“Portrait of a Lady” by F.X. Winterhalter @ Christie’s New York



Franz Xaver Winterhalter "Portrait of a Lady"Sunday, 3 January 2010

Dear Diary, 

A beautiful portrait of an unknown lady is coming up at Christie’s New York in late January – www.christies.com

While the identity of the female sitter in this portrait remains at this stage a mystery, the painting belongs stylistically to the period between the late 1850s to early 1860s, when Franz Xaver Winterhalter, the German-born international elite portrait specialist, was at the zenith of his fame.

At the time this portrait was painted, among Winterhalter’s patrons were Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie of the French, Emperor Alexander II and Empress Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, King William I and Queen Augusta of Prussia, not to mention Queen Olga of Württemberg, Emperor Franz Joseph I and Empress Elisabeth of Austria, whose grandiloquent portraits of 1865 conclude this glittering period in Winterhalter’s career.

This painting, however, represents a more intimate side of Winterhalter’s portrait oeuvre, as well as his ability to restrain his painterly bravura in order to convey different aspects of his sitters’ personalities.

Perhaps the earliest known example of this is Winterhalter’s portrayal of Queen Victoria (1819-1901) of 1843: while the artist was working on the grandiose official representation of the Queen, wearing crown jewels and swathed in the Robes of the Order of the Garter (1843, oil on canvas, HM Queen Elizabeth II), he also painted an intimate head-and-shoulders portrait of Victoria, her hair undone and lips erotically parted (1843, oil on canvas, HM Queen Elizabeth II).

The list of Winterhalter’s paintings, compiled posthumously by his nephew, Franz Wild, indicates that commissions of such contrasting portraits became more prevalent from the late 1850s, and mainly came from the artist’s Russian and Polish sitters. Perhaps among the best known examples of this period are Winterhalter’s portraits of Princess Maria Vasilievna Worontzova (1819-1895). While the grand full-length portrait of the Princess shows her posing in a deep red velvet gown within the grounds of her palatial estate (1859, oil on canvas, formerly in the collection of Sir Robert Abdy, Bt.), a more intimate portrayal of Maria Vasilievna shows her similarly attired to the sitter in the present portrait in a white chiffon peignoir and posing against a darkened neutral background (c.1858-1859, oil on canvas, Private Collection).

Winterhalter continued to receive such intimate commissions towards the middle of the 1860s, when he created the celebrated official portrait of Elisabeth, Empress of Austria (1837-1898), in a tulle ball gown and diamond stars in her hair (1865, oil on canvas, Hofburg), which was preceded by a more intimate portrayal of the Empress with her hair undone and wearing once again a simple morning dressing gown (1864, oil on canvas, Hofburg).

The formal portraits of Winterhalter’s sitters went on displays in public exhibitions or placed within public areas of royal and princely abodes: for example, the portrait of Queen Victoria was set into the walls of the Throne Room at Windsor Castle, and the portrait of Princess Worontzova became one of the sensations of the Parisian Salon of 1859.

Smaller, intimate portrayals of the same sitters were intended for the eyes of their loved ones only, places within private spaces of their homes, and remained unseen until well after the sitter’s death (or even that of their immediate descendants). For example, intimate oval portraits of Queen Victoria and Empress Elisabeth were given to their respective spouses, placed in their private studies, and had not been publicly seen or reproduced until the 20th Century.

The portrait is reminiscent of Jean Baptiste Greuze’s (1725-1805) eroticised têtes de fantaisie, which regained their popularity towards the middle of the nineteenth century. The extreme close-up with its focus on the sitter’s face, the direct gaze, intimate negligee, and predominantly darkened neutral background of the painting convey a deeper sense of intimacy, as does the oval, ‘feminine’ shape of the canvas, which also reminds of portrait miniatures, often placed within jewelled lockets and worn close to one’s heart. The fact that the only piece of jewellery worn by the sitter in the present portrait is a wedding band on her finger shows that this work was also intended for the sitter’s spouse. The ring’s presence imparts a sense of modesty and propriety within an otherwise frankly erotic portrait.

The existence of this intimate work, rare in the artist’s oeuvre, bears testimony to the uniquely implicit level of trust that existed between Winterhalter and his exalted sitters. It also shows Winterhalter’s ability to interpret the protean nature of his sitters and differentiate between the ‘public’ and ‘private’ nature of human identity.

Given that the portrait was on loan to the Museum of Fine Arts, St Petersburg, Florida, from a Private Collection, it would be interesting to see if the painting will be acquired by or for a public collection, which was the case with a number of portraits by Winterhalter which had recently come up on the art market.

[© Eugene Barilo v. Reisberg 2010. This article is copyright, but the full or partial use is welcome with the full and proper acknowledgment]

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Eugene Barilo v. Reisberg

January 2010


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