When they married and gave in marriage
They danced at the County Ball
And some of them kept a carriage
And the flood destroyed them all.
— Hillaire Belloc.
Every woman wants to look beautiful. For a woman of the high society looking glamorous has always been a must. Portraitists of European courts had to walk a fine line between likeness and flattery when painting an august patroness. It took a Velazquez or a Van Dyke to produce an image that did not look like a lavishly dressed china doll.
In the Victorian era, artists were facing a new challenge. According to the notions of the day, a lady in the portrait was expected to look natural yet artfully posed, spontaneous yet decorous, alluring yet modest. The current fashion – a wineglass-shaped bodice combined with a steel cage crinoline — promoted and enhanced this simultaneously sensuous and chaste image.
The perfect solution to this conundrum manifested itself in the art of Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805–1873). Notwithstanding his humble origins — he was a son of a farmer from a small village in Germany’s poorest area, Black Forest — Winterhalter was closely acquainted with all European emperors and their courts due to his unrivaled talent in painting superb portraits in which every sitter looked her (or his best) and still recognizable.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is the only North-American venue to host “High Society: The Portraits of Franz X. Winterhalter “which features the best work of this outstanding artist during the spring-summer season of 2016. A labor of love of MFAH’s curator of European art Helga Aurisch, this exhibition presents 45 portraits from public, private and royal collections around the world. Displayed alongside Winterhalter’s portraits are garments fashioned by the famous couturier Charles Frederick Worth (1825–1895) and some of his esteemed contemporaries.
“Winterhalter and Worth launched a new era in portraiture and design,” Aurisch says. “Their client lists overlapped to such an extent that it can be argued that together they created the ideal image of the elegant woman of the European courts… Women look exceptionally beautiful, even Queen Victoria.” The preferred portraitist of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Winterhalter fulfilled over 120 commissions for the Queen over 20 years.
The British august couple was not alone in their appreciation of Winterhalter’s art. During his lifetime, the sought-after artist traveled to the courts of Austria, Spain, Belgium, Russia and a few German principalities. But his base was Paris where he enjoyed the patronage of Emperor Napoleon III and his wife, Empress Eugénie.
The exhibition features quite a few portraits of the beautful and talented Empress. Born Doña María Eugenia Ignacia Augustina de Palafox-Portocarrero de Guzmán y Kirkpatrick, prior to her marriage she was known as Eugénie de Montijo or Contessa de Teba. She was a strong-willed woman who advocated equality for women. Her husband often consulted her on important questions and she officially represented him whenever he traveled outside France.
Empress Eugénie also was a trend-setter in fashion; many high society women emulated her style, and the exhibition is filled with portraits featuring lavender and mauve gowns, her favorite colors. Fashion columns in such influential magazines as the American-published Godey’s Lady’s Book followed Empress Eugénie’s fashion choices.
Her own idol was Marie Antoinette. “Empress Eugénie in a Straw Hat” (a toned-down reference to the scandalous portrait of scantily dressed Marie Antoinette by Vigée-Lebrun) and “Empress Eugénie in the 18th-Century Costume” exemplify her fascination with Rococo culture.
“Evening Bodice and Skirt” designed by Charles Frederick Worth shows the influence of Empress Eugénie’s style à la Marie Antoinette on the fashion design of the time. This gown of yellow silk satin, with its tightly laced bodice and a skirt with a long train opening over a ruffled petticoat looks like a modernized version of the 18th-century dress worn by the Empress in Winterhalter’s portrait.
A small photograph next to this portrait also sheds light on the artist working process. It shows the Empress in the same costume posed before a blank background. Apparently, Winterhalter used the new technology – photography – to capture the figure and then completed the portrait in his studio without the sitter present. A comparison between the portrait and the photograph also reveals the artist’s subtle deviation from the truth: the unbiased camera shot shows that the Empress’s nose was a little longer than the artist depicted.
