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Shuttered Parisian Apartment Conceals Giovanni Boldini Portrait For More Than A Century

His swift strokes spring off the canvas with bold energy. Referring to his unique swirling style, Giovanni Boldini (1842 –1931) was called the “Master of Swish” in the April 1933 issue of Time magazine. He was a highly acclaimed portraitist of his day. Obviously inspired by beautiful women, he painted some of the most famous in Paris and London. Among them was Marthe de Florian, a French actress. Her Boldini portrait was sealed in her Paris apartment for more than a century.

Giovanni Boldini Embraced Spontaneity In His Early Work

He was born in Ferrara, Italy. His father was a classic painter of religious subjects. At the age of 20 Boldini moved to Florence to study at the Scuola del nudo–the School of Nudes.

He resonated with other rebellious artists known as the Macchiaioli. Like the French Impressionists, they broke with traditional painters before them, choosing to work outside in nature. Boldini’s landscapes from that time are spontaneous with natural light and the constant motion of nature.

High Society Of Europe Embraced Giovanni Boldini

From Italy he moved to London. His flattering style soon established him as a popular portraitist of high society figures. In 1872, he moved to Paris where his career continued to flourish. He became friends with painters including Edgar Degas. Boldini was a favorite figure in upper social circles. In 1889 he was honored with an appointment as commissioner of the Italian section of the Paris Exposition of 1889.


“Anybody who was anybody” wanted her/his portrait done by him. Included in his long list of famous subjects were Sarah Bernhardt, Princess Bubesco, the Duchess of Westminster, Lady Holland, Marchesa Luisa Casati and Lady Colin Campbell whose scandalous trial hinged on her butler’s testimony. He also painted Toulouse-Lautrec, John Singer Sargent and Giuseppe Verdi.

He Captured His Secret Muse, Marthe de Florian On Canvas

Among his many portraits of beautiful women, that of Marthe de Florian (1864-1939) tells a most astonishing story. She was a French “actress” known mostly for her lavish lifestyle and famous lovers. With her talent for self-promotion and spin control, she was the late Victorian Era equivalent of the Kardashians.

De Florian also played his muse. In 1888 when she was 24 years old, he painted her portrait. (Many sources date the painting at 1898, which would make her 34 at the time.)

Born Mathilde Heloise Beaugiron, Marthe de Florian gave birth to her son Henri Beaugiron when she was 19 years old. On the birth certificate his paternity was stated as “unknown” and her occupation as “embroiderer.” De Florian soon learned that there was a better way for a beautiful woman with an impressive figure to make a lucrative living.

She started her life moving in the upscale social circles as a French actress. De Florian was known for her famous suitors including French premiers Georges Clemenceau, Paul Deschanel, Gaston Doumergue and Pierre Waldeck-Rousseau.

In her crowd of ardent admirers stood Giovanni Boldini.

His Painting Was Discovered In Marthe de Florian’s Apartment More Than A Century Later

De Florian’s last apartment was near the Trinite Church in Paris, in the 9th arrondissement between the Pigalle red-light district and Opera Garnier. She left it to her son who in turn left it to his daughter who fled Paris at the onset of WWII. She locked the door of her grandmother’s flat and never returned. For 70 years she paid rent and maintenance on the apartment and left all of its contents intact until her death in 2010. She was 91 years old.

Experts who entered the glamorous apartment found a nineteenth-century time capsule. In it were the trappings of a luxurious lifestyle including a dressing table covered with gold brushes, combs and perfume bottles. They found a stuffed ostrich draped with an embroidered shawl, chandeliers and elaborate decorations.

Among the many paintings preserved in the flat, one stood out. An appraiser instantly recognized it as one by Boldini, although it was unsigned. Fortunately, fervent love letters that Marthe de Floria had wrapped neatly in ribbon were still on the premises. Within them was one by Boldini, dating to 1888. Coupled with a visiting card from him and a biographical reference to the work by the artist’s widow, experts confirmed Boldini painted the masterpiece.

The sale price of the portrait rocketed to a record sale for Boldini as ten bidders pushed the final price in an auction.

The Works of Giovanni Boldini

His works display in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome, the National Portrait Gallery in London, and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, among others. Much of his work is held in private collections.

“Master of Swish” Time Magazine, April 3, 1933, p. 28-29

With her tongue ever so slightly in her check, Mrs. Chester Dale, collector and authority on French painting, helped organize four months ago an exhibition of the paintings of the late Alphonse Bouguereau, barroom decorator par excellence of the Gay Nineties. For all their technical slickness, the correct perspective for looking at a Bouguereau nude was always obtained through the bottom of a 16 oz. Beer glass. Critics in the chill light of a formal art gallery were not impressed with the “Back to Bouguereau” movement. Last week with a better artist and in a better cause (a loan exhibition at the Wildenstein Galleries for New York’s Child Welfare Committee), Maud Dale revived the work of one of M. Bouguereau’s contemporaries, the late Boldini.

Giovanni Boldini (“Zanin” to intimates) was a society portraitist as artificial as any who ever stretched a lady’s fingers to tickle her vanity. Modernists excuse Zanin Boldini for a virtue denied most Academicians, an exuberance, vivacity and frank sensuousness that won him the title of “Master of Swish,” and made his huge canvases on view last week a series of gay explosions, brilliantly painted.

Born in Ferrara in 1842, he grew up to be a little fellow (half an inch too short for military service), with a mincing manner and a domelike forehead. He abhorred Bohemianism, was always perfectly frank in his love of rich food, fine clothes, beautiful women. His career took him first to Florence, then London, then Paris. Ever since the Salon of 1875 his steady succession of portraits and mistresses had been gaining fame but it was not until the turn of the century that Boldini entered his Grand Period. He was preeminently the artist of the Edwardian era, of the pompadour, the champagne supper and the ribbon-trimmed chemise.

The passing of the petticoat was the passing of Boldini’s art. He lived to be 88. Too purblind to paint, he could still drink champagne and chuck pretty young models under the chin. In 1929, aged 86, he suddenly married. At his wedding breakfast he made a little speech: “It is not my fault if I am so old, it’s something which has happened to me all at once.”

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