Late in the afternoon on May 26th I visited the Giovanni Boldini exhibit at the Petit Palais in Paris. I heard about the exhibit a few weeks prior and when I glanced the exhibit webpage I found his work to be very similar to a favorite artist of mine. From my Boston days – where I dutifully poured over anything John Singer Sargent due to the tremendous JSS archives held by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston – I noticed Boldini had much in common with John Singer Sargent. Turns out that Sergeant and Boldini were contemporaries and friends, to such a degree that Boldini painted Sargent’s portrait, which I’ve included below (sold at auction 2019). Discoveries like the aforementioned are what endears me to the history of art. I often find the story behind the art to be like an exploration of private, or even secret, complex human networks.
Boldini was born in Ferrara, Italy in 1842. He was educated at the Academy of Fine Arts (Florence), where he associated with the artists who formed the Macchiaioli, the Italian precursors of impressionism.
After a period of success in London painting the aristocracy, he moved to France and spent the remainder of his career in Paris. It was in Paris that he thrived. He was a virtuoso painter and a large figure on the social, artistic, and literary scene of what is known as the Belle Époque Paris, a period between 1871–80 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914.
An article in Time Magazine in 1933 referred to him as the “Master of Swish,” due primarily to his twirling and swishing methods, and his epic eruptions of emotion which ensconced his portraits.
He received the Légion d’honneur and participated in the Venice Biennale in 1895, 1903, 1905, and 1912. He died in Paris on 11 July 1931.
My favorite painting of Boldini’s is one of Henry Gauthiers-Villars, known as Willy. Willy was a writer and music critic who is mostly known as the mentor and first husband of the author Colette. He used many names and pseudonyms including: Henry Maugis, Robert Parville, l’Ex-ouvreuse du Cirque d’été, L’Ouvreuse, L’Ouvreuse du Cirque d’été, Jim Smiley, Henry Willy, Boris Zichine. He was a noted boulevardier and used ghostwriters for many of his works. He even lifted some of his wife’s work as his own.
After the exhibit, I realized Boldini was an absolute master. In my opinion, great artists paint pictures that are impossible to erase from your memory, and my favorite type of curators arrange artwork by the vibe or flow of the artwork. This exhibit was very much handled in that fashion. Today is June 3rd and I went to the exhibit on May 26th. The exhibit has stuck with me for days on end. There is no doubt Boldini was one of the best of his generation. Whether he does not receive the attention he deserves is another thing entirely. I believe this was the first major showing of his work in 60 years.
I have taken the liberty of adding Boldini’s extended catalog of work.
Boldini is in the permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome, the National Portrait Gallery in London, and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
From the Petit Palais: This first retrospective is an opportunity for visitors to discover or to renew their acquaintance with Giovanni Boldini, a virtuoso painter and figure on the social, artistic, and literary scene of Belle Époque Paris.
Servane Dargnies-de Vitry, curator of 19th-century paintings at the Petit Palais.
Barbara Guidi, director of the Museo civico di Bassano.
Giovanni Boldini Exhibit website
– Chadwick Hagan