Boldini and Spanish painting in the late 19th century. The spirit of an era

At its Recoletos Exhibition Hall in Madrid, Fundación MAPFRE presents this exhibition dedicated to the works of the Italian Giovanni Boldini, in dialog with other Spanish artists who formed part of the Parisian circles of the Belle Époque. It can be visited from September 18, 2019 through January 12, 2020.

TEXT: LEYRE BOZAL CHAMORRO

For painters and sculptors, the study trip to Rome had always formed a substantial part of their traditional training. The city was the appropriate backdrop for classical learning. French pupils from the École de Beaux-Arts competed for the Prix de Rome, an award won, among others, by such important figures in the history of art as Ingres, Couture or Bouguereau. Gradually, however, in the 19th century, Paris replaced the Italian capital and became the cradle of modern art. The economic and social development of the French capital, its literary, artistic and institutional salons, the importance of the collectors and the art trade, as well as the attention paid by the press to artistic events, were just some of the reasons that led to Paris acquiring growing importance.

Giovanni Boldini (Ferrara 1842-Paris 1931) was one of the most prolific Italian artists of the second half of the 19th century. He enjoyed great success over his lengthy career, but also caused controversy among critics and the general public.

Giovanni Boldini
Coppia in abito spagnolo con pappagalli, c. 1873
[Couple in Spanish Dress with Two Parrots]
Banca Carige collection, Genoa

Loved yet questioned by those he was first in contact with, such as Telemaco Signorini and Diego Martelli, he was later understood and admired, in his years of greatest success, by the most sophisticated Parisians — the Goncourt brothers, Proust and Degas, Paul Helleu and the aesthete Montesquiou — to the extent of being deemed the representative of “maximum beauty” at the turn of the century.

When the artist settled in Paris in 1871, the Franco- Prussian War — which triggered the fall of the Second Empire and the birth of the Paris Commune — had led most of the Spanish painters who had come to live in the French capital over the previous decade to abandon the city. Among others, Fortuny had returned to Rome, and Martin Rico, Eduardo Zamacois and Rogelio of Egusquiza to Spain. Raimundo de Madrazo remained in Paris, where he came into contact with the painter from Ferrara. During that period, both of them threw themselves into producing numerous small and medium format paintings, as well as portraits to satisfy the new bourgeois taste. Scena galante en el parco di Versailles, Berthe esce per la passeggiata by Boldini, or the portraits of Aline Masson by Raimundo de Madrazo, are fine examples of this.

We must not forget that Mariano Fortuny, who was to die a few years later, was the great forerunner of this type of 18th century or genre scenes which delighted collectors and dealers of the time.

Between 1864 and 1870 Boldini had worked in Florence with the Macchiaioli, producing a series of small-scale portraits such as Mary Donegani, which foreshadowed the revolution this genre was to undergo. Contrary to the type of paintings then so ‘à la mode’ in Paris, these ‘macchie’ [patches] painters had to give in little by little to the whims of the Parisian market and produce paintings that would prove popular. This was the case with Boldini, but others who also specialized in this type of ‘à la mode’ paintings included Eduardo Zamacois with Return to the Convent, Román Ribera Cirera with Lady in Evening Dress, Raimundo de Madrazo himself with Aline Masson, in a Mantilla, or León Garrido with La Place de Clichy, who soon began to sell their works, mainly through Adolphe Goupil. This art dealer, together with the U.S. collector William H. Stewart, was to become one of the most important figures in Paris at the end of the century. Between the two, they acquired works by all the artists we wished to bring together in this exhibition.

Overcoming his initial predilection for the ‘macchie’ of the Macchiaioli group, and for Meissonier and Fortuny, Boldini progressively introduced a new sensitivity into the gallant portrait genre that would also be seen in the paintings by important Spanish artists. Madame Picard or Cléo de Mérode fully reflect this style of the Ferrara-born artist, based on the intuition of the moment and movement depicted with rapid brushstrokes. Along with John Singer Sargent and James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Giovanni Boldini, Joaquín Sorolla and Ignacio Zuloaga, they became some of the most important portraitists of the Belle Époque, producing a gallery of portraits that faithfully conveyed the spirit of a whole era.

