"La Jeune Lolotte (La Médaillon)" was painted by Amedeo Modigliani...

"La Jeune Lolotte (La Médaillon)" was painted by Amedeo Modigliani in about 1917. Credit: Nassau County Museum of Art

His life was the stuff of Hollywood. His art is the stuff of dreams. Amedeo Modigliani, the Italian painter and sculptor, created groundbreaking works that rivaled or even surpassed those of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and the School of Paris artists in the early 1900s. He's making a rare showing on Long Island in "Modigliani and the Modern Portrait" at the Nassau County Museum of Art in Roslyn Harbor through Nov. 5.

"It's unprecedented," said museum director Charles Riley. "People have come in from Italy and France and said, 'I'm just amazed that I'm seeing this here on Long Island.' It just doesn't happen." Yet, Riley, along with exhibition curator and Modigliani expert Kenneth Wayne of Huntington, made it happen. The result is an exhibit of modern masterpieces by Modigliani, Picasso, Matisse and more in conversation with contemporary art. Six portraits and one drawing by Modigliani anchor the show that presents paintings never before seen on Long Island, and also considers how Modigliani transformed portraiture in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Amedeo Modigliani's "Portrait of a Girl," which once belonged to...

Amedeo Modigliani's "Portrait of a Girl," which once belonged to Greta Garbo, is on loan from a private collection for a rare viewing on Long Island. Credit: Nassau County Museum of Art


Modigliani was born in 1884 to a once-affluent, down on their luck Jewish family in Livorno, Italy. He came into the world on the very day debt collectors came to the house to seize the family's goods. But because it was against the law to take the bed from under a woman in labor, they heaped all their valuables in with her to save them. From that fraught start, a genius emerged.

As a young man, he studied in Florence and Rome, but, as it did for artists, musicians and writers around the world, Paris called. Modigliani made his way to the French capital in 1906, falling in with the likes of Picasso, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Gertrude Stein. The darkly handsome bohemian bad boy lived fast and loose, painted feverishly and died penniless of tubercular meningitis at age 35. Modigliani's story has inspired three films so far, with another in the works directed by Johnny Depp and featuring Al Pacino.

WHAT "Modigliani and the Modern Portrait"

WHEN | WHERE Through Nov. 5, 11 a.m.-4:45 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday (advance timed ticket entry recommended); Nassau County Museum of Art, 1 Museum Dr., Roslyn Harbor

INFO $15, $10 age 62 and older, $5 students and ages 5-11, free age 4 and younger; 516-484-9338, nassaumuseum.org

That's the surface; the reality is deeper. The artist came to Paris and prominence in a pivotal moment — at the beginning of the machine age, before the two World Wars, when culture was changing. He was a crucial part of the bridge between classical art and Modernism. Modigliani's figures and faces are all grace and curves, but radically distorted and abstracted. They reference African masks — oval faces with cutout eyes — as well as the Italian Renaissance's elongated elegance, with colors as ripe and rich as a summer garden.

"Picasso would break up the form. He would make a woman look twisted and angular. Modigliani painted women with such love. They're just ravishingly beautiful," said Riley, adding, "There's nothing like a masterpiece. It just has a certain power, even if you don't know much about art."

The eyes have it in "Portrait of a Boy," believed to...

The eyes have it in "Portrait of a Boy," believed to be a local olive picker, painted by Amedeo Modigliani in 1918. Credit: Nassau County Museum of Art


For those who don't know much about Modigliani, Wayne has the answers. He's been studying the artist's work for close to four decades and is such a respected expert that his organization, The Modigliani Project, is recognized to authenticate the artist's works, weeding out imitations. In the exhibition, Wayne explores how Modigliani's influence went beyond his own sphere and time. "It's got Modigliani. It's got Picasso. It's got Matisse. It's got David Hockney and various photographers and painters," he explained. Also included are artists with Long Island connections like Eric Fischl, Andy Warhol, Ray Johnson, Man Ray, Amy Tiffany Hemingway and Marybeth Rothman.

Rothman and Hemingway share an exhibition room and illustrate the quality of portraiture that Wayne believes connects these artists to Modigliani. It's the stylization, the way the artist's voice combines with the sitter's likeness to create not just a portrait, but a work of art. "You recognize first that it's a Modigliani, and then you figure out who the sitter was," he said.

Wayne will explain more links and discuss what goes into determining the authenticity of a Modigliani in an Oct. 29 talk at the museum. With word spreading about the famous artists whose works are on view and thousands of students scheduled to visit, Riley said, "I think this show is going to set attendance records."

Thanks to this Long Island exhibition, the influence of Modigliani will continue. But, ultimately, what was that influence? Art history lore has it that on his deathbed, Picasso whispered this word in his doctor's ear: "Modigliani."

Portraits by Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and other...

Portraits by Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and other masters at the Nassau County Museum of Art's "Modigliani and the Modern Portrait.” Credit: Nassau County Museum of Art

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