The Italian Almanac

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portrait of Simone Thirioux

Secret Lover

A secret period in the life of 20th-century Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani is spotlighted in an exhibition in Milan. The show is centred on a portrait of Simone Thirioux, a young French-Canadian doctor with whom Modigliani had a brief, intense affair. The painting, entitled Jeune femme a' la guimpe blanche (Young Woman with a White Collar), was completed during their time together at the end of 1916.

''The painting has a light, almost transparent feel, unlike many of Modigliani's works, which tend to have much stronger colours,'' said the exhibit's curator, Massimo Riposati, deputy-president of the Paris-Rome Modigliani Institute. ''Perhaps this foreshadows the disappearances of all the key players in this story''. By 1921, Modigliani, Thirioux and the lover who succeeded her in the artist's affections, Jeanne Hebuterne, were all dead.

Thirioux and Modigliani both died of tuberculosis, while Hebuterne, nine months pregnant with the artist's child, threw herself out of a fifth-floor window two days after his death. The portrait of Thirioux shows a pale-skinned young woman, with chestnut hair and blue eyes sitting upright in a wooden chair. According to the exhibit's curators, it was the only painting Modigliani completed of her.

Weeks after their affair began, Thirioux fell pregnant and was rejected by Modigliani, who publicly insulted her and refused to acknowledge the son she gave birth to, Gerald, as his own. By the time Gerald was born in 1917, Modigliani had already met Hebuterne, a beautiful 19-year-old art student, who gave birth to his daughter Jeanne, the following year. Thiroux died in abject poverty in 1921 and her body was donated to a medical school. Gerald was adopted by a French couple but they separated when he was a teenager, after which he took orders and became a monk.

The exhibition includes a photograph of Gerald in 1948, aged 31, standing outdoors in a garden clad in his monk's robes. The show devotes considerable time to this little-known period of Modigliani's life, which is only fleetingly touched upon in his official biography, but also brings together numerous of his drawings and sketches, as well as portraits and works by his artist friends.