Mariano Fortuny
Beach at Portici, 1874
Meadows Museum, SMU, Dallas

In this regard, we wanted to divide the exhibition into six sections, offering for the first time in Spain a comprehensive selection of Giovanni Boldini’s oeuvre. It is further complemented by the works of a series of Spanish painters — like Mariano Fortuny, Raimundo de Madrazo, Román Ribera, Rogelio de Egusquiza, Francesc Masriera or Eduardo Zamacois — who had a direct or indirect relationship with the Italian painter.

I. Boldini in Florence: the invention of the Macchiaioli portrait (1864-1870)

During the 1860s the Michelangiolo café became the meeting place for the Florentine intelligentsia. This was where the members of the Macchiaioli group met up, artists wishing to produce ‘dal vero’ paintings, joined by Giovanni Boldini upon his arrival in the Italian city; together, they would contribute significantly to the renovation of genre painting and portraiture. Both in the Portrait of Mary Donegani, and in that of the painter Bepe Abbanti, we can appreciate how, with swift, subtle brushstrokes, Boldini is capable of subverting the rules of the genre by giving his figures expressive qualities that were to become one of the most characteristic features of his painting.

II. The initial French style of Boldini (1871-1879)

On arriving in Paris in 1871, Boldini abandoned portraiture for nearly a decade to devote himself successfully to the ‘à la mode’ painting. Influenced by the style of Meissonier and Fortuny, he worked on small scale paintings depicting genre and costumbrista scenes in which Berthe, his model for over ten years, was usually the protagonist: walks through the gardens of the Palace of Versailles, 18th century style clothes, or depictions of daily life in which Berthe strolls around the park and sits down to rest. Also anecdotal paintings showing scenes of a Spanish nature — the fact is that everything Spanish was considered exotic — so much in vogue during the Third Republic. Paintings that express the well-being achieved by certain strata of society during that period, urban scenes that clearly show the hectic pace of the metropolis in that ever-changing world.

III. Echoes of Boldini in Spanish painting at the end of the century

Throughout the second half of the 19th century, a considerable number of foreign artists flocked to Paris, considered at that time a cultural epicenter. Just like Eduardo Zamacois, Raimundo de Madrazo or Mariano Fortuny, these painters were drawn to the French capital with the intention of completing their training and participating in this cultural laboratory that the city had become. They soon became known for their small genre paintings known as tableautins that delighted the city’s bourgeoisie. There was a proliferation of costumbrista paintings, predominately scenes set in the 17th and 18th centuries — The Choice of a Model, by Fortuny; as well as interior scenes —Dreaming During the Ball, by Egusquiza; those of a popular, anecdotal nature, such as — Return to the Convent and the Seated Buffoon, by Eduardo Zamacois; or of entertainment, such as Leaving the Masquerade Ball, by Raimundo de Madrazo and Leaving the Ball, by Román Ribera.

Together with this kind of depictions, landscapes and outdoor scenes were increasingly popular. In Beach at Portici, without a doubt Fortuny’s most important landscape and one of his last works before his death, the painter gave free rein to his taste for color, presenting us with an en plein air painting which brought him closer to the Macchiaioli and to the Impressionists through a “summary of his summer”, in a very free fashion, liberated from the ‘straitjacketing’ imposed by commissioned works.

IV. Boldini, painter of modern life (1880-1890)

The perspicacity of Boldini allowed him to introduce into his work the changes in sensitivity of the society in which he lived. At the end of the 1870s he became one of the most important of the so-called ‘worldly portraitists’. The determining factor in this change of direction for his career was his relationship with other younger artists such as Paul César Helleau, John Singer Sargent or Jacques-Emile Blanche. No less important was his contact with Spanish artists, like Joaquin Sorolla, who were also in the French capital.

