by Roderick Conway Morris

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An Italian Artist in Belle Epoque Paris

By Roderick Conway Morris
FERRARA 14 November 2009
National Portrait Gallery, London
'Lady Colin Campbell' by Giovanni Boldini, 1894



A reviewer of the 1897 Paris Salon wrote that to encounter one of Giovanni Boldini's flamboyant portraits of society beauties was to see 'a woman, and in her the entire age'.

Chiefly famous for his portraits of wealthy, often titled, Belle époque women, Boldini also painted the composer Giuseppe Verdi, the artist James MacNeill Whistler and the dandy and decadent Robert de Montesquiou. These male portraits too seem to capture both the personalities of their subjects and the era they lived in.

Boldini divided critics and confused even his admirers. In 1878, his longtime friend the critic Diego Martelli said, 'To describe the talent of this artist is a more than difficult task, and it is even harder to explain his painting.' Boldini's pictures, he observed, 'have parts that are executed with incredible minuteness, and parts that are left capriciously unfinished' - a characteristic that was to become the trademark of his mature style.

Many critics during his lifetime and since have regarded his work as flashy, facile and lacking in depth - the mirror of a spoiled and frivolous period that would end with World War I. Yet a contemporary, the writer J.-K. Huysmans, said, perceptively, that Boldini was 'truly more than a fashion painter'.

That remark could serve as an appropriate subtitle to 'Giovanni Boldini in Impressionist Paris', an exhibition running until Jan. 10 at the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara. The show brings together nearly 100 works from the time of his arrival in Paris as an unknown artist in 1871 until the 1890s, by which time he had become one of the most highly paid and sought-after painters of the century.

The show is curated by Sarah Lees of the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, to which the exhibition will travel next year.

The pictures come from the Giovanni Boldini Museum in Ferrara; the Clark Institute, which has the most extensive holdings of his works in the United States; and various other collections.

What it reveals is the sheer variety of Boldini's output in Paris, a time when whole categories of his work - drawings, musical and theatrical scenes and some fascinating sketches of his own ateliers - were seldom if ever seen outside his studio.

Boldini was born in Ferrara in 1845 and left before his 20th birthday for Florence, then the capital of an Italy in the process of reunification. During the six years he spent there, he formed friendly relations with the Macchiaioli, the Italian proto-Impressionists, whose name - literally meaning 'blotchers' or 'daubers' - was originally a critical insult but became, like Impressionism, a badge of honor. Boldini learned enduring lessons from the Macchiaioli, reinforced by his exposure to Manet, Degas and others in French Impressionist circles.

Macchiaiolo-style portraits of two leading figures in the group, the painter Giovanni Fattori and their main patron, Diego Martelli, executed with impressive panache, open the current exhibition, and it was, above all, as a portrait painter that Boldini began to make his way in Florence. Always an astute manager of his own career, however, he quickly realized that to reach an international audience he would have to move to Paris, which was then not only the center of European artistic ferment but also home to many of the leading dealers of the day.

American collectors, supplied by Paris dealers, proved to be the most enthusiastic purchasers of Boldini's early works, which were typically whimsical, minutely worked-up genre scenes of women in 18th-century and Empire dress in domestic and garden settings, with the odd excursion into Spanish and Orientalist settings, in the manner of Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier and Mariano Fortuny.

But Boldini revealed his adaptability by also turning out Impressionist-style landscapes of the Paris suburbs and Normandy scenes of beaches and fishermen. 'The Highway of Combes-la-Ville' of 1873, with its high, cloud-flecked summer sky, dusty road, skillfully handled horses, carts and figures in the middle distance, confident brushwork and assured coloring, is a small masterpiece.

Hardly less striking is a pair of riverside scenes, 'Washerwomen' from the Clark Institute and 'The Laundresses' from a private collection, both painted in 1874. These provide a startling demonstration of Boldini's ability to switch between styles: the former is a classic out-door exercise in macchiaiolo-impressionism, the latter a meticulously observed and painstakingly realized studio painting, using almost identical compositional elements.

Boldini and his fellow Italian Giuseppe De Nittis played a pioneering role in painting cityscapes. This was noted by the French critic émile Bergerat in 1878. While praising De Nittis as the foremost 'portraitist of Paris', he wrote that Boldini's 'Place Clichy' - included in the current show - was 'a tour de force', adding, 'Is it not curious that it should be foreigners who reveal to us the beauties of Paris!'

In 1886, Boldini took over John Singer Sargent's studio at 41 Boulevard Bethier, when his friend moved to London. It was here that most of Boldini's distinctive atelier interiors, rightly given a room to themselves in the show, were done. They were clearly for the artist's own pleasure and often contain 'paintings-within-paintings', with his own portraits propped against the wall in the general studio clutter.

After 1892 a plaster cast of a Bernini bust of Cardinal Scipio Borghese sometimes makes an appearance in these sketches. In that year, Boldini was accorded the honor of being asked to donate a self-portrait to the Uffizi's collection. The artist asked for, and was granted, this cast in exchange.

The show ends with a parade of giant fin-de-siècle works: the singer 'Madame Charles Max', the vamp 'Lady Colin Campbell', the dancer 'Cleo de Merode', 'Whistler', and charming, almost awkward, likenesses of children from the family of the Chilean diplomat Ramón Subercaseaux. All exhibit to the highest degree what one critic described as 'the diabolical brushstrokes that created the fame of his Paris portraits'.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023