Several years ago, longtime DC biographer Meryle Secrest wandered into a room of the National Gallery of Art where eight portraits by the Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani, among them “Nude on a Blue Cushion,” were hanging. “Each stroke of the brush seemed to have been placed with a feeling of finality, even inevitability,” Secrest writes in Modigliani, her searching and sympathetic biography of the troubled Italian artist. “Here was a powerful sensibility at work, at once assured, vital, and subtle, qualities which no reproduction could adequately convey.”
The controlled elegance of Modigliani’s canvases along with their soaring value—Sotheby’s recently auctioned one for $68.9 million—stand in sharp contrast to the artist’s reputation for being an inebriated lecher who died in squalor in Paris at age 35.
Playing fact-checker to memoirs by Modigliani’s family, friends, and lovers, Secrest—whose previous subjects have included Frank Lloyd Wright, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim—succeeds at ransoming him and his creations from caricature by casting light into two crucial yet overlooked corners of the painter’s life: his early forays into sculpture and his quiet and agonizing battle with tuberculosis.
This book review first appeared in the March 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.