Starting in the early 1880s Boldini depicted the city of Paris in all its splendor: busy squares and streets filled with café terraces and passing carriages. With this same spirit, the artist portrayed female figures with half-body images filled with color. These aspects of his production show that his personal relationships with the Spanish colony active in Paris were still alive and well, in particular with Raimundo de Madrazo, whose portraits of Aline are surprisingly similar to Boldini’s figures; and also with Román Ribera, whose everyday scenes have been attributed – in some cases quite recently – to Boldini himself.

Joaquín Sorolla
María Watching the Fish, 1907
Private collection

V. Spanish painters and portraiture: the spirit of an era

During his time studying in Rome, influenced by artists such as Fortuny, Joaquín Sorolla painted nudes such as Resting Bacchante. This type of paintings — which, to a greater or lesser degree, explicitly convey sensuality — are far removed from others the Valencian artist would paint years later. This is the case of Female Nude which more openly depicts the physical, intimate nature of a woman, now stripped of adjectives. The viewer has ceased to be a voyeur, as is the case for a large part of Boldini’s nudes, because the female figure is no longer treated as an object of desire, or not solely as such, but rather the woman is also a companion.

Together with the nude, the portrait is another genre that was evolving. The portrait is the subjects’ mode of affirmation and the city, the metropolis and its environs make up the environment in which they move. In the gardens of La Granja (Segovia) Sorolla presented his daughter, while, at a place impossible to determine, Ignacio Zuloaga painted the elegantly dressed, modern figure of Adela de Quintana Moreno out walking. In indoor settings, Sorolla presents us with the theater actress Catalina Barcenas, and likewise he depicted the natural elegance of his wife Clotilde. The painter Manuel Benedito depicted a practically Symbolist Cléo de Mérode, very different from that painted by Boldini, while Casas presented us with a woman without pretenses, without surroundings — La Parisienne is present, that is enough, that is all.

Both Zuloaga and Sorolla specialized in this kind of elegant portraits and, together with Giovanni Boldini, John Singer, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Antonio de la Gándara, Jacques- Emile Blanche and Giovanni Boldini, went on to become some of the most important portraitists of the Belle Époque. All of them tried to modernize a genre that, by its very nature, was intimately linked to the past. Between them all, they produced a gallery of portraits, halfway between tradition and innovation, which accurately conveyed the spirit of a worldly society, within a decadent world, which was to come to an end with the First World War.

VI. Boldini, portraitist of the Belle Époque, (1890-1920)

In 1897, when he disembarked in New York, Boldini was already known for his initial ‘French style’ works. The recent return of Sargent to the country made the American public aware of the modern refinement of European portraiture, of which Boldini was the undisputed master.

In his Portrait of Whistler, the Italian artist identified the mature painter with the figure of a cosmopolitan dandy, dressed in elegant, dark formal attire, complete with top hat. Despite depicting him seated, the painter gives life to the male figure by affording it movement that makes the “maestro” instantly recognizable even in the midst of a crowd. Analogous is the posture of Madame Veil-Picard, who also appears seated, with her elbow on the back of a chaise longue and her head resting on her hand; the silhouette, elegantly dressed in shiny black silk which wraps her in sensuality, contrasts with her ‘bird-like gaze’, which engages the observer.

Increasingly free and dynamic, Boldini’s brushstrokes concentrated on portraits, but also on still lifes and studies of female hands, such as The Pansy, or the recesses of his studio. In his Self-Portrait at Montorsoli, which Boldini donated to the Uffizi Gallery in 1892, the painter enhances his features, not too attractive but depicted with a proud physiognomy, in the Spanish style inspired by Velázquez, the painter he had so admired three years previously in Madrid. Boldini found the coloring employed by the Spanish master the basis of an elitist form of art that inexorably paralleled the painter’s evolution toward the most extreme virtuosity