When Giovanni Boldini (1842–1931) first arrived in Paris in 1867, he, like many of his compatriots, did not necessarily consider it a final destination but a requisite stop on the way towards mastery of his art. Practical considerations quickly intervened. He found that making miniatures for the bourgeoning dealership could earn him a decent profit, something fellow countryman Giuseppe De Nittis (1846-1884) had discovered a few years earlier. Boldini thus left Macchiaioli avant-gardism behind to paint Parisian joie de vivre.
This exhibition in the heart of Rome’s centro storico highlights Italy’s part in the exploding cosmopolitanism of 19th-century France. In addition to masterworks by Boldini, De Nittis, and Zandomeneghi (1841–1917), it features Vittorio Corcos, Antonio Mancini, Telemaco Signorini, Serafino De Tivoli, and several others. Many of the pieces belong to private collections rarely available for public viewing. The cafés, boulevards, theatres, and salons they depict give us some premonition of a self-congratulatory civic pride which would culminate in the 1889 Paris Exhibition.
The pieces are thoughtfully distributed across the cloister rooms, but the decision to hang them on tacky wall coverings above phony furniture cutouts was in poor taste. An introduction to the exhibit explains that the concept was inspired by Ernst Gombrich’s observation that domestic paintings need a visual “base.” The effect, however, could have been achieved by less gaudy means. Nevertheless, the opportunity to study Boldini’s miniatures at close range allows us to appreciate the generous amounts of paint he applied with a trademark “swish” to glorify quotidian bourgeois’ delights.
His swishiness is deceptive, however, for he clearly adhered to high standards of control and technique as evident in Conversazione al caffè. Two young ladies catch a glimpse of some chance event (perhaps an approaching acquaintance?) occurring just outside the frame, creating an atmosphere of anticipation. Through subtle contrasts of color, shape, and costume, we instantly perceive two different personalities in the context of a common interest. This picture is the result of a meticulous care for perspective and composition that open space for a lavishly rich palate. The painting is immediately accessible though nonetheless worthy of sustained admiration. This, like many of Boldini’s paintings, focuses sharply on a moment of fleeting pleasure, an effect the artist intensified by deliberately placing a single color—such as the rich strawberries in Primizie (Le prime fragole)—that compliments a bright peripheral light. The enchantments illustrated by Boldini justify Baudelaire’s words sprawled across one of the walls of the exhibit: “modernity is the transitory.”
Less wisely chosen is Baudelaire’s remark that accompanies Federico Zandomeneghi’s ingenious depictions of femininity: “woman … is a divinity, a star … sometimes a light, a glance, an invitation to bliss, sometimes just a word.” It is true that Baudelaire and Zandomeneghi were both deeply touched and inspired by women. But there is a difference.
The above quote is from Baudelaire’s pivotal essay “Le peintre de la vie moderne” which first appeared in Le Figaro in 1863. Baudelaire appeals to painters to revise their medium in order to capture better the complex interrelationship of the city and its inhabitants. In this way, artists could remain true to the time-honored aims of painting without replicating images now possible through the invention of photography. More importantly, and at a more philosophical level, Baudelaire joined other modernists in lamenting that the “ideal” had been detached from the world and relegated to the imagination. Unlike Nietzsche, he and they were unwilling to live in a world rid of the “ideal.”
Women are for Baudelaire a privileged vehicle for bringing that “ideal” back down to earth. In Le peintre de la vie moderne he writes that women are “a glittering conglomeration of all the graces of nature, condensed into a single being.” At the same time, it was integral to the modernist project to restore the ideal—be it through poetry, the novel, music, painting, or sculpture—through a surfeit of sensuality. Women, therefore, perform a “kind of duty” by taking the trouble to appear “magical and supernatural.” A woman “has to astonish and charm us; as an idol, she is obliged to adorn herself in order to be adored. Thus she has to lay all the arts under contribution for the means of lifting herself above Nature, the better to conquer hearts and rivet attention” (see The Painter of Modern Life and other Essays, ed. and trans. by Jonathan Mayne, London: Phaidon Press, 1995, pp. 30-35). In short, women subsume the ideal by ripping it from heaven and elevating it once more.
Zandomeneghi’s women neither perform nor require such a formidable feat. They are virtuous and beautiful in their very humanity. Even when placing them in conventional settings of bourgeois indulgence, Zandomeneghi paints them with a sort of indifference to Baudelaire’s project. Take La tasse de thé, for example. Without abandoning the nimble brush he learned from the Impressionists, Zandomeneghi attains greater refinement in this picture, even given its straightforward composition and economy of color. The young lady in the center of the picture betrays a slight trepidation that the fulfillment of her “duty” might leave her deepest yearnings unfilled. Lifting a teacup from the serving tray offered by her younger sister, she gazes pensively in the distance, evidently pondering some recent proposal. She is further attended by an elderly maid who places a reassuring hand on her shoulder. The painting equals the eager anticipation we find in Boldini, but it is now replete with tender emotion that brings human fragility to the fore and alludes to the ageless consolation of female companionship. Whatever occurrence has troubled the main character might easily trouble a girl today and evoke the same sympathy. Zandomeneghi’s women are not the embodiment of an ideal but its bearers; and they are so in the most ordinary of circumstances.
Le madri, though more impressionist in style, further illustrates the point. The matrons here are aloof but intent, noble but utterly natural in bearing. Pace Baudelaire, they do not seem to have gone to extraordinary lengths either to appear “magical and supernatural” or to “astonish and charm us.” This painting is breathtaking for Zandomeneghi’s uncanny ability to make us feel the gaze of women without seeing their eyes: they are transparent in their very obliqueness. He grasps and communicates the humanity of women, respecting their concrete dignity and shunning the need to extol them as vehicles of an abstract ideal.
From both a technical and an aesthetical point of view, this exhibit challenges the common notion that paintings are best understood by initially classifying them according to period and style. Such preliminary categorization is virtually impossible given that these works alternatively draw upon Corot (without the softness), Courbet (without the austerity), Degas (without the draftsmanship), and a host of others. Whatever the style, they flaunt the “Paris myth” and surreptitiously unmask its shallowness. Commissioned at a time of unprecedented confidence in the power of science to promote brotherhood and enhance human happiness, they were executed by artists astute enough to see through such naivety but shrewd enough to capitalize on it to further their own artistic agenda.