“The Master of Swish” – Boldini’s Elegant Portraits of High Society Women

Self-portrait by Giovanni Boldini, 1892
Self-portrait by Giovanni Boldini, 1892

In a dusty old Parisian apartment in 2010, a startling discovery was made.

No one had set foot on the premises for 70 years.

Hidden, as if in a time capsule, was a portrait by the Italian artist Giovanni Boldini.

It was of Marthe de Florian, a French actress and demimondaine during the Belle Époque. She was known for having famous lovers including a string of French premiers—Georges Clemenceau, Pierre Waldeck-Rousseau,  Paul Deschanel, and Gaston Doumergue.

The apartment belonged to de Florian’s granddaughter, who left Paris to live in the South of France at the outbreak of World War 2, and never returned.

Evidence of the painting’s authenticity lay in a love-letter and a biographical reference dating it to 1888, when the actress was 24.

Boldini is best known for his dazzling, elegant depictions of fashionable high society women.

A 1933 Time magazine article called Boldini the “Master of Swish”—one look at his striking, fluid brushstrokes explains why.

He was preeminently the artist of the Edwardian era, of the pompadour, the champagne supper and the ribbon-trimmed chemise. —Time Magazine.

Born in Ferrara in 1842, the son of a painter of religious subjects, he moved to Florence to study painting when he was 20 and met the “Macchiaioli”—Italian precursors to Impressionism. It was their influence that set him on a course initially as a landscape artist, then as a portraitist.

On moving to London, he found fame painting society members including the Duchess of Westminster and Lady Holland.

From 1872, he lived in Paris, where he befriended Edgar Degas and became the most fashionable portraitist in Paris.

He lived to be 88, having married only two years earlier. At his wedding breakfast, he made a little speech:

It is not my fault if I am so old, it’s something which has happened to me all at once.

Vote for your favorites from the “master of swish” as you listen to The Swan by Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns.




David James

David James

I'm an Englishman in Boston. History is a joy—it binds us, it connects us, it guides us. I'm interested in making history more accessible and more fun. Join me on this fantastic voyage through time.