Image politics in silk and lace

By Sophie Tauche

Following stops in Freiburg and Houston/Texas, visitors can now view the exhibition “Franz Xaver Winterhalter – Painter in Her Majesty’s Service” at the Palais de Compiègne near Paris. MWW research associate Sophie Tauche went to see it in Freiburg and was impressed by the visually appealing displays. However, it didn’t offer a new perspective on the most famous portraitist of 19th-century high society.

He knew how to stage women like Princess Anna of Hessen: Franz Xaver Winterhalter, German artist who portrayed the European high nobility of the 19th century. (c) Hessische Hausstiftung

Is it possible that women engage in image politics too? Concealed beneath the porcelain complexion and clouds of silken tulle, might there be a staged and calculated portrayal, masterfully executed, which conveys beauty, affluence and elegance to the bourgeoisie in order to reinforce political and dynastic claims?

Such questions were stimulated by the exhibition “Franz Xaver Winterhalter – Painter in Her Majesty’s Service” in Freiburg im Breisgau, which concluded in March 2016 and then debuted at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas, and starting today, is shown at the Palais de Compiègne near Paris. Those who are familiar with the artist and perhaps even attended the exhibition of his works in Paris and London in 1988 might wonder what brought this painter of 19th-century high society to provincial Baden, Germany, or how his large-scale works ended up being displayed in the temporary exhibition rooms of the Augustinermuseum which only owns a small collection of mainly graphic artworks by Winterhalter. But still, Freiburg is distinctly associated with the painter – just 50 kilometres away in a remote valley of the Black Forest lies the village of Menzenschwand, Winterhalter’s birthplace.

Enchantingly beautiful ladies in spectacular gowns

Cloudlike creations of lace and tulle instead of festive court-tailored attire: The Duchess of Alba presents herself in the latest fashion of that time.  

The available space in the temporary exhibition venue of the Augustinermuseum on the top-most and basement-level floors was well filled. Due to the large influx of visitors, it got somewhat cramped in the brightly coloured compartments between the partitions. Nonetheless, it wasn’t hard to while away the hours in the various rooms. In addition to the highly impressive number of prominent portraits on loan, there were also several original costumes on display. Additionally, the interactive stations provided low-threshold access to the pieces. That is not to say that Winterhalter’s oeuvre is difficult to impart. Paintings of enchantingly beautiful women dressed in spectacular gowns hang on the walls. One’s eyes are drawn to the idyllic landscapes in the background and casually elegant gestures, captivated by the masterfully painted silks, radiant expressions and soft skin. Without question Winterhalter’s portraits are a visual delight!

From Paris to Petersberg

Winterhalter’s qualities were already admired during his lifetime. Following his journey to Italy in the 1830s, he received euphoric reviews for his multifigural genre scenes “Il Dolce Farniente” (1836) and “Decamerone” (1837) at the Paris Salon. Winterhalter’s popularity at the court of King Louis-Phillippe, whose palaces he furnished with an entire portrait gallery of the House of Orléans, resulted in such lucrative commissions that by 1839, he was able to concentrate almost exclusively on portrait painting. Soon, practically every European monarch and aristocrat from Paris to Petersburg and Madrid to Warsaw sought him out to paint their portraits.

The exhibition and catalogue offer a representative compilation of Winterhalter’s oeuvre and feature some of his best-known masterpieces. What was noticeably missing – possibly due to lack of space – was the painter’s showpiece, the 295 x 420 cm group portrait “Empress Eugénie Surrounded by Her Ladies in Waiting” (1855), depicting the empress and her entourage positioned about a fragrant bouquet of flowers against an early summertime landscape.

No new perspectives on Winterhalter

Not least of all the prominence of this portrait supports the common pejorative view that Winterhalter was simply a women’s portraitist: counting on superficial effects and avoiding psychological depth in order to merely idealise and even flatter. One would wish that the exhibition curators and catalogue editors had offered new perspectives on Winterhalter. It would have been an opportunity to examine what kind of image politics underlie the female self-depictions – for example, in the case of Empress Eugénie of France who had herself ostentatiously portrayed in a historicising gown in the style of her predecessor Marie Antoinette.

Gold-sequined dresses and cloudlike creations

Empress Eugénie of France had herself ostentatiously portrayed in a historicising gown.

Indeed the subject of fashion, which played such a prominent role in the exhibition narrative, provokes intriguing questions which the catalogue failed to explore further. For example, during their sessions with Winterhalter, most of the crowned ladies chose not to wear their festive court-tailored attire, but instead donned gowns created by the first internationally successful couturier Charles Frederick Worth.

Instead of the traditional iconography of power with the ermine robe and family jewels, Winterhalter painted the latest gold-sequined dresses and cloudlike creations of lace and tulle with pastel-coloured silk ribbons. What lies behind this shift toward ephemeral fashion trends which, if anything, blur the boundaries between aristocratic representation and the pomp of the bourgeois millionaire’s wife? Were these ladies of noblesse seeking popularity? Could the depiction of luxury be a strategy to gloss over the suspicion that the portrayed individuals lacked dynastic legitimacy?

Cleverly choreographed and visually appealing

The important achievement of the exhibition is that through the immediate fascination which the paintings create, it evokes one’s appreciation of the sensually luxurious quality of the images. The exhibition makers and catalogue editors offer the general public a cleverly choreographed and visually very appealing presentation. They also touch on issues related to the latest trends in portrait research.

Had it been possible to integrate the latter into the exhibition, we might have gained a new perspective on Winterhalter. Perhaps we could have discovered a portraitist who had sensitively responded to the challenges and opportunities of the political and medial transformation of his times. That would also explain how the son of a resin worker rom Menzenschwand came to rub elbows with members of Europe’s hautevolee and became one of the best-known and most famous portrait painters of his time.

The exhibition “Franz Xaver Winterhalter – Painter in Her Majesty’s Service” will be presented at the Palais de Compiègne near Paris from 17 September 2016 to 15 January 2017. It was previously shown at the Augustinermuseum in Freiburg im Breisgau (28 November 2015 to 20 March 2016) and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston/Texas (17 April to 14 August 2016). 

Sophie Tauche is an MWW research associate in Weimar. She began in the MWW research project “Politics of the Image: The Portrait of the Author as Iconic Authorisation”. As of June 2016 she is supervising an exhibition project on Goethe’s “Faust”, organised by the MWW in cooperation with the Hypo-Kulturstiftung in Munich.