When the Sotheby’s New York’s 19th Century European Art catalogue arrived on my desk this week, I was amazed to see this brilliant landscape by Boldini amongst a handful of very good portraits by the master. I’m not sure I’ve even seen a landscape by Boldini quite like this!
Giovanni Boldini (1842-1931) has one of those great names that rolls off the tongue – and you just have to say it with an Italian accent; it just doesn’t sound right in English. Perhaps the most famous portrait painter of the Belle Époque, his portraits ingeniously take the most upright society lady and through his brushwork technique, envelop his sitters in the fabulous cascading material of their Worth gowns.
Italian by birth, Boldini arrived in Paris in 1871 as the dust of Napoleon III’s fallen Empire was still thick in the air, but clearly about to be cast aside by the energy of the Third Republic. The city was back on its feet and overflowing with great artists once again. The Impressionist movement was taking off and Boldini would have moved in the same artistic circles as Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Monet. You can clearly see references to the movement in this view of the Seine. Here we also see realism as it evolves into the loose style synonymous with Boldini’s work. From a historical point of view, I see this image as the perfect collision between the pastoral past and the industrial future yet to come: youthful couples spending a day on the river are just passing two recently invented steamboats, while in the distance the march of telegraph poles and wires barely intrudes into our vista.
This is a wonderful piece of 19th century European art and a superb landscape for many reasons, but it’s a great Boldini landscape because it strikingly showcases his nervous signature brushwork so well. It makes the painting airy and light and the boundless color palette suggest the influence of the Impressionist in temperament but not technique. The gaggle of geese splashing in the water coupled with the sense of movement of oarsman give life to the otherwise staid work … it’s pure Boldini magic. Even the clouds in the landscape seem to drift along ever so gently in the summer breeze.
I had fallen off the non-impressionistic, 19th century art cart for years, but after reviewing this sale, I may go back and take a closer look at some of the artists. Subjects like cardinals, kittens and sweet young things are still not my thing … but landscapes by the likes of Boldini … well, they may just merit another look!
richard rabel: interiors + art
interior design and art advising
new york city
image credits: Sotheby’s, New York. Sale: 19th Century European Art, 9 May 2014. Exhibition 2-8 May. Lot 4; Giovanni Boldini, La Senna, signed. Estimate US$400,000 – $600,000.