Born in Ferrara in 1842, Giovanni Boldini was introduced to painting by his father, Antonio, a competent purist who was drawn to the fifteenth century masters. In fact, the early years of Giovanni’s training were dedicated to reproducing the Renaissance masterpieces in Ferrara’s museums and studying in the atelier of the Domenichini brothers, Domenico and Girolamo who were painters and decorators. In 1858 he painted a Self-Portrait as a Youth, and portraits of ladies and important people from Ferrara, thus starting with the genre that he would never abandon: the society portrait. In 1862, thanks to a small inheritance from an uncle, Boldini moved to Florence to attend the Accademia di Belle Arti and became an inseparable friend of Michele Gordigiani and Cristiano Banti who, in turn, introduced him to the group of artists that met at the Caffè Michelangelo, the Macchiaioli’s haunt. Here, Boldini painted portraits and landscapes and became acquainted with many members of the English community in Florence, including the Falconer family. In 1865 he was a guest of Diego Martelli at Castiglioncello and the following year took a trip to Naples with his friend Cristiano Banti. During this period he painted portraits of Cristiano and his children, Alaide Banti and Leonetto Banti (1866). Boldini made his first trip to Paris for the Universal Exposition in 1867; there he met Degas, Manet and Sisley. The year after his return to Tuscany he began frescoing the dining room (with country scenes) in “La Falconiera”, the Falconer family villa in the Pistoia countryside. He interrupted his work on this project several times and only finished it in 1870. After a brief stay in London, in 1870, where he became acquainted with eighteenth century English portraiture, he moved to Paris in 1871. At first he painted neo-eighteenth century style genre pictures on commissions from Goupil, one of the most fashionable dealers for whom De Nittis, Meissonier, Palizzi and Fortuny also worked. Later, around 1874 Boldini turned to Parisian street scenes, but mainly he painted portraits and became one of favorite artists of the local high society. During that period, which marked the consecration of the Impressionist movement (the exhibition was held at Nadar’s photography studio in 1874) Boldini offered a view of a different, darker and more dynamic world in his paintings. His French reference was Degas and his “interior” scenes rather than the typical “en plein air.” Thus, in the ‘Seventies, Boldini totally abandoned street scenes and dived into in the crowded atmosphere of theaters, parties and mainly the cafés, the new fulcrum of contemporary life. The changeover also affected his style, he gradually darkened his palette with grays, brown and black and made his brushstrokes faster and shorter. This was also the result of suggestions acquired during an 1876 voyage to Holland and Germany where he was particularly impressed by the works of Frans Hals and his contemporary Adolph Menzel. In 1882 he painted the portrait of the musician Emaneule Muzio, who introduced him to Giuseppe Verdi who sat for him in 1885 when he made a brief trip back to Italy. He completed Verdi’s portrait in 1886 and the following year the composer invited him to attend the première of Otello at La Scala. During the eighteen-nineties, and one of his extended sojourns in Italy, he worked on large portraits (of most original elegance) and the society evenings at opening nights of the opera. In 1900 Boldini was in Palermo working on the portrait of Donna Franca Florio, that would be shown at the Venice Biennale in 1903. He participated in the Universal Exposition in Paris with his portraits of Whistler, the Infanta Eulalia of Spain and other paintings. He constantly – and successfully – participated in various Salons and international exhibits until he was struck by bronchial pneumonia and died in Paris on 11 January 1931. He was buried at the Certosa in Ferrara.
Cristiano Banti with a Walking Stick
In Florence during the ‘sixties, Giovanni Boldini became friendly with many of the Macchiaioli artists who would gather at the famous Caffè Michelangelo in Via Larga. Of these, Cristiano Banti became a special friend. He was a collector and sensitive artist whom Boldini portrayed on several occasions, in the intimacy of his home or with his family. Here, the subject is standing, looking straight ahead at the observer, with a confident and impudent air, as if he almost wanted to challenge the immobility of a photograph – a medium that Boldini always held in contempt. This setting is Banti’s home, perhaps one of the two villas he owned at Montorsoli or Montemurlo, where Boldini would be a guest for entire summers. On the papered background wall are framed paintings and prints which introduce the issue of the “painting within the painting” that Boldini would deal with frequently as an amusing pretext for showing off his works. We see this technique in the portrait of Giuseppe Abbati (1865-1867) where the recognizable oval portrait of Lilia Monti (1864-1865) is visible behind the subject. The cold and clear light sets off Banti’s features and his pale complexion that are rendered with a still purist sharpness. In the lower part of the painting, however, the palette seems to darken towards blacks and shades of ochre and the brushstroke becomes faster and shorter, as in the coat on the back of the chair. Although the overall structure of the composition is still a bit static, there is enormous harmony and balance.
