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November 10, 2007

Giovanni Boldini: The Paris Connection

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

One of the quirks of 19th century painting is that the greatest feather in an aspiring academic artist's hat was being awarded a Prix de Rome scholarship to study in Italy -- yet young Italian artists had to come to Paris in order to make their names known. Such was the case for Giovanni Boldini (1842-1931). Starting his career in Florence, he moved to Paris in 1871 after a London sojourn. By the 1890s he was one of the most fashionable portrait artists in Paris, though he is not well-known today.

Boldini's specialty was flashy, sketchy portraits of women. He married journalist Emilia Cardona in 1929, when he was 87: Cardona was 30. This was the same year Alaida Banti died. Alaida was the daughter of artist Cristiano Banti, who assisted Boldini's career after the young artist moved to Florence from Ferrara. Alaida was a teenager when she met Boldini and fell in love with him. Cristiano did not approve of the relationship. My Italian is too sketchy to pursue this, but apparently Boldini and Alaida maintained some sort of relationship even after he left Italy. He proposed marriage in 1903 but this was thwarted by Cristiano, who died the following year. I have no idea why they didn't marry after the death of her father. Nor do I have any idea what this might have to do with Boldini's art. But gossip can be interesting, don't you think?

Rather than go into other, more relevant details of Boldini's life, let me offer some links for you to explore. Here the Wikipedia entry in English and here is the Italian version which offers more detail and illustrations. A biographical sketch can be found here, and it contains an assessment by Time on the occasion of his death. Finally, here is another Italian link which has a number of examples of Boldini's work.


Giovanni Boldini

Diego Martelli in uno studio pittore - c. 1867
Martelli was an influential critic and buyer of art. The original painting is smaller than it seems, but I can't find its exact dimensions.

Place Clichy - 1872
Boldini painted street scenes, landscapes and still lifes in addition to his portraiture.

Giuseppi Verdi in cilindro - 1886
This is one of Boldini's best-known and most-reproduced works.

James McNeill Whistler - 1897
Although Boldini specialized in portraits of women by the 1890s, he also had male sitters.

Lady Colin Campbell c.1897
Hmm. Seems I've been neglecting those female ritratti. So here goes ...

Nudo - 1911
Well, I suppose it's a portrait of sorts. But who cares.

Mademoiselle de Gillespie - 1912
This seems a little stylized, so I wonder what she actually looked like -- a non-exhaustive Web search drew a blank.

La Marchesa Luisa Casati con uno leviero - 1908
One of Boldini's flashier efforts. What did she really look like? How much is Boldini fooling/teasing us?

Photo of Luisa Casati - 1912
Maybe Boldini didn't over-dramatize too much. At least not where La Casati was concerned.

As can be seen, Boldini began as a non-Impressionist, genre-style painter. After he moved to Paris his landscapes took on an Impressionist look. Make that a cautious Impressionist look as his brushwork began to assume the "swishy" style that became his portraiture trademark. Boldini's main Impressionist contact was Degas, whose work strikes me as being the most traditional of the group.

What do I think of Boldini? This is an early assessment because I really need to give him more thought. Perhaps because of his exaggerated brushwork, he has a whiff of superficiality. Even so, his best paintings are both interesting and likable. Just because his work was popular with the moneyed set doesn't make it bad.



posted by Donald at November 10, 2007


Can't say much about the brushwork, but he certainly captured spirit of the time very well.

Posted by: Tat on November 10, 2007 9:46 PM

He did well with the sighthound. Perfect attitude.

Posted by: Matt on November 10, 2007 10:10 PM

He married journalist Emilia Cardona in 1929, when he was 87: Cardona was 30.

Obviously not an adherent of the half-your-age-plus-seven-years rule :)

Posted by: Peter on November 10, 2007 11:31 PM

If I wanted to have my portrait painted, I'd have chosen him too -- he certainly made his subjects look chic and good. Maybe the painter equivalent of a glamor photographer? That's a good thing!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 11, 2007 12:24 AM

I like his flair, though there is something of the modern illustrator in his technique, isn't there? You can picture him (no pun intended) in the 20s and 30s making tons of money illustrating covers for SE Post and others.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on November 11, 2007 11:23 AM

Thanks Donald! I had never even heard of either Boldini or Luisa Casati before. She is apparently still something of a cult figure today. See:

Posted by: Lester Hunt on November 11, 2007 4:15 PM

The folded knee on the nude is so badly rendered it reduces the artist to insignificance.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on November 11, 2007 10:14 PM

Lucky old Colin Campbell.

Posted by: dearieme on November 12, 2007 5:55 AM

The folded knee on the nude is so badly rendered it reduces the artist to insignificance.

Surely intentional. Notice that her hands aren't clearly rendered, her hair looks unrealistic, and most of the background is more or less a smudge. Boldini must have intended that the viewer focus on only certain parts of the picture.

Posted by: Peter on November 12, 2007 9:30 AM

A fantastic technique in the service of whipped cream.

Posted by: ricpic on November 12, 2007 10:43 AM

Flashy. I like it.

Posted by: the patriarch on November 17, 2007 11:21 AM

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