Birth, Family and Career
Giovanni Boldini was born on December 31, 1842, in Ferrara, Emilia Romagna, Italy, and died on July 11, 1831, in Paris, France. Zanin, as he was familiarly called, was the eighth of thirteen children of a family with an artistic environment. His father, Antonio Boldini (1799- 1872), was a well-known painter of religious subjects and portraits, as well as a restorer and a great copyist. His father taught him his first lessons in drawing and painting and with him he discovered the great Italian Renaissance painters.
From 1858, in Ferrrara, he attended courses given by Girolamo Domenichini (1813-1891) – painter of the frescoes from the Teatro Comunale di Ferrara – and Giovanni Pagliarini (1809-1878) held in the Palazzo dei Diamanti, current location of the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Ferrara and the Galleria d’Arte Moderna.
Boldini was a precocious painter and some of his first paintings while living at his father’s home still remain. It is especially interesting his “Self-portrait” at the age of 16, as well as other portraits of the society in Ferrara, where he began to be renowned.
By the age of 20, following his father’s advice and thanks to a small inheritance from an uncle who was a priest, he moved to Florence where he continued painting and, in 1862, he attended the Academy of Fine Arts of the city and became a pupil of Stefano Ussi (1822-1901) and Enrico Pollastrini (1817-1876).
During his stay in Florence, he frequented the Caffe Michelangiolo, a meeting-place of the city’s artists and where, together with his inseparable friends Cristiano Banti and Michele Gordigiani, he got into the group of artists called “I Macchaioli”. Among the artists who frequently attended the discussions at the Caffe Michelangiolo we could find the following painters: Serafino De Tivoli, Vincenzo Cabianca, Nino Costa, Vito d’Ancona, Odoardo Borrani, Giuseppe Abbati, Raffaello Sernesi, Giovanni Boldini, Giuseppa de Nittis, Giovanni Fattori, Silvestro Lega, Telemaco Signorini, as well as aristocrats and members of the upper middle class interested in the new European art movements.
The “Macchaioli” movement wished to reinvigorate Italian art in all its aspects. The Macchaioli’s poetry was Realism as opposed to Romanticism, Neorealism or Academic Purism and it was the same in painting, painters tried to pursue real images in contrast to color spots and “chiaroscuro”.
Boldini adopted this characteristic of great color spots or patches and vigorous colors in all his works.
Boldini, Giovanni, oil on canvas, La Marchesa Luisa Casati with Penne di Pavone
In Florence, at the “Caffe Doney” he also met the most relevant intellectuals and foreign personalities living in Tuscany, including the Russian Laskaraki and the English Falconer, and many times he was their guest. Boldini’s first fresco painting was done for the Falconer family: he painted the walls of one of the rooms of their villa “La Falconiera” in Pistoia (1867-1870).
In 1866, he travelled to Naples with his friend and also a painter Cristiano Banti (1824-1904). Boldini painted his friend’s portrait several times. The following year they travelled to France and Monte Carlo, where Boldini painted, according to his own words, one of his best works of his youth “Generale spagnolo”. During this period, he visited Paris for the first time, where he met Edgar Degas, who became a lifelong friend. In Paris he also came into contact with other artists such as Alfred Sisley and Édouard Manet.
First London, then Paris
In 1870, Boldini went to London invited by the English politician William Cornwallis-West whom he had met at the discussions in Florence. It was then when he started to be recognized as a portraitist and finally became a fashionable portrait painter among the high society.
Boldini added to his classic academic style, the new movements that had impressed him in Paris, giving his portraits a psychological intensity and vitality that make them unique and distinct from other contemporary painters.
In 1871, he moved to Paris where he opened a studio first at Avenue Frochol, but later he went to a studio near Place Pigalle. During this period he worked for Adolphe Goupil (1806-1893), one of the most important merchants and editors of Paris in the late 19th century. Other successful painters such as Marià Fortuny, Ernest Meissonier, Giuseppe Palizzi, or Giuseppe de Nittis, -whom Boldini had met at the Macchaioli’s discussions in Florence- also worked for Adolphe Goupil.
In 1874, Boldini started with his exhibitions but still continued to travel to Italy, Germany and often to Holland, to admire the workarts of Frans Hals (1580-1666), one of his favorite artists.
