Giovanni BOLDINI

(Ferrara 1842 - Paris 1931)

A Parisian Theatre Audience

Pencil, drawn on a page from a small sketchbook.
Partially inscribed (by Emilia Cardona Boldini) no 104le at. B. E. [indistinct] at the lower left margin.
Numbered 104 le and 138-35652/23 on the verso.
151 x 93 mm. (5 7/8 x 3 5/8 in.)
Boldini produced a large number of pencil drawings and sketches of audiences at Parisian theatres, and several examples of these are today in the Museo Boldini in Ferrara and elsewhere. Other comparable drawings by the artist include three pages from a similar small sketchbook, each depicting the composer Giuseppe Verdi and his second wife, the former soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, in the audience at the Théâtre du Vaudeville in Paris. As one recent scholar has noted, ‘The subject of spectators clearly fascinated Boldini, as the large number of pencil and painted sketches suggest.’

A page from the artist’s sketchbook, this drawing is a preparatory study for a large, unfinished pastel by Giovanni Boldini, in the collection of the Museo Boldini in Ferrara. Two further pages from the same sketchbook and sharing the same provenance as the present sheet have recently been acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago.

The son of a minor painter and restorer in Ferrara, Giovanni Boldini arrived in 1864 in Florence, where he enrolled in the Accademia di Belle Arti. He first exhibited his work in Florence in 1867, and in the same year visited the Exposition Universelle in Paris. From the earliest years of his career he displayed a remarkable talent as a portrait painter. During a trip to London in 1870 he obtained several portrait commissions, and by October 1871 he had settled in Paris, taking a studio on the Place Pigalle, and making his public debut at the Salon de Mars in 1874. Boldini’s bold, fluid style of painting was to prove immensely popular in Paris.

In the late 1870’s and early 1880’s he produced genre paintings of elegantly dressed women portrayed in lavish interiors - subjects made popular by Alfred Stevens and James Tissot - and these works found a ready market in England and America through the efforts of the Parisian art dealer Adolphe Goupil. By the time he moved to a new studio in 1885, however, he had begun to paint society portraits, and soon developed a formidable reputation for his dazzling, elegant depictions of the fashionable women of Paris, painted with a virtuoso technique of bold, fluid brushstrokes. Within a few years Boldini had risen to a position of prominence in Parisian art circles. He befriended other society portrait painters such as Paul-César Helleu, John Singer Sargent and James A. McNeill Whistler, and became a close friend of Edgar Degas, who is said to have once told the artist, “Vous êtes un monstre de talent!”.

By the turn of the century Boudin had become the most sought-after portrait painter in Paris, achieving such success that his reputation rivalled that of his friend Sargent in London. His fame reached as far as America, from where he received several portrait commissions, stimulated by an exhibition of his work held at Boussod, Valadon and Co. in New York in 1897.

Boldini was a gifted and somewhat compulsive draughtsman, and filled many sketchbooks with drawings. (He would also use whatever paper came to hand, and there are examples of quick sketches drawn on menu covers, receipts, ledger paper, postcards, hotel stationery, pages torn from auction catalogues, and so forth.) His drawings, characterized by a restless energy and a spirited technique wholly in keeping with the bravura brushwork of his oil paintings, range from quick sketches of figures, landscapes, buildings and objects to more elaborate studies of these same motifs. As Richard Kendall has recently written, ‘Evident in almost all of [Boldini’s drawings] is a vivid engagement with the pleasures of looking and with the nervous exuberance of the drawing process, irrespective of the chosen subject…Some of these drawings would have taken only minutes or even seconds to complete, while others are the work of hours of concentrated labor…This engagement was vividly physical and sensuous, as his hand erupted in wild flourishes of pencil, pen and ink, crayon, and charcoal, or opted for extreme delicacy as the situation demanded.’ The largest surviving group of drawings by Boldini, bequeathed by the artist’s widow, is today in the collection of the Museo Boldini in Ferrara.


Among the contents of Boldini’s Paris studio at the time of his death The artist’s widow, Emilia Cardona Boldini, Ferrara By descent to her nephew, Mario Murari Private collection, Italy.


Tiziano Panconi, ed., Boldini Mon Amour: opere note e mai viste, nuove scoperte, fotografie e documenti inediti, exhibition catalogue, Montecatini Terme, 2008, illustrated p.434; Bianca Doria, I disegni di Giovanni Boldini. Catalogo generale: Disegni dagli Archivi Boldini, Bologna, 2011, unpaginated, no.1462.

Giovanni BOLDINI

A Parisian Theatre Audience