The Art Lover
In Boldini’s portraits from this period we often see subjects totally “immersed” surrounding environment, as if he or she cannot be separated from it. This is quite a contrast to the output from the final years of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century which is characterized by blue gray or pearly uniformity of the backgrounds. Regarding this “art lover” that was shown at the “Promotrice di Firenze” in 1866, it is worth mentioning that the artist-critic Telemaco Signorini wrote in the Gazzettino delle arti del disgeno then the leading journal (founded by Diego Martelli): “Up to now the portraits were done with a single maxim, that is, they had to have a background as uniform as possible in order to offset and not disturb the subject; a ridiculous precept and Mr. Boldini says so with his portraits in which the backgrounds are what is in the studio, pictures, prints and other items hanging on the wall without detracting at all from the head.” The painting in question, that was purchased at the exhibit by the Ministry of Agriculture and Trade, which is still the proprietor, is played out precisely on this dynamic relationship between the setting, the seated figure and the individual objects described by quick brushstrokes: a table, two top hats, a walking stick and a newspaper. On the wall are bits of pictures which accent the transverse view of the subject captured in a natural pose while looking at an album.
This beautiful portrait of his friend, Cristiano Banti’s daughter, clearly recalls the little girls in Degas’ Bellelli Family (1858-1860) that was painted in Florence and now hangs in the Louvre. It was no coincidence, Cristiano Banti met Degas in Florence in 1858 and in a letter to Boldini (1885) wrote that he had seen the painting of the Bellelli family: “I recall, not quite clearly, but more like in a dream, a woman and a child and I don’t know what else; I recall the whites, a je ne sais quoi of white clothing that seems to resemble Van Dyke somewhat.” Here, Alaide’s white dress expands against the dark surface of the background until it dominates the entire scene. The extraordinary chromatic structure seems to swarm on the canvas, in the definition of the blinding white of the dress, in the sparkling velvet of the sofa and the blue gray of the wallpaper. Alaide’s expression is melancholy, serious, engrossed, almost as if it presaged the future unhappiness of her love, born twenty years later, but only briefly reciprocated by Boldini. It was a love, however, that was to fuel another series of portraits. As opposed to the French model with neatly defined spaces and details, this painting decisively enters the modern period in the “opaque”, moving and vibrant view, summarized in a few, free and precious brushstrokes. The companion piece to this painting of Banti’s son Leonetto is also in the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Florence.
Gertrude Stein acknowledged an essential merit in Boldini’s work, i.e. that is he was the first to have “simplified the line and the planes” as we can easily see in this extraordinary portrait of Diego Martelli, captured from a low viewpoint that accentuates the essential nature of the image. The Tuscan writer and art critic, and supporter of the Macchiaioli is shown in an unconventional and almost ironic pose: squatting he is fishing for something in a red bowl. The expression in his eyes is very intense and is highlighted by the contrast with the dark accents of his hat and smock. He seems to be out of balance in the viewer’s direction, slightly tilting his torso towards the horizontal axis of his legs. The back of the room is simple and bare, as are the walls with the exception of canvas turned away. The frame is clearly visible, but perhaps its role is to indicate the simplified direction of the planes according to Boldini’s construction “in motion” as it were. The only stable point, as it were, is the cylindrical black stove that seems to pull all the diagonals towards itself. Even the palette seems markedly simplified, the brushstroke is short and quick, in a stratification of swirling, moving macchie – splotches - that are never suspended or formal like those of Fattori and the Macchiaioli.
The Lascaraky Sisters
The Lascaraky Sisters Boldini’s lively brush captured the little Lascaraky sisters in the warm setting of their upper middle class parlor, seated on a sofa doing needlework. The natural attitude of the three subjects is accentuated by the voyeuristic sensation of the low “snapshot” effect in which the table legs take up a good part of the scene. During this period, Boldini who had visited the 1867 Universal Exposition in Paris, met many high ranking foreigners living in Florence. They were mainly English, like the Falconier family for whom he had frescoed a country villa and Russians such as the Lascaraky family. The youngest of the three girls, Lola, even fell in love with Boldini, proof of how familiar the painter was with these rich and international milieus of the Tuscan city. Boldini was by now a famous painter of portraits, a genre that was favored over the “exteriors” and views of the Tuscan Macchiaioli with whom he was in close contact.
