Giovanni Boldini was born in Ferrara, Italy in 1845, the eighth of thirteen children. He moved to Florence in 1862-65, where he came into contact with members of the Barbizon school and the Macchiaioli – a group of artists opposed to the strict teachings of the Accademia. The Macchiaioli worked to emphasise painterly immediacy and freshness, notions that were also tied to the French Impressionists. A great influence upon Boldini’s work was his friendship with the influential thinker and art critic Diego Martelli who, himself, would help mould and champion the ideas of Impressionism in Italy.
From the beginning of his career Boldini displayed a remarkable talent as a portrait painter, and during a trip to London in 1869 was able to obtain numerous commissions. He would carry this forward, residing in London on-and-off for the next five years. Boldini also produced landscape paintings, including a series of frescoes at the Villa ‘La Falconiera’, near Pistoia in 1870.
No matter his skill for landscapes his talent and love was clearly for portraiture. In 1872 he settled in Paris at the age of 30, taking a studio on the Place Pigalle. Beginning in 1874 he exhibited frequently at the annual Salons and quickly rose to prominence in Parisian art circles. He enjoyed an exclusive contract with the eminent art dealer Adolphe Goupil, and produced for him small, brightly coloured, 18th century costume pieces such as Young Woman Writing that were popular with his Parisian clientele.
Boldini’s public debut of 1874 at the Salon de Mars with his bold, fluid style of painting soon proved immensely popular. He began to paint society portraits and quickly developed a reputation for his dazzling, elegant depictions of the fashionable women, executed with these bold, fluid brushstrokes.
It is believed Boldini first met artist John Singer Sargent in the summer of 1880 (Sargent was 24 and Boldini 38) and it was in the early 80’s that Boldini painted Sargent. He would paint portraits of other painters such as James A. McNeill Whistler, and Paul-César Helleu along with Paul’s wife. He became a close friend of Degas (Degas drew Boldini); and like Degas, he began to use pastel extensively in the 1880’s.