Modigliani’s Muse – Jeanne Hebuterne and the “Rock Star” of Montparnasse

Live fast, die young. Although that phrase was not coined by the 20th century sculptor and painter Amadeo Modgliani it certainly could have been. History, culture, and the arts have given us many of those “tortured genius” cult figures who indulged recklessly, lived decadently, and throughout the wild times, created passionately. Then they die far too early, and soon the myth – the iconography – rises from the ashes. Think James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison. Modigliani can be called a bohemian, a lothario, the dark, moody prince of Paris. But to hell with all that. Here at Museworthy we prefer to call him the troubled lover of Jeanne Hebuterne.

Rather than examine the accuracy of the Modigliani legend – whether he really was as debauched and depraved as the myth would have us believe – let’s just assert some known truths about Modgliani. He was an alcoholic. He was a drug addict. He was sickly. As a youth in Livorno, Italy, he was afflicted with several serious illnesses; pleurisy, typhoid fever, tuberculosis. His infirm health would plague him throughout his adulthood and provide some rationale for his fatalistic attitude later in life. Modigliani was also a womanizer, which makes pretty good sense, as his dark, handsome, brooding good looks attract women even today.

A young Modigliani, around 1904:

Jeanne Hebuterne was born in Paris into a strict Roman Catholic family. She aspired to be an artist and was introduced to the vibrant Montparnasse artist community through her brother Andre, who was himself an artist. She modeled for several painters and sculptors, but soon enrolled in the Academie Colarossi for her own artistic training. There, in the spring of 1917, she met the charismatic Modigliani, who was called “Modi” by friends. Almost immediately, the couple fell deeply in love. He was 15 years her senior.

Before he met Jeanne, Modigliani had had more than his share of lovers and affairs. It was as if no woman in Paris could resist his charm and sex appeal. But with Jeanne – a shy, gentle, delicate, innocent young woman – Modigliani found the person who would come closest to a true companion, and presented his best hope for a deep and meaningful relationship. Whether his destructive habits would allow that relationship to prosper, however, was a different matter.

This is Jeanne Hebuterne. Quite a magnetic, almost confrontational, gaze for a girl described as “shy”:

Jeanne had much to deal with in addition to the high-maintenance lover that was Amadeo Modigliani. Her conservative family took tremendous issue with her romantic involvement with Modi. They objected vehemently for a few reasons. First, he was a penniless artist. Second, he was a wild living degenerate. Third, he was a Jew. So what did young Jeanne do? Did she capitulate to her family’s wishes and abandon the man she loved? Or did she defy her family to be with him? Do I even have to answer that question, folks? I think you all know the answer. Disowned by her family, off she went, to love Modigliani completely, faithfully, and ultimately to her own devastation.

Unmarried, Modi and Jeanne moved in together. They had a child, a daughter, born in November of 1918. Jeanne sat for over 20 works by Modigliani, and still found time to devote to her own art as well.

Here is one of Modigliani’s many portraits of Jeanne, in the trademark Modigliani style of elongated shapes, oval faces, and swaths of color:

And this is Jeanne’s portrait of Modigliani. For a change, the artist seen through the eyes of the muse:

If only Jeanne and Modi could have lived this way; as commonlaw husband and wife, raising children, painting and creating their art, fulfilled, inspiring each other. But there was no happily ever after. Modigliani’s drinking and substance abuse effectively sabotaged any hope for such a life. Jeanne made heroic efforts to achieve that life, to foster things of meaning, the things worth living for; children, art, and the man she loved.

Those aspirations died with too many public incidents of Modi’s bad behavior. In one particularly egregious instance, Modigliani’s temper exploded to a point where he dragged Jeanne by her hair and proceeded to bang her head into the gates of the Luxembourg Gardens. He smoked hashish, drank to excess, experienced alcohol-induced blackouts, and passed out on the streets of Paris until he was picked up by the police.

By 1920, most of Modigliani’s friends in Montparnasse were fed up with him, deserting him as hopeless and incorrigible. Only one friend refused to abandon him. That one friend was Jeanne. On the night of January 24th, the Modiglianis’ downstairs neighbor at Rue de la Grande Chaumiere, knocked on their door after not seeing them or hearing from them for days. The neighbor discovered Modigliani in bed, delirious with fever, shaking, barely conscious. Lying in bed next to him was Jeanne with her arms wrapped around him in a desperate embrace. Modi was dying of tubercular meningitis. The distraught, frightened, and confused Jeanne had not sent for a doctor. She refused to leave his side.

