Giovanni Boldini’s Portrait of John Singer Sargent is a vivid testament to the friendship between two of the leading portraitists of fin-de-siècle Paris. Painted in 1890, this portrait, one of three that Boldini painted of Sargent, dates from a pivotal period in the artist’s career during which he received widespread acclaim for his unique form of portraiture, capturing a host of socialites and actresses, as well as fellow artists and friends, including Whistler, Verdi, Degas and Paul Helleu. These paintings provide a fascinating glimpse into the vibrant world of Belle Époque Paris.
Already an established artist renowned for his portrayals of society figures in Paris, Sargent served as an important influence for Boldini, inspiring the artist’s embrace of portraiture over the course of the 1880s. The two mixed in the same circles of the beau monde and occasionally painted the same people, including Consuelo Vanderbilt, the American wife of the Duke of Marlborough. They became firmly linked, however, when, in 1886, Boldini took over Sargent’s studio, which he was leaving to move to London. The large studio at 41 Boulevard Berthier would remain Boldini’s home for the rest of his life.
Boldini’s bravura technique perfectly captured the nervous energy and high fashion of the period. In the present work, Sargent stands tall, the frenetic lines darting throughout the background emphasising his strong stance and imbuing him with a powerful and commanding presence. There is a linearity suggested in the triangular ‘V’ shape formed by Sargent’s hands, and the horizontal brush behind his back sits starkly, unyielding to the chaotic background. Fast but defining brushstrokes create a speck of red in the cravat, which draws our eye to Sargent’s face. Portraying Sargent as a master of his profession, this portrait reveals the admiration Boldini held for his creative younger friend, fourteen years his junior.