Gertrude Elizabeth (née Blood), Lady Colin Campbell (1897), Giovanni Boldini

by Rachael Herman

Please forgive my mal-attentiveness, dear reader, for I appear to have forsaken you in favour of Easter holiday pursuits. Fear not though, for Easter – and thus my shameful neglect of you – is drawing to a close. To account for my bad manners, I will resume my analytical-bumblings-that-are-an-excuse-for-Art History with a sneak peak at what Mister Giovanni Boldini has had to offer the art world.

Boldini originally caught my eye whilst I was strolling around none other than the National Portrait Gallery, with his rather seductive painting of that saucy minx, Gerty Campbell. Throwing off the shackles of restraint, with regards to anatomic representation, Boldini put to good use his somewhat flamboyant style when representing this fine fille. As the picture shows, Gertrude appears to be a voluptuous and opulent woman; clothed from head to foot in striking black; reclining luxuriously on a chaise longue, all the while making come-hither eyes at the viewer. Oh the marvellous life of the rich.

Now that you have been tugged away from her penetrative stare, I will commence by providing a little bit of background on our rather glamorous subject. On May 3rd 1857 the proud parents, Edmund Maghlin and Mary Amy, welcomed their unfortunately christened child, Gertrude Elizabeth Blood, into the world. The youngest of three, Gertrude grew up with her siblings on the family estate in the picturesque County Clare, south-west Ireland. It was at the tender age of twenty-three that she met her soon-to-be hubby, Lord Colin Campbell whilst on a social visit to Scotland in the October of 1880. Ten months later, no sooner had she become Lady Colin Campbell, was our Gerty to discover that her beloved was of a particularly sickly disposition, sporting what some have later said to have been a bad case of syphilis. Nice one Col. Once the beautiful Lady had been enlightened to the infection she was now playing host to, it is needless to say that divorce was the consequence – although this was not fully processed until five years after the wedding, during which time Lord Colin accused his wife of four separate bouts of extra-marital relations. Can you wonder at it though, knowing what he had lured the poor lass into?!

The newly single Gertrude Blood next turned her attention to, and subsequently became a dab hand at, journalism. Despite her peers deeming her as quick-witted, intelligent, beautiful and athletic; she was to remain constantly under the looming shadow of the messy divorce trial and shameful allegations that were a result of her troubled marriage. In 1886, Gertrude’s potential as a worthy subject for painting first became recognised when she was requested to pose for James Abbott McNeill Whistler in the portrait Harmony in White and Ivory: Portrait of Lady Colin Campbell – this was one in a series of paintings depicting beautiful women in the varying neutral tones of white. However, due to unknown circumstances, this study is no longer with us. Eleven years on from this and we find ourselves face to face with Giovanni Boldini’s above tribute to the then forty-year-old gentlewoman.

With that hefty back story now firmly behind us, we can start to look at the actual artwork. Composition-wise, it is of a fairly simple structure, with the figure cutting a rather pleasant ‘S’ shape from top to base of the canvas; both suitably enticing and seductive. One thing that initially catches the eye is the positioning of the legs. They are not what one would expect to look like in a painting of a woman, as they are slightly apart. There is still a hint of delicacy and reserve, however, but more so a nod to the masculinity and power attributed, no doubt, from her sporting pursuits and noteworthy career.

Moving on to the threads of dear Gerty, we can see that she is very much a champion of the LBD (‘L’ being ‘large’ in this case, as opposed to ‘little’), complete with plunging neckline (showing us that, even at forty, she has still ‘got it’) and spray of flowers (expressing, ‘Yes, I may be a strong female, but I still have a hint of dainty damsel about me and a taste for the pretty things.’) – Below is another example of Boldini’s work, entitled Profile of a Young Woman (date unknown), featuring the trademark petit bouquet and crisp, graceful clothing – But yes, back to the dress; in all its sombre Morticia Adams-esque extravagance there is definitely a high degree of classical beauty about it. Notice the folding of the drapery in all its splendour, tumbling gently down those statuesquely long legs of hers. Team that with the simple gold bangles encircling each wrist and we have ourselves quite the Grecian goddess; one that even Titian would have been honoured to represent.

When faced with a portrait featuring predominantly funereal colours, it is easy for one to cling to the notion that the subject is steeped in tragedy. It is true that Gertrude was essentially given a death sentence by her generous husband, therefore one could easily put two and two together in order to describe her post marital life as one waiting to die from a then increasingly painful and ultimately fatal disease. But, in terms of what Boldini was trying to show in his piece, I don’t believe this to be the case. Arguably her most successful days, and consequently happiest, were those spent after her divorce; the post-Colin days being more of an awakening than a quietening. A more plausible theory, perhaps, would be that the colour black relates instead to the authority she commanded as a result of her individual achievements – think black-belt in Karate, the highest possible honour.

Boldini’s typical painting style is an multifaceted one, consisting of a myriad expressive brushstrokes, centring on a carefully illustrated face; the porcelain colouring of the skin contrasting sharply with the darkened tones of the attire; the dainty head perched atop an exuberantly painted body – see how the proportions are slightly mismatched in his study of Gertrude. I really love the overall energetic feel of the paintings, one which has the viewer swept up in a whirlwind of glamour and femininity. The focus is then gently settled onto the facial expression: the piercing yet flirtatious gaze of the lady, complete with a knowing smirk playing about those pert lips. InGertrude Elizabeth, the former suggests a reference to her inquisitiveness as an interviewer; the latter to her famous lightening sharp wit.

All in all, we have a superbly interesting lady immortalised by an equally superb man: a man who clearly has a talent for portraying women in a way that demonstrates excellent reverence and understanding.