Maestro Muzio on the Podium
It was Maestro Emanuele Muzio who put Boldini in touch with Giuseppe Verdi of whom he did two famous portraits, one in pastels, the other in oils. Like all his portraits from this period, starting with Maestro Muzio, Boldini did the “finished” parts carefully, with painstaking attention to the smallest details, and left the rest in a sketchy state as we can clearly see in the pastel portrait of Verdi. Boldini experienced his formal and stylistic flash of enlightenment during his 1876 trip to Holland where he was struck by the seventeenth century paintings by Frans Hals where brushstrokes are laid on a first, dark gray or black coat in a quick but controlled impasto. Even in the beautiful painting shown here we can see how the maestro’s face and hands are rendered in overlaid tones (an expedient that Manet used as well) with respect to the rest of the figure, seen slightly from below to augment his importance in the limited space. The background is quickly sketched in by quick dark gray brushstrokes that were left evident in their thin layers. The maestro’s face illuminates the entire scene along with the flutist’s score that we can see in the left corner of the canvas, as in the audacious cropping of a snapshot photo. The maestro’s disheveled hair and baton in his right hand are true flashes of invention on the part of the other maestro, Boldini.
Compared with the austere, highly detailed, full-figure oil painting of Verdi Seated, with which Boldini was not content, this pastel portrait is delightful in its inventiveness and the evident inner tension that characterizes the subject. The transparency and lightness that were typical of Boldini’s mid-eighties portraits are accentuated by the pastel technique that Degas was experimenting with more or less at the same time. The two principles of “finished” and “sketched” coexist in the same image. The full spaces become empty and the empty spaces acquire a particular dynamism giving the face a natural and expressive mien. It is a strong, bold picture that highlights the “presence” of the great musician through a “poverty” and essentiality of lines and colors. It seems like a delicate but sudden apparition, and so much so that the astounded musician wrote to Ricordi who wanted to use the picture in the edition of Otello: “As great as the resemblance and the quality of the work, it seems more like a joke than a serious portrait.” The shiny top hat and black coat make a dark contrast with the luminous face with its white beard and the elegant brightness of the scarf. The chic, and slightly sophisticated details of the clothing and the precise, expressive rendering of the facial features, with its fixed and astonished look create a truly unforgettable picture of one the most important figures in Italian and international music.
White Pastel (Emiliana Conca de Ossa)
The pearly white of the veils, the pallor of the skin and of the rococo wardrobe in the background characterize this portrait of Emiliana Concha de Ossa more than her identity of a noblewomen to the extent that they change the title of the piece to White Pastel. Furthermore, pastel technique accentuates the suggestion of the airy whiteness of the light that allows us to see the transparencies of the complexion and fabrics. Our gaze stops on the beautiful face that is emphasized by the dark velvet ribbon around her neck, the flowers on the bosom and the folds of the dress, then it shifts to the intertwined fingers and then to the tip of her shoe. Stroke after stroke, the picture seems to make the young woman come alive. We know that Boldini was very fond of this portrait, and even mentioned the model years later, to De Pisis in 1925 using affectionate tones: “You should have seen her live (…) That [the portrait] is nothing! I would like to embrace her! I gave her a copy: I liked the portrait so much, that I kept it!” In the Lady in the Studio in front of “White Pastel” that dates from the same period, the favorite portrait appears in the background as a contrast to the dark figure in the shadows in front of it. It may be a different version from the one discussed here, where the figure is closer to the chair wearing a pink and blue skirt. The picture was shown at the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris and won gold medal and the “grand prix.”
