The painter Giovanni Boldini, born in Ferrara in 1842 and making his life in Paris, where he died in 1931, epitomized in his work the elegance and dash that characterized the moment when the nineteenth century was turning into the twentieth. At the time of Boldini’s death, a commentator signed “Bob” mourned in The Journal Amusant that the best days were past and that “we have to admit that society evenings of 1900 were infinitely richer with more ingenuity and enthusiasm than those of today . . . with a fragrance of Boldini.”
This comment is to be found on the walls of the first room of “Boldini: Pleasures and Days,” a remarkable exhibition on the artist, the subtitle of which is taken from the title of Proust’s first book. The most recent retrospective of Boldini in Paris was at the Musée Jacquemart-André in 1963. Many of the pictures here come not from public museums in France but from private collections or the Museo Boldini in Ferrara. Such scholarly neglect, despite Boldini’s fame during his lifetime, may be due to Boldini’s reputation as a society painter rather than his work itself. Boldini, who made sure he earned a living from his art, was the opposite of tormented painters in the way of Van Gogh or Gauguin, whose lives are more romantic to contemplate than they were to live and whose paintings rocketed in value only after their deaths.
Even in his lifetime, Boldini was more appreciated by critics on the margins than in the mainstream. His admirers included Robert de Montesquiou, the celebrated aesthete and dilettante who served as a model for Proust’s Baron de Charlus and for a masterly 1897 portrait by Boldini included in this exhibition. The excellent catalogue includes an illuminating article by Marion Lagrange about the history of Boldini’s reputation and contains a bitter quote from Emilia Cardona, Boldini’s widow and biographer, regarding the critical dismissal of her husband. (“The critics crushed the painter. . . . They seemed intent on lessening him by confusing his qualities as an artist with the faults they attributed to the man.”) The caricaturist Sem (Georges Goursat), who was portrayed by his friend Boldini as an elegant man about town in a painting from 1902, wrote on Boldini’s death that “this very great artist had a side that was a little monstrous . . . a bit of Falstaff and Rigoletto in him.”
The portraits of Montesquiou and Sem show Boldini could capture men brilliantly, but he is best known for his pictures of women. Often described as ugly, Boldini was so short that the Italian army marked him as too small for service in his youth. In his 1892 Self-Portrait of Montorsoli, commissioned by Florence’s Uffizi and painted while he was staying with a friend in Italy, he appears less ugly than possessed of a certain distinction. Even if his physique was unbecoming, Boldini’s genius was such as to impel many of the most distinguished women of the day to flock to his studio. Several women served as guardian angels to him, first an Englishwoman who was his patron in Florence, and then two muses and mistresses in his first years in Paris. The beast was such an arbiter of beauty that women slimmed down to fit his criteria, according to Marthe Bibesco, the Romanian princess and woman of letters. The princess made herself slender for Boldini, and the painter dressed her in a swirling gown of black, rose, and silver for a portrait in 1911. Though seated in the painting, she shows such energy and movement that she might be dancing even as she sits; less apparent is the princess’s sharp intellect, often revealed in photographs. Boldini’s ideal woman was not an intellectual, even if some of his models were. Princess Bibesco liked the picture, but her husband found the décolleté unsuitable and refused the painting.
Not the least of the exhibition’s good qualities is the way it shows Boldini’s beginnings in Italy and in Paris. His talent as a portraitist was evident from the start. In Italy, he started painting members of the Florentine Macchiaioli circle of painters as well as of the Tuscan upper-middle class and aristocracy, encountered through his first patron, Isabella Falconer. Highly ambitious, Boldini was determined to establish himself in Paris, which he had first seen in 1867, and after a few successful months in London in 1871, he did. He soon made a name for himself in genre paintings. The exhibition also shows charming pictures set in Spain or France of the eighteenth century, such as Gallant Scene in the Park of Versailles (ca. 1877). A pretty muse and mistress, Berthe, her last name unknown, appears in such pictures as Berthe Smoking (1874) or, crocheting, in a picture named Peaceful Days (1875). In 1879, Boldini found another more worldly muse and mistress, a brunette to Berthe’s blonde, in the Countess Gabrielle de Rasty, and Boldini showed the two women having an apparently amiable chat in Conversation in a Café in 1879. The countess, with mischievous, vivacious eyes, introduced Boldini to Parisian society. Two pictures, both circa 1880, La Comtesse de Rasty Lying Down and Abandon, show her on Vélaquesque white sheets and in states of joyous exuberance. Vélazquez was a dominating influence in painting at the time and the reason why Boldini and Degas traveled to Spain together in 1889.
Boldini continued to paint scenes from the streets near his studio, resulting in works such as Omnibus on the Place Pigalle (1882), in which everything is moving. The atmosphere in this painting bustles with the energy that was characteristic of Boldini, whatever his subject. Boldini loved music and painted many of the musicians among his contemporaries, including Giuseppe Verdi. Boldini also painted what he saw in cafés, including the Moulin Rouge in its opening year of 1889, capturing the nighttime atmosphere enhanced by the rich red background. Busy as he became with commissioned dazzling portraits, such as that of the musing Miss Bell in 1903, pictured with her hand on her chin, he continued to “paint in all genres,” as he said, and Sem noted he most enjoyed his friend’s “small studies” and “marvelous watercolours . . . in which his condensed genius explodes like a detonator.” In some of Boldini’s portraits, such as the atmospheric Promenade au Bois (Promenade in the Woods) (ca. 1909) in which the imperious Rita de Acosta Lydig leads her husband, the gallant Captain Philip Lydig, there is a hint of satire.
The Petit Palais has a habit of organizing thoughtful exhibitions that present work often neglected, and this a bright one, restoring attention to a giant of the past. The permanent collection, with gems by Rubens, Courbet, and Cézanne among others, also deserves a visit and is free to the public.