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.