Portrait of a struggling artist

Amedeo Modigliani was supremely gifted, but he also was self-destructive and lived in poverty.

It's hard to know where to start with Amedeo Modigliani. He was a supremely gifted artist who painted some of the most beautiful portraits of the 20th century. But at the same time, he is equally famous for a violent and self-destructive life that led to an early grave.

Not surprisingly, it's often hard to know whether the stories that surround the "Bad Boy of the School of Paris" - as Time magazine once called him - are fact or fiction.

Modigliani: A Life, the crisp, thoughtfully written new biography by Jeffrey Meyers will help sort out this legendary figure and his place in art history.

The book is a wonderful portrait of the artist and artistic milieu that surrounded the emergence of modern art in the early years of the 20th century.

Meyers traces Modigliani's life from his boyhood in Italy to his last days living in a Paris flat that had no running water.

Modigliani, or "Modi," as he was universally known, was born to a solid middle-class family, but he was a sickly child who suffered three life-threatening illnesses. The result, says Meyers, was that Modigliani believed that he was not destined to live a long life. This, in turn, fostered a recklessness that turned his fears into reality.

Modigliani moved to Paris in 1906. It was a heady time to be in the City of Light. The Fauves had just scandalized the art world, a Cézanne retrospective inspired a new generation of artists, and Picasso was about to start work on Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.

But Modi seemed to suffer from the start. He lived in wretched poverty: His friends used words like "miserable," "depressing," and "pitiful" to describe his lodgings. He never lived in an apartment with electricity. He often fled in the middle of the night from landlords who were seeking the rent, and he often left his art behind. In 14 years, he had more than 30 addresses.

Meyers says that following his nomadic existence is like "tracking a wild animal in the jungle."

Modi made friends easily and was close to leading modern artists of the time, such as Picasso, Brancusi, Gris, Derain, Vlaminck, Soutine, and Utrillo.

All were poor and lived in difficult circumstances, but "they managed to encourage and inspire each other, find their own style, and create impressive work," Meyers writes. All of them - except Modigliani - achieved critical and financial success in their lifetimes.

Modi's paintings were almost exclusively portraits, some 350 of which have survived. He also left 25 stone carvings.

According to Meyers, Modi's elegant and elongated figures drew on African sculpture, Byzantine art and especially the Italian Mannerists like Pontormo, Bronzino, and Parmigianino. Modigliani worked quickly, often finishing a painting in one sitting.

He once painted a double wedding portrait of the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz and his wife in a single day.

When Lipchitz suggested that Modigliani might want to work on it some more, the artist replied, "Well, if you want me to spoil it, I can continue."

But it's impossible to think of Modigliani without considering his erratic, violent, and destructive lifestyle.

Even readers familiar with the ruinous behavior of modern celebrities such as Jackson Pollock, John Belushi, and Janis Joplin will be amazed. In the end, it's surprising that Modigliani lived as long as he did.

There were also his many relationships with women. When sober, the handsome and articulate Modigliani was almost irresistible to women. But when drunk or drugged, he was "mad, bad, and dangerous to know," Meyers writes.

Modigliani regularly seduced his models and had a succession of mistresses. Physical violence was common. According to Meyers, he raped his last mistress, Jeanne Hebuterne.

Modigliani also appeared to have fathered four children. A fifth was on the way when Hebuterne took her own life the day after Modigliani died.

Meyers notes that Modi's early death suggests the "alluring possibility of future masterpieces" that would have been created had the artist lived longer.

But Meyers discounts this possibility. The essential problem was that "if he stopped drinking he could not paint; and if he drank he became violent and self-destructive.... Even if he gave up alcohol, he may have been too far gone to regain his creative impulse," he writes.

Meyers is an accomplished author, who has written numerous biographies. His most recent, "Impressionist Quartet," deals with the Parisian art scene a decade before Modi arrived.

Meyers has carefully studied the extensive literature about Modigliani and early 20th-century art, and he writes about them incisively. The book is precise enough to satisfy an art historian, but it's also written in a way that would certainly appeal to a wider audience.

In the end, the reader is left with a clear understanding of Modigliani's work and its place in the pantheon of modern art.

At the same time, one clearly sees that such beautiful works were the product of an unbelievably flawed human being.

Terry Hartle is a senior vice president with the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C.

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