North Adams Transcript
WILLIAMSTOWN -- At the turn of the 19th century, Giovanni Boldini was at the height of his artistic career, painting the Parisian elite -- diplomats, celebrities, socialites and the wealthy -- and earning a reputation as the most sought-after society painter of his time.
His portraits were often long, narrow and flattering to those he painted, yet atypical of his contemporaries such as John Singer Sargent, whose Parisian studio he would eventually take over. He captured his subjects in unusual poses for portraits -- torsos twisted, arms angled, backs arched and heads turned to the side, making his portraits small vignettes of time. In an 1891 portrait of a diplomat's young son, he seems to catch the boy in a moment of irritation as he sits on sofa, while a 1901 painting of trendsetting dancer and actress Cleo De Merode more closely resembles that of a high-fashion magazine editorial spread than a painted portrait.
However, it is not Boldini's best-known work that is featured in the upcoming exhibition, "Giovanni Boldini in Impressionist Paris," at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, but rather a collection of his earlier paintings -- landscapes, street scenes and opera houses -- dating from his arrival in Paris in 1871 from his native Italy.
The show, which opens on Sunday and runs through April 25, is a rare glimpse of Boldini's other works and the only American venue for the exhibition which is a collaboration between the Clark, Ferrara Arte and the Museo Giovannni Boldini in Italy. Recently arrived from a five-month stay at the Palazzo Dei Diamanit in Ferrara, Italy (Boldini's birthplace), the show is also the first major American exhibition of Boldini's works since 1984.
"I think that people who know his work will be surprised to see his range as an artist," Sarah Lees, the Clark's associate curator of European art said Monday as the exhibition was in the final stages of installation.
Although the show isn't designed to be a retrospective of his work -- it encompasses 20 years of Boldini's work beginning at the time of his 1871 arrival in Paris -- the comprehensive snippets that Lees has pieced together following five years of research show the influences of other artists on his work and the evolution of what would become his signature style.
"Some of his first works are very refined pictures," Lees said. "In the painting, "A Guitar Player," we see a very Spanish-stylized piece that was popular at the time. We know that Boldini had not yet been to Spain."
But pieces like "A Guitar Player" or "Two Women in Eighteenth-Century Costume at the Piano," paid the rent and allowed the outsider entry into the Parisian art world. He was immediately represented by Adolphe Goupil, a renowned art dealer at the time, who would commission pieces and sell his series of small landscape paintings.
"As part of my research, I looked at the Goupil dealer's records, which no one has ever done before," Lees said. "The painting, "Two women in Eighteenth-Century Costume" was actually one of two paintings Boldini first sold through the dealer."
In 1875, Boldini had made enough money to rent an apartment near the Versailles gardens, where he painted detailed scenes.
"The paintings of the gardens are very precise -- you can actually look up photographs of the statues in the paintings and find the exact locations in which he painted," she said. "However, we also know the people in his scenes weren't there -- they're very exaggerated."
Unlike the Impressionist masters producing paintings at the same time -- Degas, Manet, Monet, Renoir and Pissarro -- Boldini chose to create pleasing paintings that would sell commercially while also working on paintings that allowed him to develop his creative expression.
"With these works, you can see Boldini making practical choices -- choosing styles and subjects that would sell," Lees said, noting that his commercial appeal still applies to contemporary artists who struggle with making a living and following their artistic dreams.
"Boldini however was very aware of the styles of the Impressionists -- their framing choices and the commentary they made through their subject matter," she said.
In "The Dispatch Bearer" on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a messenger is seen on horseback outside of a door on the street, but perhaps Boldini hopes the viewer will look beyond the messenger.
"In this painting we see the influence of the Impressionists," Lees said. "The framing of this piece has only the back quarter of a dog passing through. And if you look closely at the couple in the background, who are parting ways, they're actually leaving a hotel."
Other portions of the exhibit focus on Boldini's experiments with color and movement, as his brushstrokes would grow longer and more fierce as he painted active city streets.
"For one career to encompass such extremes is unusual and is often a surprise," Lees said. "It also becomes apparent that he could choose which extreme he was working in at will. For me, his work shows an immediate sense of energy and an interesting perception."
A constant recorder, Boldini carried a sketch book with him at all times, capturing his subjects as if a photographer. Many of his small sketches are on display, coupled with the larger works into which they become incorporated -- giving the viewer an intimate look at the artist's creative process.
"We've also paired his work with pieces from our own collection -- Degas, Pissarro and other contemporaries -- to show exactly where he was fitting in artistically at the time," Lees said.
As the show progresses, the viewer can see how the artist would eventually blend his energetic brushstrokes and attention to detail into a signature style all of his own. But it was also his sought-after style that would keep much of his work out of public view and in private collections.
"A good percentage of his work is in private hands still to this day," Lees said. "Another good percentage has been purchased by the museum in Ferrara." The Clark holds seven paintings and two works on paper, reportedly the largest American collection, all of which were purchased by the Clark's founder, Robert Sterling Clark, while he was living in Paris in 1911.
Like many American collectors at the time, Clark wasn't able to afford a portrait purchased directly from the artist, but was able to purchase his more commercial works from a dealer.
"In that respect, Boldini was a perfect choice," Lees said.
Lees will present the exhibition's opening lecture, which will discuss Boldini's evolution as an artist and his early career, on Sunday at 3 p.m.
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