As a rare Giovanni Boldini portrait is discovered, we delve into the mystery that surrounds its beautiful subject
Who? Actress and socialite Marthe de Florian was famed for her captivating beauty, ever surrounded by swirling rumours that she was lover to numerous great men, including Georges Clemenceau, later prime minister of France and the painter Giovanni Boldini. The latter connection remained mere supposition until just three years ago, when a fascinating discovery was made.
What? Florian resided in a breath-taking apartment on Paris' Right Bank, which she left to her granddaughter, Madame de Florian. At the age of 23, amid the chaos of the Second World War, Madame de Florian fled Paris for the South of France, apparently never to return, but she continued to pay rent on the building until her death at the age of 91. From 1942 then, until a wintery December afternoon in 2010 – when it was entered by auctioneer Olivier Choppin-Janvry – the decadent apartment remained frozen in time, a time capsule recording the precise moment of de Florian's sudden flight.
"From 1942 then, to 2010, the decadent apartment remained frozen in time, a time capsule recording the precise moment of de Florian's sudden flight"
Amid the luxurious if dusty furnishings, the wizened taxidermy and mountains of ephemera ranging from dressing tables to Disney toys, Choppin-Janvry came across a mesmerising Boldini portrait of a beautiful woman wearing a pink muslin dress, accompanied by a stack of ribbon bound love letters, including some from Boldini himself, addressed to Marthe de Florian. It became clear she was both his lover and the beauty in the painting. A reference found in Boldini’s wife's records has confirmed the identity of the portrait's subject, dating it to 1898, when de Florian was just 24 years old.
Why? The painting recently sold for an astounding €2.1 million – the highest selling Boldini work of all time. However, the building has remained in the hands of the Florian estate, holding the mysteries of both Marthe and Madame de Florian firmly behind ornate closed doors.
Text by Rhiannon Wastell