Giovanni BOLDINI

(Ferrara 1842 - Paris 1931)

A Man Playing a Piano in the Artist’s Studio

Signed Boldini at the lower centre.
363 x 268 mm. (14 1/4 x 10 1/2 in.)
Giovanni Boldini painted and drew numerous views of the interior of his two studios in Paris; the first on the Place Pigalle, where he worked soon after his arrival in Paris in 1872, and the second on the Boulevard Berthier, to which he moved in July 1886, after it had been vacated by John Singer Sargent. As Sarah Lees has written, ‘In the mid-1880s Boldini began a distinctive and very personal artistic exploration…He increasingly turned his attention to the interiors of his house and studio in a series of works that reveal a compelling universe of formal subjects and an unparalleled approach to communicating emotions and ideas…[Boldini] began using the spaces of his studio as a stage upon which to portray visits from friends, artists, and critics, or musical evenings that he attended or organized.’

This fine drawing depicts a man playing a piano in Boldini’s studio on the Boulevard Berthier. Although the identity of the sitter remains a mystery, the same man appears in a very small oil painting by Boldini of The Pianist in the Studio, executed around 1910 and today in a private collection. The painting depicts a corner of Boldini’s studio, with the unknown man seated at the artist’s piano in front of the painter’s full-length pastel portrait of Emiliana Concha de Ossa, propped against the wall in the background. What may be the same pianist also appears in a large pastel drawing in the collection of the Museo Boldini in Ferrara, and again at the very edge of the composition of an easel picture of The Singer of c.1884, in the Fondazione Carife collection at the Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Ferrara.

The present sheet once belonged to the French artist Jean-Gabriel Domergue (1889-1962), a friend of Boldini who seems to have owned several works by the elder artist. In 1955 Domergue was appointed a curator at the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris, where he organized a series of important monographic exhibitions. He had planned one devoted to Boldini, but this project was still unrealized at the time of Domergue’s death in 1962. The following year, however, an important exhibition of Boldini’s work was held at the Musée Jacquemart-André, in honour of Domergue.


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.


Jean-Gabriel Domergue, Paris
Thence by descent to a private collection
Eric Turquin, Paris
Jean-Luc Baroni Ltd., London, in 2008
Private collection, London.

Giovanni BOLDINI

A Man Playing a Piano in the Artist’s Studio