Boldini exhibit falls short

“Giovanni Boldini in Impressionist Paris” opened at the Clark this past weekend, where it will remain on view until April 25. The exhibition, the United States’ first show dedicated exclusively to the artist in 20 years, traces the evolution of the Italian painter’s style over the last quarter of the 19th century. In that time, Boldini transitioned from a young émigré in Paris absorbing the influences of the great masters working around him to a distinguished portraitist of society figures, churning out “large, elegant, dazzlingly painted images,” as the exhibition text effuses.

Born in 1842, Boldini moved to Paris – the nexus of major developments in late 19th century European art – in 1871. In what proved to be a theme running throughout the artist’s career, and thus the exhibition, Boldini’s work immediately began to show the heavy influence of artists working around him. His earliest works in the show are small, detailed historical genre scenes, largely influenced by Classicists like Ernest Meissonier. It is with these paintings from the early 1870s that Boldini achieves some of his greatest successes: They are delicate and lavished with detail, yet somehow surprisingly free and painterly in their brushwork. In works like “Berthe Going for a Walk” (1874), Boldini’s struggle to reconcile a tension between his contrived old-fashioned subject matter and a newer, bolder style rears its head for the first time, but the results are, at a minimum, interesting.

While Boldini’s smaller paintings are aesthetically pleasing, if simple and fairly unchallenging, his first ventures into larger format, impressionistic painting rock the boat in the opposite direction. The earliest large-scale work in the show, “Monday Promenade, Versailles” (1876), is the closest thing to a “bad painting” you will find hanging on the walls of a respectable institution. The bounty of high-society figures promenading through the gardens appear at once absurdly pompous and out of place in their contrived attire and completely lost in the mess of the grandiose landscape. Shortly thereafter, in “The Dispatch Bearer” (1879), Boldini flirts briefly with a convergence of his earlier hyper-detailed, hyper-realistic style with more modern urban subject matter, before his artistic sensibilities veer off sharply in the direction of Impressionism.

Whatever comparisons the exhibition might want to draw between Boldini and giants of French Impressionism like Camille Pissarro and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Boldini’s Impressionism is of an entirely different breed. Colors are more saturated and anything but pastel, brushstrokes seem heavier and more violent and many of the compositions maintain a high level of detail. Two juxtapositions of the artist’s landscapes with paintings of the same subject matter, one by Pissarro and one by Renoir, reveal Boldini’s continued heavy reliance on realistic detail to evoke his subjects, while his contemporaries embodied the truer spirit of Impressionism by capturing the overall mood of the landscape with more evocative brushwork and palette choices.

When Boldini does relinquish his preoccupation with detail, though, the results are alarming. The enormous “Two White Horses and Child with a Hoop” (1881-6), originally part of the same canvas, jar the viewer with their thick, violent, almost haphazard applications of paint, suggesting not only the dangers of city life in the industrial age, as the wall text would have us believe, but also the dangers of radical experimentation. Ironically, Boldini’s other most radical work in the exhibition – a near complete monochrome painting, “Nocturne in Montmartre” (1883) – is utterly, forgettably boring.

What this exhibition does, then, is reveal the sort of quandary that Boldini, perhaps unknowingly, must have found himself in. His most successful and marketable works seem to have been the smaller, tighter compositions he produced so prolifically, but they also belonged to a tired, unoriginal genre. Meanwhile, his bolder attempts and invention miss the mark both conceptually and aesthetically, at least to a modern eye. Additionally, in showing ways in which Boldini was supposedly influenced by contemporaries, the exhibition unwittingly reveals the ways in which Boldini’s work fell short of the standards they set. His paintings, drawings and etchings of the ballet and the theater smack of amateurism when hung next to the work of Edgar Degas, for example.

The triumphant climax of the show, a room full of large-scale portraits of society figures, reveals that even at the supposed apex of his stylistic prowess, Boldini could never quite vanquish many of his perpetual struggles. He captures striking likenesses of many of his subjects, as in “Portrait of James McNeill Whistler” (1892) and a particularly arresting “Portrait of Miss Errazuriz” (1892), but fails on the level of consistency of style and proportional accuracy. To make matters worse for Boldini, a John Singer Sargent portrait hangs in the same gallery.

It seems fitting that, before this exhibition, the one Boldini painting most local connoisseurs and newbies alike might have seen is “Return of the Fishing Boats” (1879), a small, oceanside landscape, usually on display with the Clark’s permanent collection. The work is compelling in its near-photographic realism and the surprising dynamism of its composition despite its size, although there is nothing radical or complicated about it. Despite this exhibition’s efforts to convince you otherwise, however, this 6-by-10-inch painting is more than enough to encapsulate both Boldini’s talent and his contribution to the canon. Some of the works in the show are interesting and many are beautiful to look at, but few will stay with you once you leave the museum.