Art & Design Magazine

Worlds Apart: Meryle Secrest on Amedeo Modigliani and Romaine Brooks

By Americanart


Romaine Brooks's Self-Portrait

"I'm going to do something that I've never done before and that is to compare people who lived in the same place at the same time," said biographer Meryle Secrest the other night. Kicking off the 2011 season of the Clarice Smith Distinguished Lectures in American Art, Secrest presented an engaging and lively talk that could have been subtitled, "A City of Two Tales." Both Amedeo Modigliani and Romaine Brooks, subjects of notable biographies by Secrest including the first full-length bio of Brooks, arrived in Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century, and though they may have lived within miles of each other, their circumstances were worlds apart, and unfortunately, they never met.

Throughout the evening Secrest let us in on the details of their lives: Brooks was rich, an American heiress living abroad, chic and with an important art dealer to represent her. Modigliani, on the other hand, had no such luck. Born in Italy of Italian and French Jewish ancestry, he went through his money, lived in squalor (no heat, light, water and an "unspeakable toilet"), and died young of complications from tuberculosis. According to Secrest, what linked them aside from trying to exhibit at the same time is that both were outsiders: strangers in Paris.

Both artists were extremely talented, yet during their lifetimes, Brooks work was well-received while Modigliani barely sold. Ironically, it is Modigliani's work today that fetches tens of millions of dollars per canvas or sculpture (Stone Head sold at Sotheby's recently for $52 million dollars). Secrest put an interesting spin on things when she told us that in Paris during those days, critics had to be paid in order for an artist to get a review. Naturally, with Brooks's fortune, she fared much better with the critics than poor Modigliani.

"I fell in love with Brooks in 1971 at her exhibition at the National Collection of Fine Arts," Secrest told us, which is now called the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Today, the museum boasts an important collection of works by Brooks.

And though both Modigliani and Brooks never met, thanks to Secrest, they finally got acquainted. There's much more to tell about these two artists and Secrest's work in uncovering their lives. If you weren't able to attend the lecture, fear not! The webcast can be viewed by clicking here.

The Clarice Smith Distinguished Lectures in American Art series continues on October 12 with a talk by artist Elizabeth Peyton.

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