Modigliani passed away. He was 35 years old. Jeanne was shattered and overcome with grief. Like the bottom fell out from under her. The prospect of life without Modi was unimaginable. Or intolerable. Or both. Less than 48 hours after Modigliani died, Jeanne, who was nine months pregnant with her second child, threw herself out a fifth floor window. Actually she walked out . . . backwards. Both she and her unborn child died in the fall. Jeanne Hebuterne was just 20 years old. Her suicide was her final act of allegiance, of protest, of determination. The shy, delicate, demure girl was not so submissive after all.

Jeanne had made her wishes known that she wanted to be buried next to Modigliani. Of course, her still indignant family defied her wishes and, in yet another spiteful act against the girl even in her death, buried her in Cimetiere de Bagneaux cemetary outside of Paris. It wasn’t until ten years later that the Hebuterne family finally relented, and had Jeanne’s body moved next to Modi’s in Pere LaChaise cemetery. Who is among Modigliani’s “neighbors” in Pere Lachaise? None other than his profligate “rock star” successor Jim Morrison.

After Jeanne’s suicide, Andre Hebuterne was said to be tormented with guilt for ever having introduced his sister to Modigliani in the first place. He felt responsible for all the tragedy that ensued. And of course, over the past several decades, Modigliani’s reputation has soared, his lifestyle glamorized, his persona romanticized, all at the neglect of the woman he abused, took for granted, and couldn’t be a man for. That stops here, on the pages of Museworthy.

This is for YOU, Jeanne. Not Modi.

31 thoughts on “Modigliani’s Muse – Jeanne Hebuterne and the “Rock Star” of Montparnasse

  1. I already saw photos of JEanne- This strange beauty.
    But the photo of the young Modigliani is amazing.
    I didn’t knew he was having this beautiful and pure face.
    Those handsome visages are strangely often never the angels they seem to be.
    I saw a us movie on Modigliani- the movie was bad and the relation beetween those lovers was lost.

  2. Somerset Maugham’s book The Moon and sixpence seems to be a mixture of Gauguin and Modigliani. I thought he had embelished Gaugin’s story but it appears he didn’t need to just mixed the two together. Artist’s licence?

    (W. Somerset Maugham, The Moon and sixpence , 1919)

  3. robert bent says:

    OMG!! The artist/muse connection again!!! I don’t really know anything about Modigliani but when I put a picture in a show earlier this month the “curator” offered that it was a “Modigliani”; and I read in your piece that he did oval faces (which is what I offered) and now I understand her comment!! Thanks!! I don’t lead a Modigiliani life and I have LONG outlived him!! but I can get the artist:passion and lover deal with ease. I think in a way that I fall in love a little bit with every woman who sits for me to paint; maybe not a good thing but I can’t help it….not that we become lovers but there is an emotional connection that I want. Anyway, you are brilliant!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I love your pieces. I’m an artrist and the static between the model and myself is essential atleast to me!!
    Bye for now.

  4. artmodel says:

    Chloe,

    Yes, I know about the Modigliani movie. Thanks for mentioning it. I’ve never seen the film and heard it was pretty bad. I’m not surprised that Modi and Jeanne’s relationship was inadequately depicted.

    Jeanne does possess a strange and unusual beauty. She has a very unique look, and she was such a young girl. As for the Modigliani photo, I wanted to use that one instead of the very popular one of him a little older, sitting in his studio, wearing courduroy, and smoking a cigarette. I’m sure you are familiar with it. This one shows just how handsome he was. And your observation is so true – that a beautiful face can belie the real character of a person.

    I’m so glad you posted a comment! I love your blog, and it’s great to have your voice here on Museworthy. If you are ever in the vicinity of Pere Lachaise, please pay respects at Jeanne’s grave for me!

    Claudia

  5. artmodel says:

    Robert,

    Wow, I haven’t read that book in ages! But I did a long, long time ago. You sparked a renewed interest now. I should read it again. Thanks!

    Claudia

  6. artmodel says:

    Rob,

    Be grateful that you don’t lead the Modigliani life! You wouldn’t want to be beset with ailments, messed up on drugs, misbehaving, and meet with an early demise. You are far too decent a guy :-)

    I know how you feel about the strong connection between an artist and his sitters. We can feel it on our end too. It’s natural, given the excitement and inspiration of the creative process. Pretty potent stuff.

