Flatterer, gifted and bad boy: a recipe for success?
About the exhibition "Boldini, les plaisirs et les jours", which runs until 24 July at the Petit Palais in Paris.
Don't look for it: nobody is ugly under Jean Boldini's brush! His own thing was to become rich, to collect elegant mistresses and to be admitted into good society. In short, to please in one way or another. In the 1870s, if you were poor and unattractive, you could do nothing better than to set up a studio in Paris and become a portraitist of the international gotha. And to flatter his world with beautiful works of art for sale... at a high price. Not forgetting to sprinkle the whole thing with a delicate perfume of scandal.
The Italian painter, born Giovanni Boldini in Ferrara in 1842, the eighth of a family of twelve children, had real talent. You only have to see the liveliness of his touch when he portrays princesses, countesses and other ladies, in the direction of the hair of course, to be convinced. Impressionism will cross him vaguely, but he will always prefer movement to the decomposition of colours. To the point of making his genre scenes disappear when the art market preferred the Barbizon School, to devote himself only to portraits.
The man adapts. He changed dealers when his was no longer in fashion. From London, where he had quickly established himself as a painter of the "high life" after becoming part of Florentine society, he very soon came to settle at the foot of the Montmartre hill, before renting a bachelor apartment in the 17th arrondissement so that his mistresses and muses would not cross paths. If the close friend of Degas, with whom he travelled the world, and of Verdi, of whom he was a great fan as a music lover, loved to provoke his well-behaved models in the disorder of his studio, with his dirty jokes and bad manners, it was undoubtedly because it worked for him: in 1910, women were ready to spend fortunes, to go on draconian diets, and to contort themselves in all directions in order to be "bolded"! It must be said that in the meantime, Boldini had presided over the Italian section of the 1889 Universal Exhibition, and that he had settled in the same neighbourhood as such prominent artists of the time as Meissonier, Alphonse de Neuville, Edouard Detaille and François Flameng.
In his article in Connaissance des Arts, Jérôme Coignard called him "the magician of the Belle Epoque", because his models were so slim-waisted, with irresistible faces and lively eyes. But the artist did not in fact cheat completely: he refused the clients he did not find sufficiently to his taste! Crowned "painter of women" by Count Robert de Montesquiou, whose 1897 portrait displays all his elegance and good taste in the Petit Palais exhibition, Boldini was also nicknamed "the undresser", so good was he at undoing the ladies' cleavage and creasing their silk petticoats. So much so that some husbands demanded "modesty retouching"... or sometimes even refused to buy the painting!