The standard portrayal of Amedeo Modigliani is of an alcoholic, dissolute bohemian: wantonly self-destructive, addicted to hashish and absinthe, and dead from his overindulgences at the age of 35.
That was a portrait that didn’t quite sit right with Meryle Secrest, the award-winning biographer of Bernard Berenson, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Kenneth Clark, among others. What convinced her to take another look at the story was the art itself. “Modigliani’s works are restrained, most of all,” she says. “The exact color is always in just the right place. And you don’t get that if you’re fumbling around, knocking over paint cans in the morning.” As recently as 2006, responding to a show about Modigliani and his models at the Royal Academy, Secrest notes, “the art critic of the Guardiansaid he had never liked his work because Modigliani was drunken, ranting, and stoned. It has been said so often that it’s received as fact. And I thought, ‘This can’t be right.'”
What Secrest discovered, in five years of research, was that the artist was doing his best to conceal the tuberculosis he had contracted as a child and using drugs and alcohol to kill the pain from the disease. “If he had talked about his TB, he would have been socked away in a convalescent home or a hospital, and that would have been the end of it.”
Secrest’s highly readable and clear-eyed account of the artist’s life, Modigliani, out March 4 from Alfred A. Knopf, also delves into his upbringing as a Sephardic Jew from an impoverished Italian family, his affairs with the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova and the English journalist Beatrice Hastings, and his fascination with psychic phenomena. “One of the things that interests me is the painting that was on his easel when he died,” Secrest says. “He liked to annotate canvases, and on this one he wrote, ‘Here begins a new life.’ My theory is that he had convinced his girlfriend that she could follow him into another world.” Two days after his death, Jeanne Hébuterne, pregnant with his child and a talented artist in her own right, pitched herself from a fifth-story window.
Hébuterne’s heirs were none too helpful to Secrest in her research, forbidding her to publish any of their photographs. But she found an ally in Marc Restellini, author of Modigliani: The Melancholy Angel, an expansive catalogue accompanying a 2002 retrospective in Luxembourg; he afforded her entrée into the Paris art circles that held information about the notoriously moody but charming artist.
“There were some really awful people perpetuating the Modigliani myth, this version of him as a madman,” Secrest says. One of them was André Salmon, a contemporary poet and critic, who “figured he could make some money off him after his death by fantasizing this story of the beautiful, doomed artist.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if people finally looked at him with more of a nuanced eye?” asks Secrest. “That’s what I’m hoping for.”
Ann Landi is a contributing editor of ARTnews.