Giovanni Boldini (Ferrara 1842 – Paris 1931) is a timeless painter. His artistic vitality was as unstoppable as his genius; his biography is a complex and fascinating puzzle, made up of meetings, disagreements, drastic decisions and great passion: he was both a terrible man and a sublime artist.
Standing in front of the works of this extraordinary painter, it is difficult not to remain totally enchanted, an experience vividly described by Diego Martelli in a famous page of art criticism in which he concludes his analysis of Boldini’s early French output by affirming the “malicious gnome’s” extraordinary ability to “engulf”, to “shock” and to “enchant” with his art.
Exploring this unpublished and unique book, from a private Parisian collection, one remains enchanted by the beauty of original drawings and fascinating, quick sketches from life, capable of transporting the attentive observer directly into the creative world of this Italian genius. The artist’s appeal has grown with the intrigue surrounding the provenance of this volume.
Who did it originally belong to? Who tried to make a calendar from it, writing in pencil a series of dates on the first few pages? To try and respond to these questions, we must consider, first of all, the last used page of the book, the only one that seemingly has nothing to do with Boldini: on this page we find a Dujardin photo etching of a watercolour by Jean Baptiste Guth from 1897 that depicts the actor Costant Coquelin, known as Coquelin Ainé (1841-1909), impersonating Cyrano de Bergerac. On the lower right of the photo engraving, we find a dedication, written in pencil: “To my dear friend / Madame B. Desfossés / C. Coquelin”.
It thus seems highly likely that the volume originally belonged to Berthe Desfossés, née Chables. Madame Desfossés was the wife of Victor Desfossés (Brussels 1835 - Paris 1899) a stockbroker and wealthy collector. Berthe Desfossés is remembered particularly for having removed an immense painting by Gustave Courbet, L’atelier, from an 1899 auction of the collection of paintings belonging to her by-then deceased husband. In 1920, the Courbet was acquired with a public subscription and donated to the Louvre. The Desfossés collection was broken apart in the same urban villa at 6 Rue Galilée where it was created; a collection of great masterpieces that increased over time, including works by Boldini: Pièce d’eau des Suisses (Versailles), La Basse-Cour (Etretat, 1878), the watercolour Barques de pêche à mare basse and a study for The horsewoman. Originally, when this rare volume of drawings was taking shape, the family lived at number 44 on Rue Douai, and the industrious Victor gathered works for his collection from the Theo Van Gogh gallery on Rue Laval.
Victor Desfossés was the founder of the daily economics magazine known as “Cote Desfossés” and from 1892 director of administration for the literary magazine, “Gil Blas”. He and his wife owned the large villa ‘Les Terrasses’ in Etretat, depicted by Boldini in a beautiful painting dated 1879 (cf. P. Dini – F. Dini, Giovanni Boldini (1842-1931). Catalogue raisonné, Turin 2002, volume III, book I, n. 307.). The sketch of a half-bust of a young girl (page 34) – drawn on the reverse of a menu- and attached to the penultimate used page of this volume mentions Étretat and is dated September 1878. Given that the pencil notes from a third person written in the first pages of the volume (pages 2 and 4) give a sort of ‘start’ to the volume, dating it to the 19th of November 1878 (followed by the 22nd of November 1878); we can note that the original plan to follow a chronological order within the volume was almost immediately abandoned. At a certain point sheets of Boldini’s sketches are added randomly to the remaining blank pages of the book.
Given this information, we can assume that the volume was conceived as a ‘Guestbook’ dedicated exclusively to Giovanni Boldini, who was obliged to add a work to it each time he visited the Desfossés home. This polite agreement happened after his first summer stay with the couple in Étretat in September 1878. Gradually, Boldini noted with extraordinary ability details of the house’s furnishing (like the splendid inlaid vase on page 4); as well as details of the collection such as the cameo with the depiction of Hercules fighting with the Nemean lion (page 6) and the sword with the finely engraved hilt (page 30); the daily habits of his wealthy friends, like the carriage ride of Madame Desfossés with her Chihuahua on her lap and her other small dogs at her feet (page 18); or the rest of the same Madame Desfossés or one of her graceful guests on the hammock in the garden (page 9), drawn from life with a refined quality and grace from which the painter would create one of his most joyful paintings from this creative period (cf. P. Dini – F. Dini, Giovanni Boldini (1842-1931). Catalogue raisonné, cit., n. 153, 154).
In the 1879 portrait of Alice Regnault dressed as a horsewoman (page 12), captured with rapid perfection, we might assume that Boldini got close to the beautiful actress at the Desfossés’s residence, but it’s actually more probable that, given his agreement as a guest, he entrusted quite spontaneously to a plain sheet of white paper his obsession of the moment, namely the beautiful Alice, lover of Alexandre Dumas Junior. Boldini enjoyed himself by provoking the man’s jealousy, along with Alice, who posed that same year for the painting where he depicted her as a smiling horsewoman (Milan, Galleria d’Arte Moderna).
Boldini’s relationship with the Desfossés is also documented elsewhere, up until 1886, when Boldini acts as a go-between with the baritone, Faure, for the sale of Pièce d’eau des Suisses (Versailles) that then became part of the financier’s collection.
In a twenty year period, from the time of Boldini’s first stay in Étretat, the destiny of this precious volume came together and was completed with the addition of the brief letter signed by the artist (page 32) and the photo etching (page 36). This latter work is not by Boldini but depicts a well-known figure from the world of the theatre who had posed for Boldini and to whom Boldini remained connected; a friendship shared, as shown by the author’s dedication, with Berthe Desfossés.
(Ferrara 1842 - Paris 1931)
Volume of drawings, 1878 c.
Pencil on paper, 28.5 x 23 x 3.5 cm