The portrait of Pauline Sándor, Princess Metternich, is a testament to Winterhalter’s skill in making any woman look glamorous. A wife of the Austrian ambassador, Pauline arrived in Paris in 1859 and quickly became a part of Empress Eugénie’s inner circle. While considered one of the most fascinating women of her day, she was not a great beauty. But who can guess that looking at Winterhalter’s exquisite portrait? The artist gives us just enough time to take notice of the sitter’s haunting dark eyes before turning out attention to the stunning dress she is wearing, with yards and yards of tulle enveloping her figure – the dress designed, most likely, by Charles Worth.
It should be mentioned that it was Princess Metternich who played a crucial role in propelling Worth to fame. At a ball in 1860, her dress attracted the attention of Empress Eugénie, who asked for the dressmaker’s name and demanded to see him the next day. “And so… Worth was made and I was lost, for from that moment there were no more dresses at 300 francs each,” Pauline Metternich wrote. Within a decade, Worth became an internationally renowned couturier.
Apart from showcasing both truly and seemingly beautiful women, the exhibition provides an insight into the notions of propriety of the time. Some portraits, which today we may see as totally innocent, were, in fact, intended only for the husband’s eyes. An example of such intimate presentation is the portrait of Madame Rimsky-Korsakov.
Count Nikolai Sergeyevich and his wife Varvara Dmitrievna were a part of the circle of Russian aristocrats living in Paris. Winterhalter painted this gorgeous woman, known as the “Tartar Venus” for her voluptuous figure and sensational dark hair, at least five times. In this portrait, her abundant hair is cascading down her shoulders, in a free and sensual manner. Her morning dress is a cloud of white chiffon evoking the image of Venus rising from the sea. A portrait like that would have never been displayed in a drawing room where house guests could see it; it belonged to the bedroom or the husband’s study.
Probably every auspicious patroness of Winterhalter commissioned him both a public and an intimate portrait of herself. Even Queen Victoria presented such portrait, unofficially known as “sexy Vicky,” to her beloved husband Prince Albert as a birthday gift. Needless to say, this portrait is not included in the exhibition.
The most spectacular intimate portrait on view is probably that of Princess Leonilla of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn. Its horizontal format and large size bring to mind reclining nudes and odalisques, although here the sitter is fully clothed. Renowned Russian beauty, Princess Leonilla was the wife of Prince of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn. Winterhalter portrayed her leaning languorously on a low sofa; she is fingering absent-mindedly a string of pearls while mesmerizing the viewer with her dark, almond-shaped eyes. She looks like a queen or a goddess from a Greek legend, an impression enhanced by the sea and the lush vegetation in the background, possibly the view from the couple’s palace in the Crimea.
Hidden among all these European royal and aristocratic ladies is one young American girl. Miss Marie Marguerite Ada Calhoun was a daughter of the wealthy plantation owners Meredith and Mary Calhoun of Huntsville, Alabama. She was born in Paris where the Calhouns moved to provide medical treatment for their son. On her 20th birthday, her father gave her an amazing present: he commissioned Winterhalter to paint her portrait.
Today the portrait is still in the Calhoun family. Generation after generation, they preserved a note from Winterhalter in which the artist confirmed an appointment with “Mademoiselle Calhoun,” accompanied by her father. The stylish attire she is wearing suggests that she may have received another priceless present: a dress from the House of Worth. This painting is the only documented single portrait by Winterhalter of an American sitter.
As we walk through the exhibition feasting our eyes on the beautiful women, exquisite dresses and unparalleled mastery of Winterhalter’s brush, we also cannot help thinking that we are looking at the end of an era. Many of these lovely ladies lived long enough to witness the great social upheavals of the early 20th century, the tragic years of World War I and the collapse of European monarchies. The Europe of splendid royal courts – dazzling, opulent and blissfully ignorant of the harsh reality beyond the palace walls – stopped to exist. And the flood destroyed them all….
The exhibition “High Society: The Portraits of Franz X. Winterhalter” is on view at MFAH through Aug. 14.
Story by Elena Ivanova
ISSUE Staff Writer