Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne and Pale Blue Eyes

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Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne, 1918





If there were a song to describe the relationship of Modigliani and his dearest lover Jeanne Hebuterne, it would be Pale Blue Eyes by the Velvet Underground.

Born in Italy in 1884, Amedeo Modigliani was stricken by illness throughout his life. Since pleurisy and typhoid had made it impossible for him to go to school, by the age of fifteen, Amedeo Modigliani was studying painting in Guglielmo Micheli's studio. Modigliani left for Paris in 1906, and joined a circle of artists like Picasso and Gino Severini. But instead of Cubism or Futurism, Modigliani took his inspiration from works of early Renaissance, such as that of Duccio and Simone Martini, and other oriental cultures. In 1917, he met the love of his life, then 19-year-old Jeanne Hebuterne. For the next two years, he seemed never get tired of painting her. And he would carry on if wasn't struck down by illness. In 1920, tubercular meningitis took his life. Jeanne committed suicide the next day, nine months pregnant with their second child.

Finding a painting to go with a piece of good music is not easy when you are little short on knowledge about either music or painting. But it all becomes very easy when the mild tune of Pale Blue Eyes finds the lazy, curving lines of Modigliani's portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne. A certain gentleness flows along the soft lines of her almond-shaped face, through the sloping shoulder and slender arm, to be picked up by her gently pressing left hand. A similar gentleness can be heard with every touch of the string and every line of the lyrics in the song. And I find myself "lingering on her pale blue eyes."

As the lyrics progresses, the song seems to be at even more resonation with the story of Modigliani's and Jeanne. Born in a Catholic family, Jeanne was renounced by her family for her relationship with the painter. It did not stop her from falling in love with him. After Modigliani's unsuccessful exhibition in Paris, they moved to Nice, where they had their first child. The sad tone of both the song the their story gives the whole thing an undercurrent of inevitable loss and tragic beauty. As Lou Reed sings, "It was good what we did yesterday, and I'd do it once again." I wonder if Jeanne Hebuterne thought the same when she threw herself out of the balcony. And I really hope she did.

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