Giovanni Boldini is best known for his contributions to the reform of portrait painting in the late nineteenth century. He harmonized the human figure with its surrounding space and used quick, vibrant strokes of paint to capture light, shape, movement, and expression (see Consuelo Vanderbilt
, The Met 47.71
). He was also an accomplished painter of exquisitely detailed genre scenes.
As a young man in his native Ferrara, Boldini studied the fifteenth-century masters Cosmè Tura, Ercole de’ Roberti, and Francesco del Cossa, which informed his development of a personal style marked by nervous energy and irregular pointed forms (Colombo 2014, pp. 11–12). Boldini spent part of his formative years in Florence alongside the revolutionary artists known as the Macchiaioli, who employed broad touches of color (macchia
in Italian) without modulating half-tones to create vivid paintings that challenged conventional notions of "finish." He shared certain of their interests, including a feeling for the portrayal of everyday life, an aptitude for swift brushwork, and an appreciation for the depiction of perspective in Renaissance art. In 1871, Boldini moved to Paris. There, his virtuoso technique brought him wealth and fame as he became one of the most sought-after painters of the Belle Epoque. Boldini cultivated a large and rich international clientele even though he did not often participate in high-profile, official exhibitions. He was a friend of such cosmopolitan figures as the collector baron Maurice de Rothschild, the poet Robert de Montesquiou, the novelist Colette, the composer Giuseppe Verdi, Edgar Degas, and John Singer Sargent (Mrs. Hugh Hammersley
, The Met 1998.365
For much of the twentieth century, critics typically regarded Boldini as a superficial, if dazzling, portraitist. However, recent writers have taken a more nuanced view, acknowledging that the formal dynamism of Boldini’s paintings was in keeping with the lively and changing environment of nineteenth-century Paris. At least one author has described Boldini’s rapid brushwork and energetic compositions as anticipating the Italian Futurist style of the early twentieth century (Ragghianti 1970, pp. 8, 14).The Painting: Gossip
was an early acquisition by Catharine Lorillard Wolfe, The Met’s first female patron, who purchased it in 1873 from the enterprising Paris dealer Adolphe Goupil (Rabinow 1998). Goupil specialized in promoting painters—epitomized by Boldini, Ernest Meissonnier, and Mariano Fortuny Marsal—who earned popularity among collectors with their scenes of everyday life, which are characterized by historically accurate settings, costumes rendered with striking realism, and meticulous brushwork. These genre subjects were much sought after in Europe and America in the early 1870s, when Boldini sought to capitalize on their appeal with paintings such as Gossip
, which were among his first works to enter American collections. One historian termed these paintings "potboilers" (Reynolds 1984).
Three ladies chat in a sitting room evocative of the Empire style popular in France at the turn of the eighteenth century. Their elegant clothing sets the scene about 1815–20: although the high waistlines date to the period of the French Revolution in the 1790s, the abundant ornamentation and elaborate sleeves are typical of the Restoration period after 1815. The woman in blue wears visiting attire, with a headdress that may be more recent than the rest of her outfit, while her companion leaning against the sofa wears an elegant Empire dress. The table, chairs, and sofa, which appear in other works by Boldini, are of the Restoration period. The painted wall decorations reflect the vogue for antique Roman motifs sparked by the discovery of the Italian city of Pompeii in 1748, as do the columns, lion’s paws, and sphinxes on the furniture, and the compote under the table. The subject of "gossip" conveyed by the painting’s title is suggested by copious narrative details: the cup of tea on the table, the spinning or knitting work left interrupted (in French, as in English, a yarn is a long story), and the women’s positions, with the eldest seated in an armchair, speaking, while her companion in blue listens attentively and the third lazily takes in the conversation.
Boldini’s aim in paintings like Gossip
was to attract and charm viewers by depicting vivacious women, and by conjuring a past that contrasted with the modern era, which was defined by the social and political upheavals of 1848 and 1871 (Campana 2015). Such scenes enabled affluent members of the bourgeoisie to escape to an earlier age associated with lightness, grace, and seduction, as seen in the work of the eighteenth-century French masters Antoine Watteau, Jean Honoré Fragonard, and François Boucher. Another of Boldini’s inspirations was more immediate: his model and mistress, Berthe, who appears in many of his paintings of this period, may have posed for the woman in blue in the present picture.
The sensibility at work in Gossip
’s evocation of the past, especially the profusion of detail, is also evident in contemporary novels by Joris-Karl Huysmans and Edmond de Goncourt (Dini 2015; Campana 2015). As Huysmans described Goncourt’s prose: "it was a style . . . painstaking in recording the intangible impression which affects the senses and determines feelings, a style expert at measuring every complicated nuance of an age which was itself extraordinarily complex" (Huysmans 1998). Robert de Montesquiou (who reportedly served as the model for the dandy Jean Des Esseintes, the protagonist of Huysmans’s novel Against Nature
) dedicated verses to Boldini that recall the taste for the Empire style evinced in Gossip
à M. BOLDINI
"J’aime le meuble Empire,
Fait mes yeux éblouis,
Mieux que le Louis Onze,
D’une Egypte bijou;
Et sa mythologie
D’un reflet d’acajou"
(To M. Boldini
EMPIRICISM [The French title, Empirisme
, is a play on words: empirisme
translates as empiricism, the theory that all knowledge is based on sensory experience, but it also suggests "Empire-ism," or love of the Empire style, which is the subject of the poem.]
I love Empire furniture,
Dazzles my eyes,
Better than Louis XI,
An Egyptian jewel,
And his mythology
With a mahogany reflection)
[Chiara Ulivi 2017]Citations:
Rosella Campana, "Scene di vita moderna tra moda e nostalgia," in Boldini: Lo Spettacolo della modernità
. Exh. cat., Musei San Domenico, Forlì, 2015, p. 200.
Nicoletta Colombo in Enzo Savoia and Francesco Luigi Maspes, eds., Boldini Parisien d’Italie
. Exh. cat., GAM Manzoni Centro Studi per l’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Milan 2014, pp. 11–17.
Francesca Dini, "Nel mondo di Boldini," in Boldini: Lo Spettacolo della modernità
. Exh. cat., Musei San Domenico, Forlì, 2015, p. 32.
Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against Nature
, trans. M. Mauldon, New York, 1998, p. 148.
Robert de Montesquiou, Les Hortensias Bleus
, Paris, 1906, LXXVII, p. 157.
Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti, "Lungo pomeriggio di un fauno" in Ettore Camesasca, ed., L'opera completa di Boldini, 1842–1931
, Milan, 1970, pp. 5–11.