Giovanni Boldrini’s Portrait of Elizabeth Drexel Lehr is the first work to greet visitors in the luxurious central hall of The Helm in Newport. This figure’s welcoming gaze and elegance enclose the poetics of the Italian artist and his ability to capture the beauty of an ephemeral moment.  

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Across the movements, from Florence to Paris 

Giovanni Boldini (1842-1931) was a prolific Italian painter, especially appreciated for his portraits. It’s difficult to ascribe him to a specific movement since Boldini was always looking for new stimuli in the artistic field. This desire to keep up to date brought him to Florence, where many artists used to meet at the Caffè Michelangiolo. Thus was born the Italian artistic movement of Macchiaioli (around 1860) with which Boldini established solid and fruitful friendships.

Around 1871, Boldini decided to move to Paris, attracted by the cultural climate of the French capital. In those years, he came into contact with the Impressionists. There, his greatest fortune was to be introduced into the salons of the Belle Époque where the painter came into contact with many of his patrons.

Female portraits and Boldini’s technique

Boldini made the female figure the favorite subject of his portraits. The ardent desire to portray women’s faces did not abandon him even in his old age when, almost completely blind, he continued to make fine charcoals, drawing and following the features through touching their faces.

In his Portrait of Elisabeth Wharton Drexel, there are stylistic elements recurring in his works. The color is bright and shiny, such as reproducing the special effects of silk and satin of the orange dress. Other characteristic elements are his saber strokes of color through which the painter outlines the elegant dress of the woman. Moreover, with the same rapidity of stroke, the setting is also defined as almost sketched superficially. The painter makes the worldly atmosphere. Here, as in all his portraits, a frenetic vortex of brushstrokes envelops the figure and calls to mind the unprecedented perception of speed then experienced through the new technologies: a new rhythm that invades even the most comfortable living rooms.

A swirling moment in a life of constraint

Amongst the silks and taffeta, Boldini’s women have a restlessness inside them, a quiver that reveals the Parisian high society portrayed. The same society that Giuseppe Verdi, also portrayed by Boldini, describes in La traviata (1853). 

Portrait of Giuseppe Verdi (1886)
Public domain, viaWikimedia Commons

Like Violetta, Boldini’s women appear to have an ephemeral beauty, caged between the laces of a bodice and of society. Such women reveal their own nature far from the crowd. As the protagonist of La traviata does when, at the end of the first Act, after greeting the guests, she abandons herself to her thoughts (È strano!… è strano!… ) and then concludes with a liberating cabaletta at sunrise.

Povera donna, sola, abbandonata
In questo popoloso deserto
Che appellano Parigi,
Che spero or più?
Che far degg’io?
Gioire!
Di voluttà ne’ vortici perir!
Gioir!


A poor, lonely woman
Abandoned in this teeming desert
They call Paris!
What can I hope? What should I do?
Enjoy myself! Plurge into the vortex
Of pleasure and drown there!
Enjoy myself!

The vortexes are the same that Boldini proposes in his brushstrokes. As the solitude and fiction in which Violetta, Elizabeth Drexel Lehr, and other Boldini’s figures live.

Their slender and elegant silhouettes, smiling and confident faces, show themselves in an instant of joy and enjoying the present as if to challenge the condition that afflicts them.