    Rob, you are far too generous calling me “brilliant”. That’s crazy. Gifted, astute, exceptional, yes. But not brilliant. (just joking!!!!)

    But seriously, thanks so very much for expressing your fondness for my postings. Your enthusiasm and enjoyment is an even greater pleasure for me than for you, believe me.

    Best,
    Claudia

  7. artmodel says:

    Marie, that was wonderful!!! I really appreciate you posting that link. I love Jeanne a lot. Merci! Merci!

    Claudia

  8. gabriela johansson says:

    Ok, but when did they marry?

  9. artmodel says:

    Gabriela,

    They didn’t get married. No records to indicate that they did. Nothing that I could find, at least. I remember reading one story about how they tried, but Modigliani showed up too drunk and disoriented to go ahead with it. I think it was a great disappointment to Jeanne that they never married.

    Claudia

  10. CJ Milan says:

    I watched the movie and thought it was pretty good.I’m a very big fan of Modi

  11. artmodel says:

    CJ Milan,

    Thanks for that. Many people have panned the film but I want to see it anyway. I’m a fan of Modi too.

    Claudia

  12. voja says:

    Modi was a great,but Jaenne … she was a thrue beauty.I think the movie is so romantic and so emotional deep and it will touch everyones soul

  13. artmodel says:

    voja,

    I really must see this movie! You are one of many people recommending it to me. Jeanne, by the way, has quite a following of admirers. This post is has now reached the highest individual traffic stats of all Museworthy posts. She’s quite the star.

    Thanks for your comment.

    Claudia

  14. Golnaz says:

    One of Modiligiani’s portraits of Jeanne has been hanging on the main wall of our hall ever since I opened my eyes and I never knew what a great story lied behind those not-drawn eyes and that long-shaped face untill I saw the movie and my father told me that the painting right above was his work. I’m not brave enough to live like them but it warms up sth inside me to know that love exists in the way they two loved each other, that it’s not just a myth or just in the movies. They’ve both been too special to happen in this world again. Rest in peace!

    • artmodel says:

      Golnaz,

      Thanks for sharing your personal story! It’s extraordinary that you grew up with a Modigliani portrait of Jeanne hanging on your wall.

      I’m glad that this post illuminated their relationship for you. Yes, it was impassioned, tragic, and very real. Two fervent and emotional individuals who have genuine biographies apart from film and myth.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting on this post – the most popular one in the history of this blog.

      Claudia

  15. maria says:

    Claudia-
    You write wonderfully and from the heart.
    Need to do some investigating regarding the orphaned child Jeanne and Modi left behind.
    I know she was adapted by Margherita, his sister in Livorno and raised by the paternal grandmother.
    Apart from doing a thesis on Van Gogh and perhaps relocating to Paris to find her roots and investigate her parents’ lives(something I assume was kept hidden from her growing up)through those that were in Montparnasse, she married Victor Leduc a marxist, was incarcerated during the french resistance, had two daughters, divorced, and died an alcoholic–fell off a ladder(?),

    I was hoping someone may give me direction as to what resources have come their way via internet, articles, etc as nothing has been written about her life.

    It’s a shame as it could have been desperately lonely not knowing about her parents-albeit, I am sure her life was full with the Modigliani clan.

    Let me know if you can help me.

    Maria

    • artmodel says:

      Maria,

      It sounds like you have done an amazing job already! That’s great research and info! And I agree with you that there are not nearly enough resources available in certain biographical instances, such as the offspring of or “peripheral” figures in the lives of famous people like mistresses, etc.

      I will absolutely let you know if I come across anything that could be of help to your project, but like I said, you’ve uncovered a lot so far and it’s impressive! Thanks very much for sharing what you found here on Museworthy.

      Claudia

      • maria says:

        It’s been 2 years and I am still at it….life has gotten in the way…
        I am off to Paris in June and wanted to look up Jeanne Modigliani Leduc Neichstein’s tomb– I feel a connection–at least with the little girl who was left behind this hole fiasco of Modigliani myth and legend.
        Modigliani’s daughter died in 1984 and that too is another tragic tale. Claudia–you’ve been helpful in the past–any insights

  16. Elle Fagan says:

    Thank you for the fine information here. After reading bios and watching the film I feel I should add this here:

    Modigliani had also a son before his relationship with Jeanne, but the son was never officially recognized and may not even have known of his famous father.

    The first chiild of Modi and Jeanne was the daughter , Jeanne Modigliani who grew up and became and artist/writer and married Victor LeDuc a philosophy professor and died at age 66 of stroke in 1984, leaving two daughters.

