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:
In the 1870s Boldini worked for the prominent Paris-based art dealer Goupil, painting eighteenth-century and contemporary subjects that were sold on the French, British, and American markets. As Boldini realized that the demand for historical pictures was declining, he turned increasingly to modern, urban scenes such as The Dispatch-Bearer
A vivid, confident manner and a keen power of observation give the painting a sense of vibrant reality. It is early morning: at least one of the two shops on the street is closed, and the concierge of an elegant, modern Parisian building is washing the sidewalk, wearing an apron and slippers; the water glistens on the ground. His work is interrupted by a man on horseback, who searches in his bag for a letter to deliver. The inscription "Garde Républicaine" inside the bag, combined with the rider’s ornate attire, indicates that he is not an ordinary postman, but an officer of the Republican Guard, the police force in charge of security and honor guards in Paris; he may be delivering an official or institutional communication. His informal gesture, holding an envelope in his mouth, contrasts wittily with his flawless regalia and shining helmet, which is an exact reproduction of the one that was part of the nineteenth-century uniform of the Republican Guard.
The dispatch-bearer’s lithe and glossy mount is typical of Boldini, who was fascinated by the challenge of depicting horses (Folchetto 1887, p. 26), and who often portrayed them as part of the dynamic street life of the city. He honed his skills by studying the movements and anatomy of animals that he bought for this purpose, and was subsequently inspired by Eadweard Muybridge’s experimental photographs of horses in motion, made in the 1880s (Guidi 2009, p. 107).
The delivery of the letter is the main subject of the painting, but Boldini added layers of complexity and narrative interest to the composition: at right, for example, a dog can be glimpsed trotting out of the scene and a young lady, modeled by Boldini’s first Parisian mistress, Berthe (Bosi 2014), says goodbye to a stylishly-dressed man in front of an open hotel door. Indeed, Sarah Lees (2009) argues that the act of looking is the real theme of this picture. The necessity of closely examining details and searching for narrative hints is metaphorically represented by the eyeglasses hanging outside the optician’s shop, just behind the dispatch-bearer.
Boldini presented the painting at the Paris Salon of 1879. Boldini’s wife, Emilia Cardona, whom he married in 1929, wrote after his death that The Dispatch-Bearer
was exhibited along with a portrait of Boldini’s new mistress, the Countess Gabrielle de Rasty, one of the most fascinating women in Paris. The painter considered the two pictures to be the best of his production, but, although Boldini hoped above all to enhance his reputation as a portraitist, The Countess G. de R. in White
went largely unremarked, and The Dispatch-Bearer
received most of the critical attention (Cardona 1951). The 1879 Salon catalogue and Baignères (1879) make no mention of the portrait and it is not included in Dini and Dini (2002), so Cardona’s story cannot be totally confirmed, but the success of The Dispatch-Bearer
is undoubted. It was admired by Ernest Meissonier and Edouard Detaille, both expert horse painters, and by critics. The writer Joris-Karl Huysmans (1879; see Lees 2009 for translation) remarked that Boldini "has microscopic qualities like Meissonier, and an agile brush like Fortuny. His municipal guard on horseback handing a sealed envelope to a concierge is a bit slapdash and scintillating, but there is in this minuscule little painting a devilish nervousness, a rapidity of movement that astonishes. In his street, seen at an angle, a man speaking to a woman was captured in a stroke in the sketchbook and was stuck alive onto the canvas. Mr. Boldini is really more than a fashion painter." Arthur Baignères (1879; see Lees 2009 for translation) describes the work as a "marvelous prestidigitation" applied to modern subjects, celebrating the vividness of the painting as a "facsimile made into art."
The picture came to America very soon after it was painted. Strahan (1880) locates it in the collection of grain merchant Josiah M. Fiske in New York, calling the scene "a fair challenge to Meissonier" and concluding that The Dispatch-Bearer
is "one of the most admirable, most faultless, most original, and most ambitious works of its brilliant author and America is to be congratulated on securing it."
Chiara Ulivi 2016Citations:
Nicoletta Colombo in Boldini, parisien d’Italie
. Ed. E. Savoia and F. L. Maspes. Exh. cat., GAM Manzoni Centro Studi per l’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Milan, 2014, pp. 11–17.
Folchetto [Jacopo Caponi], "Boldini," L’Illustrazione italiana
(January 9, 1887), pp. 25–28.
Ludovico Ragghianti, "Lungo pomeriggio di un fauno," in L'opera completa di Boldini
, ed. G. Camesasca, Milan, 1970, pp. 5–11.
For all other citations, see References.