Modigliani: The model Bohemian

"Beatrice Hastings in Front of a Door" (1915), by Amedeo Modigliani. Oil on canvas. Private collection, courtesy Ivor Braka Ltd., London.

Jewish Museum/Phillips Collection

Amadeo Modigliani was the model bohemian artist: handsome, promiscuous, addicted to drugs and alcohol and women, and dead at the age of 35 of tuberculosis. The day after, Jeanne Hebuterne, his 21-year-old pregnant lover, fell to her death from a fifth-story window.

Correspondent Morley Safer reports for CBS News Sunday Morning.

His life was the stuff of movies, and, indeed, Andy Garcia played the title role in the film "Modigliani," made in 2004.

The artist died penniless and in despair in 1920. But also in 2004, Modigliani's portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne, that tragic mistress, sold at Sotheby's for $31.4 million.

And now, there is the first major Modigliani retrospective in more than 50 years, featuring nearly 100 of his paintings, sculptures and drawings. After a major showing last summer at the Jewish Museum in New York, it is now on view at the Phillips Collection in Washington.

"By the time you reach, particularly, this point of his career, towards the end of his life, where he is painting these grand, luminous portraits, he's matured into this absolutely stunning painter," says Jay Gates, director of the Phillips Collection.

He was a brilliant, prolific painter who lived an extraordinarily tragic life, a life that defines the word "bohemian." It is what Mason Klein, exhibition curator, calls the Modigliani myth.

The show is called "Beyond the Myth." Explains Klein, "The myth being that this is a man who, from the moment he died, his whole life was romanticized."

And all of it is true.

"We don't wish to... I mean, you can only go so far in de-mythologizing the artist," Klein says. "But it's more important to understand that it doesn't tell the whole story."

Amadeo Modigliani was born in 1884 to a Jewish family in Livorno, Italy. The youngest of four children, he was sickly almost from birth (pleurisy, then typhoid), but he had a passion for art.

"The work in this room is his first work. He was barely a man, out of his teens, correct?" Safer asks during a tour of the exhibit.

"Right," says Klein. "He did this, actually, when he was 12, the drawing, and the little landscape, when he was 14. He was very serious at an early age."

He studied first in Florence, then Venice. He arrived in Paris in 1906. He was young, only 21, an Italian and a Jew, a total outsider.

"Modigliani came from the small Tuscan port town of Livorno, and it was there that he was never conscious of a ghetto. Scots, German, Italians all lived together. It was only when he came to Paris that he began to become conscious of his own otherness that he experienced anti-Semitism," Klein explains.

"France was post-Dreyfus," Safer interjects.

"France," continues Klein, "it was very much a nation-state. Cultures were emerging, and he was very conscious of who he was."

There was never a place and a moment quite like Paris in the early 20th century. It was the international capital of modern art, seething with talent. Living in Montmartre and Montparnasse, Modigliani kept company with Picasso, Diego Rivera and Maurice Utrillo.

"Unlike the émigrés, his fellow émigrés from the circle of Montparnasse, many of who were Jewish, and many of whom came from Eastern Europe," says Klein. "Chagall, Soutine, Lipchitz, all of whom spoke with a dialect, a Yiddish dialect.

He, on the other hand, did not have any sense of readily identifiable Jewish identity. His was masked, and this became a profound conceptual device for him."

The mask was his metaphor. He produced a series of stone heads, inspired by what was then called primitive art. The Romanian sculptor, Constantin Brancusi, a friend and neighbor, encouraged him.

But the high cost of stone and his chronic ill health made sculpting impossible. In 1915, he returned to painting, devoting the rest of his life entirely to portraits. Many of his sitters were friends, including the art dealer and collector Paul Guillaume, the poet Pierre Riverdy, and the Spanish painter Manuel Humbert.

With sketchbook in hand, Modigliani walked the streets of Paris in search of inspiration, and more often than not a drink or two or three, sometimes producing hundreds of quick sketches in a night, like one he did of Pablo Picasso.

"They were both competitive in a certain way, and admiring of each other in a certain way," notes Safer. "Was there also some jealousy going both ways?"

Replies Klein, "That has been, I think, fictionalized to a certain extent. I think everybody was competitive with Picasso, because he was the standard bearer. But, clearly, he was a figure that brought out the awe in Modigliani."

In the spring of 1917, Modigliani met Jeanne Hebuterne, a 19-year-old promising art student at the Academie Colarossi. Of all the women he loved, she was the love of his life. He regarded her as his wife, but they never married.

By December, Modigliani had his first and only one-man show in Paris at the gallery of Berthe Weill. It was a sensation:

"He did about roughly two dozen nudes from about 1916 to 1917, and they were clearly scandalous at the time. And the show closed famously the first day it opened," Klein says. "Modigliani sort of breaks with tradition and shows not Venuses or goddesses or courtesans, but very average women, women who reclaimed their bodies in a very modern way."

In 1918, after the shelling of Paris and with his health in decline, Modigliani retreated to the countryside, to the south of France, where he produced portraits of extraordinary color, like one of Leopold Zborowksi, his patron, dealer and friend.

"He shows Leopold to be the struggling poet, the more, sort of, artistic side. But you see in the gray and blue eyes the sense that, behind this mark of aristocratic bearing, lies this melancholic poetic interior soul of this person," Klein says.

"What's interesting is, the masks may be more revealing than the faces," Safer comments.

"Yes, absolutely, because they allude to this duality. Modigliani's racial anonymity, the way that his identity was masked, has to be kept in mind throughout this 14-year period in Paris," Klein says.

But of all his portraits, his paintings of Jeanne are the most revealing.

"It's called 'Blue Eyes' and it shows how, through the most economic of means, Modigliani was able to convey the character of his sitter. The way she just twists her head and looks at him, you can see that cockiness in her," says Klein. "And the famous portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne -- he's probably just come back from time went on early in the morning here, and she's displeased."

Is she pregnant with his child?

"She's pregnant. She's wearing a maternity dress. She is pregnant," Klein responds.

Just months after he painted that portrait of Hebuterne, they both were dead.

On Jan. 27, 1920, a funeral procession made its way slowly through the streets of Paris, carrying the body of Amadeo Modigliani.

His friend, the artist Jacques Lipchitz, wrote: "So many friends, so many flowers, the sidewalks crowded with people bowing their heads in grief and respect. Everyone felt deeply... they had lost something precious, something very essential."