    It would be interesting to see what Modi’s grandchildren do today….I’ll bet their lives are certainly happier and healthier.

    Modi’s chroic bad health most certainly trirggered the carelessness of his habits. He had little faith in his life and in old days it was very common for people with chronic ailments to tire of the doctors and treat their pains with dope and liquor. So his “debauchery” might not reallly have been a choice of evil path but a really dumb way to self-medicate and cope with the experience of life of chronicly ill.

    To romanticise it as the “hey, ho” artists’ life is silly and mindless.

    In truth it was probably more to be pitied.

    The film “Modigliani” is criticized – and it did fail in many ways, but it made it to the popular level and got people interested and wondering …and it sends people on to research it more, after the film is done.

    So it was certainly no total loss.

    Andy Garcia did the job well and even looked a bit like him.

    The failure of Jeanne’s character is the thing, in that film.

    It was, first of all, in casting the older Elsa Zylberstein to play Jeanne…Elso just looked too old to convey the stunning youthful innocent beauty and the tragedy and the sensitivity of the relationship and her death so very young.

    And most of the dazzling things about Jeanne are breezed over and so the depth of her tragic death so young is not appreciated.

    You have my email here. Find me if you have updated facts about Jeanne’s child and grandchildren, etc…

    Thanks for this forum.

    elle fagan

    • maria says:

      Elle- Jeanne’s daughter Jeanne grew up in Livorno, studied in Paris and Italy–I believe she did a degree in Art History and was too an artist. Having read articles in Time Magazine , her art was not critically acclaimed. I think she had to live behind the name of the great legend.
      She wrote a book Man and Myth–an attempt to piece the timelines and associations of her father and mother. A very terse account and something one would read in history books–no emotional lure for me.
      I understand she became politically active during WWII and was part of the French Resistance wherein she met her husband Victor Niechstein(?) aka Victor Leduc. Russian Jew–who was married. He soon divorced and they married. They had two daughters Ana and Laure; the former I believe having some sort of difficultly(?).
      Not understanding whether her alcoholism caused the divorce but the two did split up at some point. She continued to live in Paris–never really saw her maternal side of the family. Was in the process of assisting in the 100 C. exhibition of Modigliani in Livorno when she fell off a ladder in her apartment and suffered a hem. in July 1984. Died at Hospital in Paris and buried in Pere La Chaise.

      If anyone knows of her burial plot–please advise. Went to Paris this summer but could not locate it. Saw her parents’ plot but not Jeanne’s/Giovanna.For some reason–her story has always tugged at me…..maybe I should do some more inquiring?

  17. softsenta says:

    Once again we see a gifted woman sacrificing herself for an unworthy man. I guess I’m too old and grumpy to see anything but waste in this. Ladies, when will we learn?

    • artmodel says:

      softsenta,

      I hear you. I was thinking exactly that as I wrote this post. Sadly, it is an all-too-common scenario.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Claudia

    • Scott says:

      I am not going to side with her family as you seem to be doing. I see a woman who sacrificed herself to her own life, not someone else’s. I’ll leave it to others to go analytical, to get all psychological about motivations, how a person was raised, etc. etc. but that is all too simple and pat. No one owns anyone else’s life, and that is what Jeanne says to me.

  18. Bart says:

    If there is such a thing as providence, these two lovers shared a brief moment together. I have never understood the suicide. Fascinating love story but what they shared as lovers we can never know. Tragic as it ended. Bart

  19. John Butler says:

    I’m a man and I agree. No man or woman is worth the sacrifice of one’s own life. Dora Carrington (also an artist) did it when Lytton Strachey died. Romantic poets may write what they like, but there’s nothing “romantic” about it. And, ironically, neither Modigliani nor Strachey asked the women to do it, which says something about their mentality.

  20. dalmo mariano says:

    She was Gorgeous! And looks that should have been a good artist, what a pitty!!!! Loved her history, remembers me of Camille Claudel, whose passion for an artist also destroyed her life! Thanks for the nice history!!!!

  21. dendi says:

    my wife just look like jeanne in the present

  22. green says:

    the film is just another hollywood chewing gum, very romantic indeed. who knows what is true or not and what happened in the last days of Amadeo and Jeanne alone in that dump apartement, and still were they really there?now, remember no matter what you or anyone might say or think about these 2 beings, reality is that they were meant to be together and that is beyond any human reason.

  23. Joanna says:

    thank you 4 that
    J.

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