No artist captured the glamour, energy and optimism of the Parisian Belle Époque better than the Italian master Giovanni Boldini. After leaving Italy for the French capital in 1871, Boldini enjoyed meteoric success, attracting the support of the city's influential dealer Adolphe Goupil as well as its most esteemed members of high society. Among those who sat for the celebrated portraitist were Marchesa Luisa Casati, Consuelo Vanderbilt the Duchess of Marlborough, Count Robert de Montesquiou, Giuseppe Verdi and many other cultural and societal luminaries. Boldini rendered his subjects with a spirited bravado that distinguishes his work from that of other well-known portraitists of his time such as John Singer Sargent and Joaquín Sorolla. His signature style is characterized by vigorous brushstrokes that loosely coalesce to form the swishing fabric and undulating curves of his illustrious sitters. Almost vibrating with energy, his canvases convey a sense of movement and immediacy not found in more traditional portraits.
Boldini's portrait of Marthe Régnier is a quintessential example of the artist's singular work. Painted at the height of his career, Marthe Régnier embodies Parisian chic during the Belle Époque. Boldini depicts her wearing a dazzling gown from the couture house of Paquin, which was located next door to the great house of Worth on the rue de la Paix. Three years after Boldini executed this tour de force likeness, it was exhibited by its then owner, Michel Manzi, at the newly inaugurated Hôtel des Modes, which was the brainchild of Manzi and - as a meeting point for haute couture and contemporary art - was to prove an overnight success.
Just twenty-five at the time that Boldini painted her, Marthe Régnier appears full of youthful vivacity. She exudes a bold confidence befitting a woman who was then enjoying a burgeoning career as an actress, performing at Paris' Théâtre de l'Odéon and London's Avenue Theatre. In the following years, Madame Régnier would become a fixture of the Parisian stage with occasional stints in England as well as tours of Spain and South America. She also appeared in several plays by the renowned Baron Henri de Rothschild who wrote under the pseudonym of André Pascal and in a number of films, most notably Manon (1910), Mayerling (1936) and Les Hommes sans peur (1941).
Madame Régnier's commanding stage presence is on full display in Boldini's portrait. Craning her neck to look over her shoulder, Madame Régnier engages with her audience, inviting her admirers into her exciting world of youth and beauty. From the ruffles on her voluminous skirt to her immaculately coiffed head of curls, Madame Régnier ripples with energy. Indeed, amidst her swirling dress, twisting body and the broadly rendered background, there is not a straight line to be found on the canvas. An almost dizzying spiral of flesh and fabric, Madame Régnier affirms that Boldini was a 'magician of movement' as Ballets Russes choreographer Serge Lifar referred to the artist.
Adding to the drama of this portrait is Boldini's strident plunging perspective, one of the innovative hallmarks of the artist's mature oeuvre. Equally characteristic of Boldini's work is the pulsating pink patchwork of brushstrokes found in the background and echoing in Madame Régnier's skin, hair and dress. It is daring compositional elements like these that led cultural icon Gertrude Stein to presciently profess, 'Once time has established values in their correct order, Boldini will be recognized as the greatest painter of the last century.'