Italian artist Giovanni Boldini successfully fashioned himself as one of the few premier portrait painters to high society, visually chronicling the most stylish and the greatest luminaries of the nineteenth century. Legendary art connoisseur and historian Bernard Berenson saw Boldini as the quintessential Belle Époque painter: "As an expert on society, Boldini perfectly captured the elegance of this era." Boldini exhibited regularly at the Salon, and attracted, initially through society patrons in London, a wide range of international clients eager to have him paint their portrait. The unique quality of Boldini's dynamic brushwork and his glamorous interpretations of his subjects, set him apart from his contemporaries, resulting in an immediately recognizable signature style.
Boldini's depiction of Lawrence Alexander "Peter" Harrison is among the most distinguished and sophisticated of Boldini's male portraits. Boldini may have first met Peter Harrison through American artist John Singer Sargent, with whom Boldini was friends and whose portrait Boldini painted in 1889. Peter and his brother Leonard Frederic "Ginx" Harrison, nephews of Robert Harrison of Wargrave, Berkshire, were Sargent's close friends and traveling companions. They accompanied Sargent on his travels to Switzerland and Italy, where Sargent featured them in a series of dazzling watercolor studies, including Group with Parasols, as well as Siesta, both in private collections. Peter was also a British portrait and landscape painter in his own right, who became a member of the New English Art Club in 1904.
Unlike Boldini's official portrait of Peter Harrison, Sargent offers a private glimpse of friendship and casualness in Peter Harrison Asleep, which serves as a striking contrast to Boldini's public portrait. Peter Harrison is shown dozing unaware, his left hand hanging over the side of the bed, his right still propping up a book. Sargent captures the outline of Harrison's towering form, also elegantly conveyed as a salient feature in Boldini's sinuous rendition. In Boldini's portrait of Peter Harrison, the use of space is unconventional yet brilliant, as Boldini creates the illusion that Harrison's imposing figure cannot be contained by the boundaries of canvas. The sitter sits diagonally on the chair, affording Boldini the opportunity to show-off his skill at conveying a sense of motion in the subtle but sensual curve of his body. The depiction of Harrison's left hand alone is a tour de force; its assured and forceful character bespeaks the nature of the sitter. The British Harrison, painted in varying gradations of grey, appears royal in stature, as Boldini depicts him in keeping with the great portrait traditions of Gainsborough and Reynolds. This portrait purports a subtle elegance and grace, eschewing the pitfalls of caricature and exaggeration.
As the great American writer and doyenne of Parisian artistic and literary circles Gertrude Stein presciently noted, "when times have established values at their correct places, Boldini will be recognized as the greatest painter of the last century. The New school (of painting) derives from him, as he was the first to simplify lines and planes" (as quoted in Vito Doria, Il Genio di Boldini, Bologna, 1988, p. 120).
Boldini's Portrait of the Artist Lawrence Alexander "Peter" Harrison is one of his last paintings of an artist remaining in private hands. His portraits of Whistler, Degas, Helleu and Menzel have already entered museum collections in America and Europe.