In 1871 a young Giovanni Boldini arrived in Paris, stepping away from a burgeoning career as a portraitist in Italy and hoping to establish a name for himself in the artistic capital of the world. In the City of Light Boldini achieved a meteoric success, attracting the attention and support of one of the most influential dealers, Adolphe Goupil, as well as other rising young artists such as John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler and Edgar Degas. With the help of these already established cultural luminaries and Boldini’s own exceptional artistic skill, Paris’s nouveau-riche and its well-heeled visitors readily opened their doors to the aspiring Italian. It was not long before the young artist could count among his clients Robert de Montesquiou, Conseulo Vanderbilt the Duchess of Marlborough, the composer Giuseppe Verdi and others.
L’amica del marchese belongs to a series of small-scale, intricately detailed paintings completed soon after Boldini’s visit to Versailles in the spring of 1875. The imposing palace inspired the artist with its intricate, grandiose architecture and florid Rococo decoration. The expansive, manicured grounds and the palace’s seemingly endless number of fantastically appointed chambres provided the backdrop for the artist’s courtly costume dramas, often played out as intimate tête-à-têtes featuring elaborate costumes set in even more elaborate interiors.
In the present work, the palace’s highly polished parquet floors create a stage upon which a beautiful woman sweeps into the room from a long corridor, her scarlet shoes reflected in the glossy surface. Her fantastic, chartreuse gown’s folds, frills and bunches of fabric enhance this sense of movement, while its floral appliqués seamlessly blend into the bouquet she holds. Rushing into the room, her face is turned to the gentleman lounging on the divan, upholstered in yet another floral pattern, as if she has just noticed him. While her face is obscured, her décolletage is prominently displayed, both for the marquis and for the viewer. Alone amidst the soaring architecture of Versailles, save for the little white dog and the gilded putti and painted figures in the wall decorations, the pair is engaged in a sensually charged scene of courtly life.
These small-scale, intimate, jewel-like paintings that provided a glimpse into the lives of Paris’s high society also exemplify the Rococo revival occurring in France in the last quarter of the 19th century. The Rococo movement underwent a resurgence beginning in the 1860s due in large part to the writings of Edmond and Jules de Goncourt. Recognized as leading tastemakers of their time, the de Goncourt brothers advocated a return to Rococo which they defined as movement ‘qui a l’ambition de joli en tout (which quested for beauty in all things)’ (E. de Goncourt, La Maison d’un artiste, Paris, 1881, pp. 186-187). Not only painting but also sculpture, furniture and decorative objects were integral to creating a Rococo environment.
The narrative and aesthetic appeal of Boldini’s work is immediately evident, and was received with unabashed enthusiasm by the critics of the day. In his Art Treasures of America, Edward Strahan noted that Mrs. A. T. Stewart’s similar Boldini of The Park of Versailles in the Eighteenth Century was replete with ‘gallants making a leg to fine ladies in sedan chairs….the décolleté, necks, and pinchable arms of these microscopic puppets show great mastery of flesh painting of the snuff-box lid scale’ (facsimile edition, New York, 1977, vol. 1, p. 37). Strahan also notes the influence of Mariano Fortuny in his creation of a ‘spectacle’ on a miniature scale, where each brushstroke is carefully applied in order to create intricately described details coupled with a vibrant use of color, a keen study of light and a sense of intense movement. Boldini’s technique also suggests the important compositional model of contemporary master and eagerly sought-after artist Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier, whose works detailed scenes from France’s past periods of wealth and prominence.
Boldini’s paintings from this French series appealed to new American and European collectors, and his dealer, Adolphe Goupil, was poised to accommodate this ready market. Not long after the present work left Boldini’s studio, it reappeared in a series of New York galleries whose patrons voraciously sought the most fashionable in European art.