Giovanni Boldini

(Ferrara 1842 - Parigi 1931)

Portrait of the sculptor Giovanni Paganucci (1865)

Measures: 52 x 41 cm

Technique: oil on canvas

Signed and dated lower left: “Boldini 1865”

Provenance: Gino Valori (heir of the sculptor Giovanni Paganucci)

Bibliography: L’opera completa di Boldini, curated by E. Camesasca, 1970, n. 5c, p. 87; B. Doria, Giovanni Boldini. Catalogo generale degli archivi Boldini, 2000, n. 9; P. Dini, F. Dini, Boldini. Catalogo ragionato, 2002, vol. III, tomo I, p. 18, n. 18.

Giovanni Boldini – a genius of painting who, more than anyone else, was able to portray the extraordinary essence of the Parisian Belle Époque – was the greatest representative of à la mode painting, the most sensitive and unfettered interpreter of charming femininity through the dynamism of colour, formal elegance and the exuberance of the brush, which turned him into a sophisticated narrator of the international belle époque. From the moment he moved to the French capital in 1871, where he was to spend the whole of his brilliant career, he relied on the most influential merchant of the time, Adolphe Goupil, but before that, his story began in Florence – his adoptive city and the place where the portrait of the sculptor Giovanni Paganucci originated in 1865.

The artist’s very first and fruitful production, in fact, focuses on a large group of portraits painted in Florence between 1865 and 1866 after a pleasant and crucial summer in Castiglioncello with his Macchiaioli friends. Verist portraits, lively and focused on psychological rendering, such as that of Vincenzo Abbati, Diego Martelli and Cristiano Banti. It is therefore at this point that he executed the portrait of Giovanni Paganucci, a sculptor from Livorno (1827-1889) with whom Boldini shared his Florentine studio for some time and who, when the portrait was made, was thirty-six years old, while Boldini was only twenty-three. Being that young, however, did not prevent him from expressing himself with extreme ease and with compositional fluency, determining a new course for Italian portraiture – although here, he was still influenced by Macchiaioli stylistic features, in which the tonal values of light and dark were isolated and intensified. Commenting on the 1866 exhibition in Florence, Telemaco Signorini wrote that Boldini “brilliantly debuted” with three small portraits whose “large and easy execution.” he appreciated. This aspect can also be seen in Sculptor Giovanni Paganucci, in which a chromatic freshness emerges through the charming face of the subject, with his dark seductive eyes and thick black beard, rendered with impalpable and light brushstrokes. The contrast with the neutral, almost golden, background makes the red smoking cap stand out, with a perfectly portrayed velvety texture rendered through a few precise accents of light and perfect chromatic relationships with the black jacket. The smoking cap is worn in the manner of Garibaldi, perhaps underlining the spirit of the Risorgimento he  shared with many other artists of the time. The bright essentiality of the tones and the easy-going interpretation characterise Boldini’s first portrait phase in which the core of all subsequent developments is contained, the developments of a painting made of intuition and rapidity that herald a resounding international success. 

Giovanni Boldini was born in Ferrara in 1842. From an early age he showed an aptitude for painting but it was not until 1856 that his first self-portrait revealed a precocious talent. He moved to Florence in 1864 where he did not attend the Academy of Fine Arts, but rather the salons where painters and men of letters met, such as the Caffè Doney in via Tornabuoni and the Caffè Michelangelo. On these occasions, he became acquainted with Cristiano Banti who hosted him in his studio for a while and introduced him to the other Macchiaioli painters. It is very likely that in the summer of 1865 he stayed in Castiglioncello in the house of the critic Diego Martelli, where he painted en plein air with some friends and where young Boldini’s very first Macchiaioli season took place. At the same time he became close to Marcellin Desboutin who gave him hospitality both in the Villa dell’Ombrellino at Bellosguardo and in his studio in the centre of Florence. His fame as a spontaneous portraitist spread among the upper middle class in Florence and abroad: he met and worked for the Falconer family for whom he frescoed the dining room of their small villa in Collegigliato. His first trips between Paris, London and Venice date back to 1867 and 1868, but at the end of 1871 he finally moved to Paris, where he cultivated a long-lasting friendship with Edgar Degas and immediately became a representative of that fashionable painting sponsored by Adolphe Goupil, which would make him a successful painter. Having made a name for himself in the Paris of the Belle Époque, Boldini travelled to Germany in the second half of the 1970s, where he came into contact with Adolf Menzel, and then went on to Holland and Spain. By this time he was completely committed to the painting style that was to identify him for the rest of his life: a synthetic, rapid, dynamic brushstroke in which forms elegantly dissolve into the glowing colour that defines his most famous portraits. At the 1875 Salon, he presented Portrait of Gabrielle Rasty in White, a woman he fell in love with. At the end of the 1870s, he executed some of his most famous female portraits, such as Countess Rasty in the Garden, Two Masked Figures and Young Woman Sitting on a Couch. 

Portrait of Giuseppe Verdi (Rome, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna) dates back to 1886 – with this work, together with Portrait of Miss E., he participated in the I Venice Biennale of 1895. Two years later Boldini exhibited for the first time in New York at the Wildestein Gallery. With Portrait of the Baroness Malvina-Marie Vitta and eleven other works, he participated in the 1889 Universal Exhibition in Paris and was awarded a gold medal. At the beginning of the 20th century he executed his most important portraits: Portrait of James McNeill Whistler (Paris Salon, 1900 and Venice Biennale, 1905), Donna Franca Florio (Venice Biennale, 1903). He began to suffer from eyesight problems in the early 20th century and was gradually forced to give up painting. In 1926 he married the journalist Emilia Cardona and died in Paris in 1831. 

Elena Lago



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