It is sometimes hard to believe that some of the artists, whose works are now counted as the most expensive paintings in the world, once lived hand-to-mouth lives during their lifetimes. They are often referred to as ‘struggling artists’ and, sadly, many of them had died poverty-stricken, after a lifetime of hard work, without earning any name or fame.
In the beginning of the twentieth century, most of the young artists of the times used to head for Paris, variously described in art circles as The Art Capital of Europe, The Mecca of Artists, etc. An aspiring Italian artist named Amedeo Clemente Modigliani (July 12, 1884 – January 24, 1920) too moved to Paris in 1906, and settled in the penniless artists’ commune Le Bateau-Lavoir in Montmartre.
The Polish poet, writer and art dealer Léopold Zborowski (1889-1932) was a friend, financier, and art dealer of Amedeo Modigliani. Zborowski allowed him to use of his apartment, supplied him with painting materials and female models. Also, he bought Modigliani’s paintings by paying 15 to 20 francs for each day of his work.
In 1918 Zborowski organized a trip to the south of France for his artist-friends so that they could sell their paintings to the rich tourists visiting the area. Modigliani and his lover (and common law wife) Jeanne Hébuterne, who was also his model and an artist in her own right, joined the trip. Others in the group were the Tokyo-born artist Tsuguharu Foujita (1886-1968) and his second wife Fernande Barrey, and the Jewish painter from what is today Belarus, Chaïm Soutine (1893-1943).
The artists’ trip turned out to be sour, as badly as poorly fermented French wine. The group had to survive on the advance funds they were paid by their friend and art dealer Zborowski, as they could attract zero sales.
Their funds had run out. Their landlord zeroed in on them for rent. The artists offered him their works of art in lieu of rent payment, but the landlord rejected their paintings and confiscated their baggage.
Modigliani’s life could not be termed as a happy one by any standards.
Modigliani was born into a Jewish family in the Italian port city Livorno, which had served as a refuge for people persecuted for their religion. As his father’s business as a money-changer flopped, his family had to live in poverty.
Modigliani suffered from pleurisy when he was eleven, a few years later he developed typhoid fever, and contracted tuberculosis at sixteen. During his student years, despite being troubled by tuberculosis, he started substance abuse and alcoholism heavily. Also, he started frequenting brothels and carried on with numerous, frequent affairs.
Sadly, he developed self-destructive tendencies too, possibly, because he presumed that tuberculosis had already marked his early death. Finally, he became “the epitome of the tragic artist”. Some art writers assume that Modigliani’s self-destructive behavior may have stemmed from the lack of recognition of his artistic endeavors.
The only solo art exhibition of his paintings during his lifetime was in 1917, and it was closed down by French police within hours because of allegations of nudity.
After suffering from poverty, overwork and addiction to alcohol and narcotics, on 24 January 1920, at the age of 35, Amedeo Modigliani died in Paris of tubercular meningitis.
Today, Amedeo Modigliani is one of the most sought after artists of modern times, with his works like ‘The Beautiful Roman Woman, having gone on auction for $68.9 million, and some other works of him also having entered the list of the most expensive works of art, a recognition that eluded him during his lifetime.