This watercolour with its double female portrait uses the transparency of paint applied with rapid, concise brush strokes to capture the image of an extremely modern, no-nonsense woman. The front and back of the drawing present two ‘impressions’ which may well refer to the same female figure, caught in two different poses: as a half-figure profile portrait still wearning her overcoat, her handsome head decked with a feathered hat, on the side with the artist’s signature; and on the other side, as a full figure seated in a state of undress, in a full-frontal pose seen from a greater distance, her legs crossed as she gazes straight at the observer. Both images come alive thanks to the artist’s extremely concise use of colour – an almost monochrome sepia brown, aside from a few touches of red in the coral of the sitter’s lips and in the rose on her dress – in a light weave of flowing dabs and darker, more incisive marks traced with a firm hand to allow the form of the female body to emerge by contrast from the white of the paper, almost as though it were ‘sliding’ out of the light. Boldini’s use of watercolour is extremely free in its strokes and in the superimposition of its brushwork, but for that very reason it is extremely skilled, directed more towards creating a shorthand image through rapid touches and applications than to producing an opaque application of colour in successive velature, in accordance with an extemporaneous mode of recording from life which other illustrious “painters of modern life” on the Paris scene, for example Costantin Guys or Édouard Manet, had already affected before him. Giovanni Boldini presented his larger works, both in oil or in pastel, at official exhibitions, while he jealously guarded in the folders in his workshop the thousands of drawings and studies that he produced on all kinds of supports and the myriad watercolours that he sketched in the form of brief sketches taken from life, whether portraying the human figure or capturing fleeting impressions of the landscape. These works were circulated only among the artist’s friends, and he occasionally made gifts of them to his closest acquaintances as a token of particular esteem. But their unquestioned function was to act as a fully-fledged “reservoir” of inventions and images for the painter, who frequently referred to his drawings and other works on paper to develop the compositions of his larger paintings. In fact at times in his watercolours and oil paintings we can even detect the relationship between the preliminary study and the final work, although nothing in Boldini points to the regular use of a traditional method in that sense, and in his reuse of a drawing or a watercolour sketch we will never find any perfect match with his oil paintings, only the trace of a cue at the start of his creative process. After brushing with the “Macchiaioli” while living in Tuscany in the 1860s, and after a period in Paris when he was attracted by the virtuoso touches of Fortuny and of Meissonier in a production of genre scenes in costume partaking of the neo-18th century vogue and of the illustration of scenes from contemporary life, the major part of the painter’s output after 1890 gradually began to be associated with his activity as an artist portraying the glittering society of the Belle époque, in the furrow of such artists as John Singer Sargent. Boldini, however, raised that role and that function to levels previously unheard of, in that he merged his own life style with that of his sitters. At the same time, he freely interpreted each picture in his own unmistakable “manner,” never relinquishing his ability to identify with the sitter, of whom he offered a glossy yet exuberant image bordering almost on caricature. Thus he turned his hand to various “types” of portrait: women’s fashion with the variety of styles of attire and occasions for which they were worn dictated a level that was to some extent standard in definition, a level which he adopted to confer originality of form and palette on a portrait in his highly personal stylistic take. His poses, studied to enhance his figures’ physical nature and temperament, were often unstable or dynamic, thus exercising a unique hold on the observer. The depiction of the figure and the setting also invariably included less well-defined parts by comparison with the main focus of the picture, but these sprezzature, coinciding with the absence of a completed form, were at once intense and evocative, demanding active participation on the part of the observer who was forced literally to “plunge” with his gaze into the dynamic tangle of the gestural brushstrokes and the thick paint, attracted and charmed by this game pitting sharp definition against the telling absence of form at one and the same time. For Boldini, whether his portrait depicted a member of international highy society strongly characterised by her status or a figure belonging to the Parisian demi-monde, a woman always embodied an inexhaustible life force through her individual beauty and magnetic charm, a value heralding modernity precisely because in his view she was the absolute leading player of the modern era and it was she who breathed life into the dynamic of society. This Portrait of a Woman with a Hat offers us the motif of a beautiful woman in a day gown, shown in profile and as though leaning towards something capturing her attention outside the picture. The watercolour is the product of a rapid thickening of liquid brushstrokes that surround the female figure with areas of dabbed staining freely applied around the whiteness of her neck and face in order to throw her fine and delicate features into relief. The nude on the back of the sheet gives us an even more accurate impression of the level of bare essentiality achieved by Boldini in his casual studies. The figure, clad only in blond, liquid shadow, has the conciseness of an ideogram. Note her extremely long legs defined by seductive thumbstrokes of colour, and see how the woman’s flesh coincides with the white space of the paper, a pure mobile footprint of light. Thus the double portrait encloses within it all the qualities of Boldini at his least affected: sophisticated elegance coupled with an amusing painterly game in a decorative synthesis bordering on the abstract.