filled with the smell of acrylic paint and cigarettes. Maybe it looked nothing like this but as I sit here on the bench in Montparnasse that’s how I draw the image on the canvas in my head.
Jeanne became Modigliani’s greatest muse. Not since he drew Anna had he captured such tenderness in his work in my personal opinion.
Modigliani once said “When I know your soul, I will paint your eyes”. Because of that, I believe he knew both, Anna and Jeanne, very well. I sometimes am not certain which of the two women he loved more. After only a year, Anna simply returned to her husband and later in her life she spoke of Modigliani in her memoirs but Jeanne’s story is far more dramatic.
As I left our cute little Parisian hotel just across the street from the Louvre Museum this morning I borrowed one of the many large black umbrellas that they keep by the desk in the lobby.
I guess that should have been a sign that they are completely aware that it is going to rain for no less than 15 minutes of every hour that you are in Paris. I can’t help thinking of Anna’s memoirs where she says “Whenever it rained Modigliani took with him a huge old black umbrella. We would sit together under this umbrella on a bench in the warm summer rain and recite Verlaine, whom we knew by heart”.
…. And the gentle wind wrinkles the pool… And the light of the sun that softens too…The shade of the limes on the avenue…Renders us, as it will, mordant, blue…
A fast google search of Verlaine left those words stuck in my memory with this magical Parisian moment that I am having. Oh how will I ever focus enough to move from this bench and go on to the next place in my crowed itinerary.
When Modigliani was 14 he suffered from typhoid fever and while delirious he raved about how sad he was that he would never get to see first-hand the work of Italian Renaissance masters in the Uffizi Museum in Florence. His mother was distraught with fear and promised him that she would take him there the second that he recovered. True to her promise, she not only took him but enrolled him to study with Micheli, the best painting master available at the time.
I love this painting by Modigliani of Pablo Picasso. Painted in 1915 you can already see his somewhat Egyptian style of squaring off a nose and the lack of details in the eyes and who can miss the length of the neck made famous in so many of his other works.
Modigliani refused the idea of painting landscapes.
It was a genre that so many other artists had embraced at the time. There are only three or four examples of him ever having painted a landscape known to exist.
One of the things I find fascinating about Modigliani is that when I first looked at the many paintings in his collective work I imagined the people he sketched sitting there in front of him and what, as I said earlier, it would have been like to be the subject of his creative gaze. But in fact the majority of his work was from memory. He had an amazing ability to as he said, “absorb what he was seeing” and then put distance between himself and the subject so that he could draw what he “felt” and not just what he literally saw. Anna herself confirmed in her memoirs that all of the paintings of her were in fact done by Modigliani while he was “at home and alone”.
Paris did not seem to be good for Modigliani in the end. When he arrived there he was described as dapper and quiet and somewhat reserved. He was not a social person and he drank in moderation. He fell on hard times, began to drink and use hard drugs and after only a year he transformed himself into a sort of prince of vagabonds. His previously nice studio was seen as in disarray and he had become an alcoholic and drug addict. He destroyed most of his own early work in fits of rage.
Click on the gallery above to see a few of Modigliani’s paintings of Jeanne.
Tuberculosis was the leading cause of death in France by the 1900’s. It was very contagious and there was no cure. People would fear being around you and you would be ostracized and pitied if you were known to contract it. Some people believe that Modigliani used drinking and drugs as a means of masking his disease so that he could continue the charade needed to allow him entrance into the social art scene of Montmartre and Montparnasse that he had come to need.
During Modigliani’s lifetime he sold a few of his works. Nothing for any great deal of money, however and most of the money he made from the sale of anything would immediately fund his addictions and soon be gone.
The Nu Couche, 1917-18, sold for $170 million dollars at Christie’s, New York making it one of the most expensive paintings ever sold.
Jeanne was a perfect match for Modigliani in my opinion with her dark eyes, dark hair and full lips. In this love triangle I can’t help but cheer for Jeanne. Her parents were devout Roman Catholics who renounced their daughter for her associations with Modigliani. This did not stop the then 19-year-old from moving in with her lover. They gave birth to a daughter who they also named Jeanne. It is hard for me to imagine that she was still alive in 1984. She wrote a book and I absolutely want to read it.
In 1919 Jeanne became pregnant with another child and she and Modigliani got engaged. Jeanne’s parents still did not accept the plans for their daughter to marry. Modigliani soon discovered he had tuberculosis.
He continued to paint as his health deteriorated rapidly and his addictions to alcohol and drugs became more prominent.
By 1919 Modigliani had lost his teeth and was suffering from delusions. He lived out his final months with his wife, Jeanne, and their daughter in a shabby apartment in Montmartre. When Modigliani died, 21-year-old Jeanne was 8 months pregnant with their second child.
Modigliani carried on frequent affairs during their relationship, drank like a fish and used hash and other hard drugs. When he would attend parties he was known to yank off all his clothes and prance about. He became the epitome of what a tragic artist is in our minds and his story is now almost as legendary as that of Vincent Van Gogh.
He was found, exhausted and nearly frozen, by a neighbor who went to check on them after having noticed they had not been seen for several days. Two days later, On the 22nd day of January 1920 Modigliani died of tubercular meningitis. He was only 35 years old.
Jeanne Hebuterne attended his huge funeral, as did many from the artistic communities of Montmartre and Montparnasse. Pregnant and grieving Jeanne was taken to her parents home a day later. She was inconsolable and threw herself out a fifth-floor window the day after Modigliani’s burial, killing herself and their unborn child.
In the Pere Lachaise Cemetery plot you can visit the 3 of them to pay your respects.
She was moved there ten years later when her embittered family finally allowed her body to be moved to sleep once again in the arms of Amedo Modigliani.
The single tombstone above them reads “Struck down by Death at the moment of glory” over his name and above her name it simply reads “Devoted companion to the extreme sacrifice”.
Alas, the rain has stopped and I have folded away my large black borrowed umbrella and I like Anna must escape the captivating man that is Modigliani and return to my husband who is waiting for me.
Have you ever seen any of Modigliani’s work in person ?
Learn More About Modigliani & His Story
With so much talk of Modigliani and his work drawn from Jeanne, I feel it necessary to say that she was herself a painter. Though most of the things we hear about her are by connection to Modigliani. This is my favorite of the ones I can find that she painted. It is of course of Modigliani.
Modigliani, photographed in about 1909 (GETTY)
Rare Landscapes painted by Modigliani