[It all started with a] Portrait of Princess Tatiana Yusupova

F.X. Wintehalter - Portrait of Princess Tatiana Yusupova (1858)Wednesday, 2 March 2011

[It all started with a] Portrait of Princess Tatiana Yusupova…

The previous entry made think how did my “love affair” with Winterhalter began (“love affair” being an apt description, as several exes referred to Winterhalter as “the other man in my life”…).

In the late 1985, I was thumbing through my uncle’s collection of postcards with reproductions of paintings from the Hermitage Collection. From the multitude of images that flicked before my eyes, I was inexplicably drawn to a single picture. The inscription on the reverse laconically stated that this was a portrait of Princess Tatiana Alexandrovna Yusupova, painted in Paris in 1858 by an artist called Franz Xaver Winterhalter.

I was intrigued. I wanted to find out more. I wanted to see the portrait in the flesh. Being only fourteen years of age, I was not at liberty to jump on a train and make a lengthy journey to Leningrad (as St Petersburg was then called) for the purpose of seeing a single portrait. However, an opportunity presented itself in 1986, when a school excursion was organised to Leningrad, with the State Hermitage being a compulsory stop on its itinerary.

F.X. Winterhalter - Portrait of Sophia Naryshkina (1858)After a short introductory tour of this most magnificent collection, that lasted all of about forty five minutes, we were let loose around the museum. Clutching a crumpled piece of paper with the map of the Hermitage, I ran towards the French nineteenth-century section that was located on the third floor in one of the distant parts of the building. I passed the rooms studded with Rembrandts and Titians; I did not give a second glance to the priceless Leonardo da Vinci or the most ravishing Rubens. Through the convoluted system of rooms and staircases, I finally reached my destination. I did not stop to admire the David or Ingres; slid straight past a magnificent portrait of Empress Josephine by Gérard, until I was finally there, standing in front of the portrait of Princess Yusupova by Winterhalter.

The portrait exceeded all my expectations. Floating majestically on a cloud of lace and tulle, Princess Yusupova casts down her regal glance at the viewer from a sizeable canvas measuring approximately 150 by 100 centimetres. Her wavy dark-auburn hair is parted in the middle and arranged in a luxurious heavy chignon. Two massive pearl earrings drop from her ears; a magnificent necklace with gargantuan pearls adorns her smooth polished neck and shoulders. Her arms are weighed down by massive golden bangles and drown in the voluminous crinoline skirt, which is ready to burst forth from the confines of the picture. A heavy dark-crimson velvet curtain billows behind the Princess revealing an imposing marble column with a view to a park beyond.

F.X. Winterhalter - Portrait of Countess Varvara Mousina-Pushkina (c.1857)When I finally shook myself out of a trance-like state and tore myself away from the portrait, I looked around the rest of the room. To my astonishment, apart from the portrait of Princess Yusupova, there were more portraits by Winterhalter [as I would later discover, altogether the State Hermitage has sixteen paintings by the artist]. More grand titles were to be found on the wall labels – empresses, grand duchesses, countesses; more aristocratic names were to be read to stir up my curiosity – the Romanovs, Shouvalovs, Naryshkins, Mousin-Pushkins.

I wanted to find out more about the artist who created these magnificent portraits; and about the fascinating sitters, whom he recorded for posterity, who were staring from canvasses at the viewer through the veil of the ages. Thus began my journey into the life and art of Franz Xaver Winterhalter, which has continued (on and off) to the present day.

[© Eugene Barilo von Reisberg 2011. This article is copyright, but the full or partial use is WELCOME with the full and proper acknowledgment]

1 Response to “[It all started with a] Portrait of Princess Tatiana Yusupova”

  1. February 12, 2012 at 5:11 pm

    i think i can perfectly understand what you felt when you first gazed at the princess’ portrait- it often happens to me with the strangest paintings or the simplest, that is. but it somehow surprises me that you were much more interested in the artist’s life than in the model’s as her looks, i think (am I right?), first provoked your fascination…

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Eugene Barilo v. Reisberg

March 2011


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