The romance of his life and the felicity of his style have conspired to lend passion and refinement to Modigliani's actual achievement as a painter. An evaluation of the pictures themselves reveals a production limited in time, subject and method. "Death," reads his tombstone, "gathered him when glory had arrived." What if he had lived more than his thirty-five years? Was death, indeed, his swiftest passport to immortality?
No definitive catalogue of Modigliani's work exists. He painted some 450 canvases, mostly between 1915 and 1920. As a sculptor he was perhaps a greater innovator, yet between 1909 and 1916 he carved less than twenty-five pieces--two heads in marble, both unfinished, and about twenty other heads and figures in softer limestone. As a draughtsman he was prolific. His need to draw was constant and compulsive. Although these drawings are often his finest statements, more frequently than his paintings they suffer a lack of discipline and self-criticism.
What did Modigliani paint? Portraits of friends, neighbors and models; three or four landscapes; about twenty nudes. The portraits, with a dozen exceptions, are of single figures seated in interiors. As in his landscapes, their composition is always vertical. Only a few paintings of nudes offer picture images which are horizontal. Curiously, Modigliani almost never depicted the feet of the human figure.
Modigliani is not a painter who can support easily an exhibition of a hundred of his works. How fortunate, then, a selection such as this where each choice presents him at his best. Within the narrow range of his work--he and only he himself imposed its limits--he created many of our century's most sensitive portraits. And who since Titian painted more voluptuous nudes? His color, though monotonous, is seductive. His expression is lyric, gay or tenderly sorrowful, never vulgar or violent. His line is swift; sometimes nervous, sometimes sure, always spontaneous, often elegant.
No definitive biography of Modigliani's life has been written; instead the same anecdotes and incidents have been repeated by many authors. He arrived in Paris in 1906. Little is known of these first years. However, his early drawings reveal the influence of Beardsley, Gauguin and ToulouseLautrec. His first paintings, in Paris, owe their tonality to Cézanne and Whistler.
Three friends, with whom he later fought, were important during this first and formative period: the German expressionist Ludwig Meidner; Brancusi, who also encouraged and influenced him; and Paul Alexandre, a doctor and, until 1914, his patron. Modigliani's paintings and drawings of this period before 1915 are seldom seen. They bear little resemblance to his later, more familiar work.