During this period, since being recognized as a portraitist of the English society, Boldini became an artist in great demand in the so-called “bel modo”. In 1886, he painted the portrait of the biggest composer of the time – Giuseppe Verdi – (oil on canvas), but he was not satisfied with the result so he painted the portrait again in pastel on paper. The relationship between Verdi and Boldini was so strong that Verdi invited Boldini at the box of the “Teatro alla Scala” in Milan for the first performance of “Othello” (1887), Verdi’s next to last opera. This opened the door to Boldini to paint portraits in many intellectual and business groups around Europe, meeting Rothschild, Wildenstein, among others.
Boldini, Giovanni, portraits of Giuseppe Verdi 1. Portrait, oil on canvas 2. Portrait, pastel on paper
In 1889, Boldini was nominated commissioner of the Italian section of the Paris Exposition, and three of his portraits were exhibited including the “Portrait of Emiliana Concha de Ossa”
Boldini, Giovanni, oil on canvas, portrait of, Emiliana Concha De Ossa
During this period he decided to increase the size of his paintings influenced by the Swedish painter Anders Zorn
Boldini,Giovanni, oil on canvas, Portrait of Lady Nanne Schrader, Née Wiborg
Boldini, Giovanni, oil on canvas, 1. Portrait of Josephina Alvear de Errazuritz, 1892
2. Portrait of Rita de Acosta Lydig, 1911
Boldini, Giovanni, oil on canvas, 1. Portrait of Princess Marthe Lucile Bibesco, 1911
2. Portrait of Madame Charles Max, 1896
Boldini, Giovanni, oil on canvas 1. Portrait of Conde Robert de Montesquiou
2. Portrait of Lawrence Alexander Harrison
In 1892, he attended a request by the Galleria delle Uffizi in Florence to paint a self-portrait, a subject in which the museum in Florence has an important collection, in lieu of a bust of Cardinal Leopoldo de Medici.
As well as portraits, Boldini also painted landscapes in a naturalistic style, and worked on engravings, with pastels, oil and watercolor, so popular during the change of century, and was clearly influenced by the Macchaioli artists.
Boldini, Giovanni, oil on canvas, The Laundry
He changed his style only toward the end of his life, becoming more impressionistic –maybe because he was losing his eyesight- and mainly using dark and rich colors. The subjects of his paintings also changed. He no longer painted portraits but those things he wanted to paint, especially nude women, which was one of his preferred subjects during his youth.
Boldini, Giovanni, oil on canvas, Nude, 1930
Despite living with some of his models, it was not until 1929 when he met young Emilia Cardona and married her at the age of 86 years old. He died of pneumonia in Paris and was buried in the Cimeterio Monumentale de la Certosa in his hometown of Ferrara, Italy.
Nowadays, we can find Giovanni Boldini’s paintings in museums from around the world: the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Legion of Honor Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the National Gallery in Australia, among others.
Most of Boldini’s paintings remain in private collections since most works were commissioned portraits and a symbol of prestige in the society at the beginning of the 20th century.
A Distinct Style
Boldini’s naturalism achieves its mastery thanks to its originality without using a radical modernist style, going beyond the classic influence during his youth, or the different schools he met contemporarily, such as impressionism or the Macchaioli. Hence, Boldini may be considered as an avant-garde artist with respect other artist of the time.
His paintings have a degree of elegance and sophistication, regardless the general parameters, considered as the standard by both critics and experts of the time. The intensity of colors and brightness achieved by Boldini in his paintings and the psychological depth he endows his characters are, undoubtedly, some of the characteristics that allow us to distinguish Giovanni Boldini’s paintings.
Article by Claudina Vallès Pàmies (Barcelona, 1968)
Claudina Vallès Pàmies studied architecture at the Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura de Barcelona (ETSAB-UPC) and music at the Conservatorio del Liceu de Barcelona. She has collaborated with many local institutions, such as the Col.legi d’Arquitectes de Catalunya or the Ayuntamiento de Barcelona in the organization of cultural events, conferences on urbanism and architecture, as well as exhibitions and monographs and has written articles on artists from different fields. Currently, Claudina actively participates in different cultural organizations and is a founder member of the “Amics de l’Opera d’Igualada”.