The Tragic Story of Jeanne Hébuterne and Modigliani

Jeanne Hébuterne is best known for being a frequent sitter and common-law wife of the Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani. However, the story of her relationship with the famous artist is one of the most tragic love stories of the art world.

Jeanne Hébuterne

Jeanne Hébuterne was known for her beauty and her long, dark hair. She was introduced to the artistic community in Montparnasse by her brother André Hébuterne who wanted to become a painter. She met several of the then-starving artists, including Tsuguharu Foujita, and she modeled for them.

Jeanne Hebuterne modeled for Foujita before becoming muse and mate of Amedeo Modigliani

Although she was already known in the artistic circles of Paris, Hébuterne had a talent for drawing and wanted to become an artist like her male peers. Therefore she chose to study at the Académie Colarossi. It was there, in the spring of 1917, that young Jeanne Hébuterne was introduced to Amedeo Modigliani. Modigliani was a handsome man, attracting a lot of female attention. The two began their affair and fell deeply in love. She soon moved in with him, despite strong objections from her parents.

Jeanne Hébuterne, Self-portrait, 1918, private collection

Life with Modigliani must have been hard. He had severe problems with substance abuse, including alcohol and drugs. His escalating intake of drugs and alcohol may have been a means by which Modigliani disguised his progressing tuberculosis from his friends, only a few of them knew of his condition. Tuberculosis—the leading cause of death in France by 1900—was a horrible illness without a cure. Furthermore, those who suffered from it were feared, ostracized, and pitied by others. 

Amedeo Modigliani, 1918

The writer Charles-Albert Cingria described Jeanne Hébuterne as gentle, shy, quiet, and delicate. In the fall of 1918, the couple moved south to  Nice on the French Riviera where Modigliani’s agent hoped he might raise his profile by selling some of his works to the wealthy art connoisseurs who wintered there. While living in Nice, their daughter was born. The following spring they returned to Paris and Hébuterne became pregnant again.

Amedeo Modigliani, Jeanne Hébuterne, 1919, private collection

On 24 January 1920, Amedeo Modigliani died of tuberculosis. Jeanne Hébuterne’s family thus brought her back to live in their family home. Sadly, Hébuterne threw herself out of the fifth-floor apartment window the day after Modigliani’s death, dying by suicide. Her family blamed her demise on Modigliani and initially interred her in the Cimetière de Bagneux. Nearly 10 years later the family relented and allowed her remains to be transferred to Père Lachaise Cemetery to rest beside Modigliani. Her epitaph reads: “Devoted companion to the extreme sacrifice.”

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