Amedeo Modigliani’s muse and the love of his life was born on 6 April 1898 in Paris. Her delicate demeanor and strange beauty quickly attracted many starving-artists, among them the handsome and charismatic Jewish Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani who turned out to be her great love and eventually the cause of her downfall. The tale of Modigliani and Jeanne’s love is perhaps the most tragic love story in the world of art.
Jeanne Hébuterne met Amedeo around her nineteenth birthday, in April 1917, in the cultural center of Paris at the time – Montparnasse. The two soon fell deeply in love and Jeanne moved in with Modigliani, despite the objections from her parents, strict middle-class Catholics. This is the beginning of the story that ends with death, on both sides.
Jeanne and her older brother André, showed artistic talents from an early age. Despite the conservativeness of her parents, Jeanne was allowed to enroll at the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs and to take classes at the Académie Colarossi. The Colarossi was on the Avenue de la Grande Chaumiere; the very center of Montparnasses’ avant-garde culture. What a coincidence that the young Jewish Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani, known as ‘Modi’, also lived on that street.Although it was not far from Jeanne’s home, Montparnasse was culturally and ideologically a completely different place; in the context of Jeanne’s strict and sheltered existence in which she had been raised, it was an entirely different universe. At the Académie, Jeanne befriended other female artists such as Chana Orloff and Germaine Labaye who introduced her to Cafe life, particularly at ‘La Rotonde’ where she may have met Amedeo.
Despite her own artistic aspirations, and the fact that she was a proficient painter in her own right, Jeanne’s position as a painter rather than a painter’s muse is often overlooked, as it is the case with many female artist/models. Along with Jeanne, Elizabeth Siddal and Victorine Meurent are one of the best examples of overlooked talents.
Jeanne possessed a strange beauty which gained her many admirers at Montparnasse. Her eyes were bright blue and her hair was long and auburn. She was nicknamed ‘Noix de Coco‘ (‘Coconut’) due to the shape of her head and her very pale skin. All together her striking features created a ‘gothic appearance’, as it was described by one sculptor who had met her.
Along with her beauty, Jeanne possessed a sedate demeanour and was described as ‘gentle, shy, quiet and delicate. Slightly depressive.‘ With her calmness and youthfulness she was a perfect balance for Amedeo; habitual drinker, drug-user and womaniser who was fourteen years her senior. Due to these contrasts, Jeanne is often seen as a ‘pure girl’ who saved Modigliani. The situation reminds me of ‘Crime and Punishment’ where the pious and self-sacrificing Sonia saved moody Raskolikov. In addition to drawing and painting, Jeanne was known for being musical; she played the violin and she also designed and sewed her own clothes which can be seen in Modigliani’s portraits of her.
It does not surprise me at all that Jeanne was Modigliani’s muse. What other demoiselle, what other face could possibly reveal to us the meaning behind Modigliani’s art?
For Modigliani, the future of art was in woman’s face. He painted Jeanne no more and no less than 26 times. Every single one of those portraits is like a love letter: very delicate, lyrical, spiritual and calm. Modigliani painted her lost in her thoughts, distant from reality, place and time, and extraordinary beautiful. Claude Roy said of these portraits ‘Modigliani is speaking here almost in a whisper; he murmurs his painting as a lover murmurs endearments in the ear of his beloved.‘
Amedeo moved to Nice in March 1918, hoping to sell his paintings to wealthy art experts who wintered there, and that the warm climate would have soothing effect on his fragile health, burdened with heavy drinking and substance abuse. Jeanne followed him, and on 29 November their daughter was born in Nice, out of wedlock. Little girl was named Jeanne after her mother. Although very little is known about their time spent in Nice, it is known with certainty that Modigliani was planing to marry Jeanne as soon as he got his papers.
Sadly, he had no time to fulfill his promise. Amedeo Modigiani died on 24 January 1920 of tubercular meningitis. Jeanne was deeply affected by his death, and the next day, eight months pregnant with their second child, anguished and distraught, she committed suicide by trowing herself from the window of her parents’ apartment. With deep affection for Modigliani, Jeanne could not imagine life without him. The artist and his muse were united in death. Jeanne was only twenty-one years old.
Her epitaph read ‘Devoted Companion to the Extreme Sacrifice’.