Lady Colin Campbell
The seated, frontal pose with the arm on the back of the dormeuse, supporting the head is the same as that of two other portraits Boldini painted shortly after this one: Madame Veil-Picard and the American artist Whistler in 1897. In this London portrait, however, the pictorial structure is more impalpable, more airy and moving especially in the rendering of the black dress with its myriad reflections of light that contrast with the milky whiteness of her skin and the delicacy of the roses at the neckline. Lady Colin Campbell seems surrounded by a magnificent and opaque, artificial light that bathes her in a noble and classic dimension. The light, vibrant brushstrokes are almost imperceptible, land form a delicate fabric that creates the background for the figure that is off-center on the left side of the canvas. This type of large portrait would become increasingly frequent in Boldini’s production and was greatly sought-after by the beau monde in spite of the restless and dematerialized vision of the composition which, without a doubt, broke with the traditional, static arrangement. The snobbish, gilded and fatuous universe we see in Boldini’s portraits does not always give us a real idea of his own values as Boldini himself explained to De Pisis: “Even when I was young I didn’t like luxury: nothing at all, but it was necessary for me to live in society.”
Count Robert de Montesquiou
The distant and dandy attitude of the intellectual Count Robert de Montesquiou-Fesénzac is particularly evident in this portrait. Boldini captured him, almost bored, concentrating his attention on the blue grip of the walking stick. Played out in elegant shades of pearl gray and dove-color the portrait is of Parisian elegancy and coquetry that are rendered through particular attention to the details of the clothing, such as the magnificent chevreau gloves and the haughty, mysterious expression. But it is also interesting to note that Montesquiou wrote about his “double” to the artist: “My dear Boldini, one of Shelley’s characters, the Zoroaster met himself one day as he was walking in his garden. The same thing has happened to me, and even better, since this second me that I have met bears your signature. The home of the muses is illuminated today by a brilliant painting, which is the portrait of its master; and it is a delicate thought of having wanted to adorn the model’s home at the time that friends and enemies agree in praising your masterpiece. The model’s gratitude lays in his high admiration for the painter, in his profound affection for his friend.” In fact, this painting is the finest synthesis of Boldini’s portraiture at the end of the century that presages the “mannerisms” and chromatic and formal magic of Boldini’s early twentieth century belle époque portraits.
In these portraits of society ladies that Boldini was to paint more and more frequently in the new century, he created a vision “in motion.” He used much longer brushstrokes to give the figures a dynamic and mannerist appearance that almost recalls the deformed haunted visions of the sixteenth century masters, Pontormo or El Greco. Miss Bell is shown with clearly defined features, in profile, leaning on her arm, bent on the back of the chair. Her body, however, wrapped in the swirling folds of the dark red dress, seems to expand in the surrounding space, lacking contours and suggesting something like a splendid and lasting apparition. In addition to the dynamic solutions of Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec, Boldini must have appropriated Rodin’s studies on motion. Or perhaps, he took the theories of Medardo Rosso who, using the luministic effects of the material, “dematerialized” his sculptures in space in a fusion of object and environment. Boldini, using artificial light and long brushstrokes, shows us the directions in which the object expands as it is seems to dematerialize before our eyes. The setting in which Miss Bell seems to float has nothing of the real or earthly, it is like an abstract atmosphere lacking gravity. This clear intent to deconstruct reality and animate through dynamic visual inventions seems to anticipate Anton Giulio Bragaglia’s later experiments in photo-dynamics that fix the trajectories of a moving body through a long photographic pose, or even the early twentieth century Futurist and Avant-garde movements.
This fascinating portrait seems to be a perfect blend of the artist’s formal poetic characterized by vigorous brushstrokes and the winding figure that seems to expand within the surrounding space. The starting model that was still evident in this advanced period of Boldini’s work, could have been the eighteenth century Anglo-Saxon portrait typical of Lawrence, Reynolds and Gainsborough. The dynamism of the dress and the energetic charge emanating from the entire painting make this a work of unequalled elegance. The image is played out in the different shades of black of the sparkling dress that barely separates from the “abstract” darkness of the background. The impassable face emerges from the black curls and plumed hat with a magnetic intensity and luminous flashes light up the sleeves of the dress where a splendid rose seems to dialogue with the facial complexion. The almost frontal pose and the bold expression of the woman dressed in black are elements that we also see in the famous portrait of Marches Casati with Hounds (1908). Regarding Boldini’s dynamism, which is at the root of the avant-garde artistic sensibility as many critics maintain, and in harmony with Anton Giulio Bragalia’s photo-dynamics, a recollection of Boldini’s brother, Gaetano also seems very significant. In a 1926 interview he said: “His method of painting was very strange since he didn’t make the model pose, he wanted [her/him] to move in front of him so that he could impress the vital features on the canvas with more vigor.