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Franz Winterhalter

Leonilla, 1843.  On loan to MFAH from the J. Paul Getty Museum.  No reproduction can convey the beauty of this painting.  Inspired by Ingres, this portrait of a Russian princess married into a German aristocratic family is easily the most breathtaking painting in the exhibit.

     After the death of her uncle, King William IV, the London born Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837 at the youthful age of 18.  Born of a German mother and eventually married to her German cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, Queen Victoria’s life was deeply intertwined with continental royalty even before her coronation.  Victoria and Albert had nine children, each married to another continental aristocrat, and-- as best as I could ascertain from some of the sumptuous Winterhalter exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston—her nine children had more than forty of their own, and a dozen of them became kings, queens, emperors and empresses of Greece, Norway, Russia, Romania, Wales, Spain, Prussia and other various German kingdoms.  Until August 14, about 45 of his paintings will be on exhibit at the MFAH.

A pair of portraits of Albert and Victoria, 1842.  On loan to the MFAH.

In the 1820s and 1830s, the German born Franz Xaver Winterhalter emerged from the Munich Academy of Arts as a favored court painter for the aristocracy in Baden.  Winterhalter relocated to France by the end of the 1830s and became the favored painter of King Louis-Phiippe, who lost political power during the Revolution of 1848.  In exile in Britain, the deposed French monarch ingratiated himself with his distant cousins, Victoria and Albert while is painter pivoted toward the painting of biblical and classical scenes rather than aristocratic portraits.  With his patron in exile, Winterhalter traveled to Switzerland, Belgium, and eventually England.

Florinda, 1853.  This was given by Victoria to Albert, now on loan to the MFAH from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

                He picked up where he left off, with an unmatched reputation for portraiture Winterhalter quickly became the primary painter of Victoria’s growing family in the 1850s.  The revolutionary French government did not last, and the restoration of Bourbon monarchy in 1852 quickly followed.  Winterhalter returned to France and served Napoleon III, painting the re-emergence of ostentatious monarchal fashions of the Second Empire. The rule of Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie ended in war with Prussia in 1870; Winterhalter was abroad, and during the war returned not to France but to Germany, dying three years later. 

Young Woman in Profile, 1862.

                For forty years in Germany, France, and England Winterhalter produced some of the most recognizable portraits of the European aristocrats, particularly favored for his ability to capture qualities of light and texture on clothing, hair, and skin which presented aristocrats in an exalted form which they aspired toward, even if they failed to surpass their own indulgent and insular lives, even if their extraordinary wealth gave them the privilege to cultivate artists like Winterhalter who did not hesitate to portray them as unblemished ideals. 

Lydia Schabelsky, 1857.

                I am quite fond of the 1960s era republican demand in England to “liquidate the lot” and jettison all romanticization of the aristocracy, but I confess like many Americans there is still something unshakeably appealing about the concentration of vast surplus wealth directed at the creation of works of beauty.  And many of these portraits are simply beautiful.

                One last beauty,

Susanna, 1866. Frye Art Museum, on loan to MFAH.

If you are in Houston then you are in luck, this is the only US location of the exhibition.  Go see the exhibit before it moves on High Society: Portraits of Franz X. Winterhalter

Molly Glentzer, Houston Chronicle
Randy Tibbits, Houston Press
Catherine Anspon, PaperCity Mag


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