Franz Xaver Winterhalter: A Question of Attribution

Duchesse d'Aumale by Franz Schrotzberg 1842Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Dear Diary,

I have been lately neglectful of these pages. Most of my spare time has been occupied by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805-1873). I have recently completed MA thesis on the artist, for which I have been awarded top marks by international examiners. My research and scholarship on Winterhalter is being acknowledged worldwide. My online catalogue of his works is attracting more and more hits. Every week I receive two or three emails from museums, galleries, auction houses, private collectors, researches, and scholars from around the world regarding various aspects of Winterhalter’s works, including information, provenance, authentication, as well as many and valuable additions to the catalogue, which is fast becoming a truly international effort!

A few weeks ago I received an email from a French gentleman of ancient and noble lineage. As far as French aristocracy goes, his family outranks every other noble in the country and is placed somewhere on a step just below royalty. He informed me that one of his ancestors may have been painted by Winterhalter, and he was going to email me a picture of the portrait. I was very excited about the possibility of adding such an illustrious name – and such a prestigious collection – to the Winterhalter catalogue, so waited with a baited breath.

The picture has finally arrived. It showed a beautiful young woman, with large soulful eyes looking directly at the viewer, her fine oval face framed with tight black curls. She was wearing a beautiful dress of pale blue silk, richly edged with delicate lace; a gauze shawl encircled her skirt and covered one of her arms.

Alas, the picture was not by Winterhalter. I am not at liberty to reproduce it here, but there was no doubt in my mind that it was painted in the 1840s. It was clearly done by a professional portrait painter, and most likely by a French one. The face, the shoulders, the dress, and the lace were all beautifully painted, but the workmanship, the brushwork, the style, and indeed the overall feel of the painting was not consistent with other works by Winterhalter of the era. Even the signature on the painting was not done in Winterhalter’s handwriting, and was perhaps added later.

It took me several days to come up with the right words to respond to the gentleman’s email. I sincerely wished for this illustrious name to be added to the catalogue, but, alas, the professional credibility has prevented me from bending my strict rules about the authentication of Winterhalter’s paintings and admitting a work into the catalogue which I knew, in my heart of hearts, to be not by the artist.

I still vividly recall viewing a portrait of the Duchesse d’Aumale at a French palace (illustrated above). It was likewise believed to be by Winterhalter, and its attribution to the artist was never doubted as it has been in the family collection since the 1840s. Nevertheless, I questioned the validity of such attribution on the grounds similar to the ones discussed above. My doubts were not dismissed, and when the painting was taken out of the frame, the curators discovered a signature of Franz Schrotzberg (1811-1889), a famous Viennese artist, celebrated for his portraits of Empress Elisabeth of Austria. The portrait has been displayed since under the correct artist’s name.

Hopefully, with further research, the name of the artist, who painted that beautiful portrait in the gentleman’s collection, will also be discovered, and the picture at last will take pride of place in that artist’s oeuvre.

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

2 Responses to “Franz Xaver Winterhalter: A Question of Attribution”

  1. June 9, 2010 at 1:57 pm

    it must be great handling the work of such historical masters

  2. June 18, 2013 at 9:59 am

    Great website. Lots of useful info here. I am sending it to several friends ans also sharing in delicious.

    And of course, thank you to your effort!

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Eugene Barilo v. Reisberg

June 2010


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