'Once time has established values in their correct order, Boldini will be recognised as the greatest painter of the last century. The New School (of painting) derives from him, as he was the first to simplify lines and planes'. (Gertrude Stein)
Giovanni Boldini was known as the 'magician of movement' by his contemporaries, including Serge Lifar, the Ballets Russes choreographer. The artist painted portraits of his sitters with an exceptional combination of a conservative genre executed in an avant-garde manner. While the artist had known many of the more conservative portrait painters of the time from studying in Paris and Rome and visiting museums such as the Louvre, at the same time he was sympathetic to the next generation of revolutionary painters such as Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and he also knew on a personal basis popular portraitists of the time, such as John Singer Sargent. It was this awareness of contemporary portrait painting that situates the importance of Boldini's oeuvre within the framework of modern painting, capturing the essence of the era's profound social and cultural change on canvas, as Emile Zola and Marcel Proust had done on paper. Then, as now, he captured the imagination of many artistic and literary luminaries, enjoying sustained success throughout his lifetime right up until the outbreak of the war. Among the many fabulous sitters that passed through his studio were blue-blooded aristocracy, South American heiresses, famous opera singers, dancers, actresses and cocottes. Yet, as these beauties and their families clamoured to have themselves immortalised, the underlying genius of this artist was yet to be fully grasped.
This previously unrecorded work is one of a series of portraits by the artist of the Spanish dancer, Anita de la Feria, painted in Paris in 1900. Boldini had visited Spain in 1877, but the choice of subject may have derived from the influence of John Singer Sargent. The two artists were friends and Sargent lent him his studio on the Boulevard Berthier in 1886. Through this association, Boldin would have been aware of El Jaleo (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston), exhibited in the Salon in 1882. In the summer of 1887, he briefly visited San Sebastiano, particularly enjoying the prowess of the bullfighters, Lagartijo and Frascuelo. Meanwhile in Paris, a distinct spanish flavour had been injected into French cafe society with dancers, a tradition which Anita de la Feria and Carolina Ot/gero maintained in the last decade of the century.
Boldini painted three portraits of Anita de la Feria. The present painting is the largest and most important version - the others being smaller and sketchier (figs. 1 and 2). In our painting, the dancer is for the first time engaging the viewer and inviting us to take part in her exotic dance while the exaggerated brushstrokes create a heightened sense of movement and excitement.