103 years ago today, modernist painter Amedeo Modigliani & his model, wife, and muse, Jeanne Hébuterne became immortal…
An elusive figure inhabits the sundrenched rooms of modernist painter Amedeo Modigliani’s Montparnasse studio in Rue de la Grande Chaumière. She sits quietly in a corner, sketching; paces the corridor with a heavy step; waits at the window, looking down at skeletal trees in an empty courtyard. From Modigliani’s many portraits of her, we recognize her otherworldly gaze, her coppery hair coiled like a geisha’s, her unflattering hint of double chin. It is Jeanne Hebuterne, Modigliani’s companion, model, and muse.
Until October 2000, when her artwork was featured in a major exhibition in Venice at the Giorgio Cini Foundation, not much was known about Jeanne Hebuterne, except for the tragic story of her suicide in 1920. She was a promising young artist, fourteen years Modigliani’s junior. Much too early in their love affair, Jeanne became pregnant with their first child. She was approaching the end of her second pregnancy when, destitute, abandoned by all but Jeanne, Modigliani died of tubercular meningitis on January 24, 1920. Unwilling to face life without him, she fell backwards out a Paris window less than forty-eight hours later, and at the age of twenty-one exited a world she had but little known. The couple was survived by their daughter, Jeanne Modigliani.
Today Jeanne H and Modì are entombed together, but at the time of her death, Jeanne’s father had her buried out in the suburbs. By this means, he hoped to distance his daughter from the scandalous man who had turned her into a woman he could not recognize: defiant, pregnant, and unmarried. After Jeanne’s father died, her mother allowed Jeanne’s remains to be re-interred beside Modigliani, and now their grave has become a shrine where pilgrims leave offerings of flowers, paintbrushes, postcards, and letters.
Jeanne was only sixteen when she fell in love with Modigliani, legendary as a lover in Montparnasse. Fearing her parents would disapprove of him, she kept their relationship secret, spending long afternoons with the painter, working together or making love with him in his studio, dawdling with him in cafes, only to return home to her parents’ home near Place de la Contrescarpe to sleep.
Jeanne is mainly remembered as Modigliani’s favorite model. In memoirs later published by their friends, she has been portrayed as bland, brooding, and clinging. Biographers and film directors have dismissed her as a mediocre art student or just one among Modigliani’s many lovers. Her gifts and aspirations as an artist have largely been ignored by scholars and critics. Only within the last twenty years have we come to discover Jeanne Hébuterne the artist, because her work was unavailable to the public before the year 2000.
After Jeanne’s demise in 1920, her brother, the painter, André Hébuterne, took all Jeanne’s artworks from the studio she had shared with Modigliani and locked them away in his own studio until he died, thus erasing Jeanne’s identity as an artist for the time being, yet also preserving her works for a future time. So distressed was he by his sister’s death, he refused to talk about her, or share her art with anyone. But there was someone who desperately wanted to see those artworks, with good reason– Jeanne’s own daughter, Jeanne Modigliani. Throughout her adult life, Jeanne Modigliani tried to piece together fragments of her parents’ brief life together and among her discoveries was a carnet of her mother’s sketches, in possession of the Hébuterne family. With great patience, she began negotiations with the Hébuternes to release the drawings for public viewing.
In Venice in 2000, at an exhibit at the Giorgio Cini Foundation, I stumbled upon Jeanne’s carnet of drawings, which the Hébuterne family had agreed to exhibit for the first time in eighty years. The drawings, mainly portraits, interiors, and nudes, reveal the complex web of relationships unfolding in Jeanne’s daily life. There are sketches of her father, mother, and their home; others of Modigliani, their studio, cafes, and lastly, poignant portraits of Modigliani on his death bed. There are also several eye-popping nude self-portraits, which are particularly striking if we consider that just a decade earlier, women were prohibited from drawing nude models in French art academies. Modigliani never painted Jeanne nude, perhaps, it has been claimed, as it was “not the Italian way” to paint one’s wife disrobed. But Jeanne had no qualms about celebrating her own body by drawing it.
Taken as a whole, these drawings tease us with the riddle of Jeanne’s identity – how could she be all these things all at once: a dutiful daughter and sister, a voluptuous lover, a reckless rebel, a modest schoolgirl, muse and model to one of the greatest painters of her era, defiant artist of proudly provocative nudes? Over a century, myths have sedimented around Jeanne Hébuterne like layers of mother-of-pearl. Was she a self-effacing victim or a woman with a mind of her own?
This is what I set out to explore in my novel LOVING MODIGLIANI. The Afterlife of Jeanne Hébuterne. —
“Brilliantly researched, imaginative cross-genre historical fiction…The book’s inventive afterlife is as vividly drawn as the streets of Paris.”– Kirkus
“The zeitgeist is superbly captured… the protagonists lovingly sketched…a fine tribute to an artist forgotten for 100 years.” – Historical Novel Society Review
“Singularly unique and intensely ambitious and an utter joyride.” –– Indie Reader
“Eloquent, finely fashioned, deftly crafted…especially recommended addition to community, college, and university library Contemporary Literary Fiction collections.” – Midwest Book Review
“Loving Modigliani brings alive the streets and cafés of Montparnasse in full multi-sensory detail… If you are a supporter of the under-appreciated women artists of their time, you will applaud Lappin’s choice of subject and you’ll love the novel’s ending. “ BonjourParis.com
Listen to Linda Lappin reading from Loving Modigliani here on YorickRadioPodcasts
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