Friday, April 1, 2016

Painter in Her Majesty's Service

Maler im Auftrag Ihrer Majestät

Here comes the blog many of my American friends have been waiting for. On March 20, the Franz Xaver Winterhalter exhibition at Freiburg's Augustinermuseum closed its doors. It was the first Winterhalter retrospective in Germany so it is not surprising that a new record of 62,000 people from all over Germany visited the special exhibition admiring the wall-filling paintings.

The artworks are now on their way to Houston, Texas, and will be on display at the MFA, the Museum of Fine Arts, starting Apr 17, through Aug 14, 2016. I understand that a group from Madison will fly to Houston especially to see the paintings. What are they going to see?

Here is a report about my visit to the Freiburg exhibition. For Winterhalter's life you may like to consult Wikipedia.

As painter Winterhalter had his breakthrough at the Salon in Paris in 1836 presenting an Italian genre scene Il Dolce Farniente.

Il Dolce Farniente (1836) (©Wikipedia)
While many admired his "genius" some criticized his style as manneristic. He could not care less for soon he was appointed court painter of the French King Louis-Philippe. In 1839 Winterhalter finished the portrait of the Citizen King, three years later that of Queen Maria-Amalia.

Louis-Philippe I, King of the French (1839)
Maria-Amalia of the Two Sicilies,
Queen of the French (1842) (©Wikipedia)
Winterhalter became an international celebrity as a portrait painter and ... rich. Among his many regal sitters was also Queen Victoria. Winterhalter first visited England in 1842 and became court painter in Her Majesty's Service. From 1842 to 1871 he produced more than 100 paintings at and for the English court.

In 1851 Queen Victoria wrote in her diary: Took another painting lesson with Winterhalter after luncheon. He is so good natured & straight forward.

Winterhalter, now with royal patronage, was internationally celebrated. In Napoleon's III Second Empire, Winterhalter became the chief portraitist of the imperial family and court of France in 1854. The beautiful French Empress Eugénie was his favorite sitter and some experts regard the painting Empress Eugénie Surrounded by Her Ladies in Waiting of 1855 as Winterhalter's masterpiece.

Empress Eugénie Surrounded by Her Ladies in Waiting (1855) (©Sstjean/Wikipedia)
In the same year he also finished Napoleon's portrait and five years later that of Empress Eugénie.

Portrait of Napoleon III (1855)
Portrait of Empress Eugénie (1860)
One of Winterhalter's French critics wrote: Le seul peintre en France qui comprenne que l'artiste doit reproduire non seulement la nature, mais la beauté (He is the only painter in France who understands that an artist not only must reproduce nature but beauty). While his male portraits sometimes seem stiff (is it the uniform?) his female portraits are more than just a color photo. The faces of his ladies are of radiant beauty, a beauty accentuated by those wonderful gowns the women are wearing following the motto: Die Frau ist das Aushängeschild des Mannes (A wife is a husband's flagship). Winterhalter became victim of his own success. It meant that for the rest of his life he worked almost exclusively as a portrait painter.

And Winterhalter became better with time. Here is a most frivolous portrait of Barbara (Barbe) Dmitrievna Mergassov Rimsky-Korsakova, a rich Russian lady who lived in Paris most of the time. Somehow Winterhalter replicated her way of living for she said about herself: I am free and independent. My mistakes are my mistakes. My success is my success. I believe in myself, I do everything alone and don't make a tragedy of it.

Barbe Dmitrievna Mergassov Madame Rimsky-Korsakov (1864)
However, Winterhalter's best known and loved portrait is that of Sisi, the favorite empress of all German-speaking people.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria in Courtly Gala Dress
with Diamond Stars (1865) (©Wikipedia)
After Winterhalter's death, his painting fell out of favor, being considered romantic, glossy, and superficial. This loss of appreciation was aggravated by the fact that he had neither created a school nor had he pupils. In addition he fell somewhat into disgrace in Germany as the "French painter" following the Franco-Prussian war of 1870/71. Hopefully the Freiburg/Houston exhibitions will help rescue Winterhalter from oblivion.

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