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Giovanni Boldini

Italian, 1842 - 1931

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Giovanni Boldini was born in the northern Italian city of Ferrara in 1842, the son of a little-known painter. At the age of twenty he left his native city to study in Florence, a city renowned for its artistic heritage but where the teaching of art had, by the late nineteenth century, come to be dominated by the Florentine academy. Boldini eschewed this institution's rigid strictures and allied himself with the Macchiaioli, a group of young Tuscan artists whose aim was to stamp old traditions with their own new ideas.

Boldini showed early promise as a portraitist, and it is in this field of endeavor that he is most famous today. His reputation preceded him to London on his first visit there in 1869, and he gained commissions for numerous society portraits. In 1870, still only twenty-eight years old, he painted his only mural, a series of landscape decorations in tempera on dry plaster at the Villa La Falconiera near Pistoia.

In 1872 he settled permanently in Paris. His works were accepted at the annual salons, and his facility at portraiture, with his instinctive ability to capture spontaneous likenesses, gained him a reputation equal to that of John Singer Sargent, whose bravura brushwork and flattering treatment of his subjects were similar to Boldini's. Apparently convivial, Boldini established friendships with other fashionable portraitists, among them Sargent, James McNeil Whistler, and the French artist Paul-César Helleu.

He was especially close to Edgar Degas and traveled to Spain and Morocco with him in 1889. They engaged in mutual portraiture: Degas did a pastel portrait of Boldini (Buzzoni, Andrea, ed., with Marcello Toffanello. Museo Giovanni Boldini: catalogo generale completement illustrato. Ferrara: Civiche Gallerie d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, 1997, p. 496 repro.), and Boldini did a charcoal portrait of Degas (Cecchi, Dario. Giovanni Boldini: Ia vita sociale della nuova Italia, vol. 3. Turin: Unione Tipografico-editrice Torinese, 1962., p. 125, repro.; Buzzoni and Toffanello. Museo Giovanni Boldini: catalogo generale completement illustrato, 1997, pl. 62). Boldini was not averse to "potboilers" and did innumerable drypoints and drawings of elegant women in hats, but he also did caricatures and circus drawings (like Degas, he loved horses). After 1900 his style became even more bravura in effect, though he began to lose his eyesight in 1916 and thereafter confined himself to charcoal drawings. He lived to be eighty-nine, having remarried at eighty-five, and died in Paris in 1931.

Mimi Cazort, from Italian Master Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2004), cat. 72.

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