Friday February 12, 2010


Society portrait painter: Not the most flattering of labels to wear as an artistic legacy, but it suited Giovanni Boldini just fine.

It was, after all, how he chose to define himself at the height of his career in late 19th-century Paris. And by catering to the rich and fashionable, he not only made money, but an international reputation as well.

Technically adept, a prolific draftsman and a canny self-promoter, Boldini worked his way to the top of the art market within two decades of his arrival in Paris in 1871 from his native Italy.

The work that he did in those 20 years -- much of it surprisingly wide-ranging given his later reputation -- is the subject of a new exhibition: "Giovanni Boldini in Impressionist Paris," opening at the Clark Art Institute this weekend. Curated by Sarah Lees, the Clark's associate curator of European art, it will be on view until April 25.

This is the first major show Lees has undertaken on her own at the Clark, a decision that led her to a five-year research commitment.

She wanted to do it, she said, partly to shed light on the early years of Boldini's career -- years about which not much is known in the United States -- but also to illustrate how an outsider made his way in the heady Paris art scene at that time.

"Thinking about the choices an artist makes in that period," she said, "raises questions that still have contemporary relevance."

Lee said she also wanted viewers familiar with the Clark's collection of Boldinis (said to be the largest in the United States) to see aspects of his work that might be new to them.

"The sheer variety of his output suggests a true talent worth being recognized," she said. "I think there is more substance there than if you only knew his late work.'

The art institute's founder, Robert Sterling Clark, was living in Paris in the early 1900s while Boldini was still active. Although a portrait may have been beyond even Clark's ample means, Lees said he did manage to buy a number of the artist's smaller earlier works.

Trendy, not far out

In that, Clark was not unlike other of Boldini's American clients -- looking for something trendy, but not too far out.

"If you were compiling a collection and wanted to go to Paris to get the latest thing," she said, "Boldini, in a way, would be a perfect choice. He acknowledged the more modern/contemporary ideas, but he packaged them in a way you could understand."

Those "modern/contemporary" ideas, as the show's title suggests, centered on Impres-sionism, which was beginning to roil the Paris art scene as Boldini arrived in 1871.

A native of Ferrara, Italy, he had moved to Florence in 1864, after inheriting money from an uncle, and became part of a group of young artists there who called themselves the Macchi-aioli. Like the Impressionists, they were reacting against past academic traditions and painting in bright colors and broken brushstrokes, or macchia in Italian.

In Florence, as the 232-page exhibition catalog relates, Boldi-ni did informal portraits and painted landscapes outdoors. Encouraged by clients, he used his connections to spend five months working in London, before finally settling in Paris, where he spent the rest of his life.

Renting a studio in the artists' quarter, Montmartre, Boldini showed his work to Adolphe Goupil, a big art dealer at the time, who agreed to take him on.

Not an Impressionist

Although he knew Impression-ist artists like Degas, whose work he admired, and his paintings had the loose, sunlit look of Impressionist art, Boldini never really allied himself with that group, Lees said.

He preferred to show his art in commercial galleries, where it had a better chance of being sold, than at salons, where the Impressionists found criticism was plentiful and buyers were few.

Also, while his paintings had the sketchy brushwork normally associated with Impressionism, they were actually very detailed and precisely drawn, Lees said. And the experimentation with optical effects that absorbed an Impressionist like Monet, for example, was not part of Boldini's agenda.

"He was open to experimentation, but he was not an avant-garde artist," Lee said. "He wasn't trying to challenge accepted traditions in the same way that we find in the Impressionist artists. He could incorporate those ideas, but my sense is he was always compelled to have something that would appeal to a more conservative collector or critic."

The exhibition examines the phases of Boldini's artistic development over the next decades in Paris, from his early focus on genre scenes with figures in period costume, to the streetscapes around his studio, to the countryside surrounding Paris, to surprising experiments at capturing movement in frenzied brushstrokes and nocturnes in the darkest colors.

He took to painting objects in his studio, singling out a chair or a gilded frame for detailed rendering, then allowing the rest to dissolve in loose, quick brushstrokes. At times, he would reproduce his own paintings within paintings.

He was dedicated and prolific draftsman, a sketchbook always at hand, dashing off images of people at the theater, at a concert or in a cafe.

Loved music

A music lover, Boldini drew and painted musicians, singers and orchestras, often from unusual perspectives and in cropped compositions similar to those Degas took with his dancers.

In the early 1880s, his portraiture took a turn stylistically, away from traditional static poses to more active ones, with torsos twisted, heads turned, hands held in elegant gestures. That and his ability to capture a sense of character in deft, fluid brushstrokes gave his potraits a stylish look, as one critic put it, "dreamed of by all our beautiful society ladies."

Boldini loved beautiful things, Lees said, although he, himself, "was very short and not terribly attractive." And he had an outgoing personality that helped him make his mark.

"On a technical level he was certainly a remarkable painter," she said. "He really knew how to move paint around."

Yet compared to a master portraitist like John Singer Sargent, whose Paris studio he eventually occupied, Lees said Boldini was much more an artist of his time, catering to Belle Epoque tastes in fashion. Sargent, on the other hand, was more "universal," less obviously of a particulasr place and time in the way he pictured his sitters.

Boldini's artistic legacy, she concluded, "is an interesting question."

Even after five year of researching him, she said "there's something that remains inexplicable.

"The combination of looseness and finish is always frustrating," she said, "yet you can't help but like his pictures."

To reach Charles Bonenti: (413) 496-6211