One of my favourite artists from the late 19th century period is Giovanni Boldini (31 December 1842 – 11 July 1931), an Italian portrait painter who lived and worked in Paris for most of his career. He became the most fashionable portrait painter in Paris and was known as the “Master of Swish” because of his flowing style of painting.
A Boldini portrait of his former muse and lover Marthe de Florian, a French actress, in a beautiful pink muslin evening dress was discovered in a Paris flat in late 2010, hidden away from view on the premises that were unvisited for 70 years.
The portrait had never been listed, exhibited or published, however a visiting card with a scribbled love note from the painter was found in the apartment, and a short reference found in a book from 1951 commissioned by the artist’s widow Emilia Cardona also confirmed the provenance of the painting. According to the book, the work was painted in 1888, when the actress was 24 years old. After its rediscovery and subsequent research into its provenance, the painting was put to auction with a starting price of €300,000, but the sale price rocketed as ten bidders pushed the final price to €2.1 million, a world record for the artist.
The portrait of Princess Marthe Bibesco is my absolute favouirte, maybe because I find her both beautiful and a fascinating person. A successful writer of both nonfiction and novels she became the toast of the Belle Epoque Paris, moving easily among the literary, aristocratic and political power elites. Marcel Proust wrote her a letter praising her books “You are not only a splendid writer, Princess, but a sculptor of words, a musician, a purveyor of scents, a poet”.
From 1957 until 1973 Marthe lived in Tullimaar, Perranarworthal, Cornwall, England not far from my own home. Tullimaar is a beautiful mansion house that was occupied by American troops during the latter part of World War II and U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower stayed at the house for two weeks in the run-up to D-Day in 1944. Winston Churchill met with Eisenhower here to discuss D-Day planning.
Here are some of my other favourite works by the Master of Swish
A Paris Apartment is a novel by Michelle Gable.The book follows a fictitional Sotheby’s auctioneer who is tasked with assessing and selling rare antiques and collectibles found in an apartment in Paris that had been locked and unoccupied for the previous 70 years. The apartment is only opened after an heir to Marthe de Florian passes away.
The narrative alternates between modern day and the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries. The past storyline revolves around Marthe’s diary entries while the present storyline follows April’s quest to find the history behind the apartment’s accoutrements. One particular item of interest for April is a portrait of Marthe painted by Giovanni Boldini. As a result of her research, April becomes increasingly fascinated with Marthe, Boldini, and the contents of the apartment. She also reevaluates her position in a disappointing marriage and considers staying in Paris with a potential love interest.
The book became a New York Times bestseller in January 2016 and is a USA Today bestseller.
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