It’s enough to make even a butch guy like me want to put on a dress — one of those voluminous, flowing ones with miles of satin and silk, ribbons and lace — and waltz till dawn in the flicker of candlelight. This is all pure fantasy, of course. I’ve never put on dresses in my life (at least I hope there are no photos). But if putting one on might get me a portrait as beautiful and lush as those now on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in the exhibition “High Society: The Portraits of Franz X. Winterhalter,” curated by Helga Aurisch, MFAH curator of European art, I have only one thing to say: Cinch up the corset, I’m squeezing into that gown.
Now, as we struggle to expunge that image from our minds’ eyes, let us try to move on to the more exalted world of Winterhalter. Though he didn’t start out as what you’d actually call exalted. Franz Xaver Winterhalter was born in 1805, into a slightly upwardly mobile family in the remote village of Menzenschwand, deep in the countryside of the backward Grand Duchy of Baden, a scrap of deforested Black Forest land in the not-yet-unified Germany.
For that slight upward mobility, the family owed thanks to Winterhalter’s grandmother, and a dalliance on the wrong side of the blanket, quite likely with a monk from the nearby monastery. Granny was able to give the family a leg up, as well as a leg over, because not just a child resulted from the transaction, but also the resources to build a house in the village. (I’m not making this up; it’s all in the exhibition catalog.) Perhaps not the most immaculate background for the man who would one day paint the most regal crowned heads of Europe — and in the process, define what it looked like to be royal.
His was the same old story: talent recognized early; a steady rise through apprenticeship, art academies, patronage by the petty nobility; and then the breakout moment when royals, especially Queen Victoria of England, took a liking to his likenesses. Over 20 years, beginning in 1838, Winterhalter painted 120 commissions for Victoria and her family. Some are in this exhibition, including The First of May 1851, on loan from the current Queen. It shows the young Victoria as monarch, mother and wife. She holds her son, Prince Arthur, on his first birthday, her dashing and adored husband, Prince Albert, behind them as the Duke of Wellington presents a bejeweled gold cask — a somewhat flattering, lovely image of her Majesty, years before she became the stout, stern looking, black-clad widow-in-perpetual-mourning more familiar to us from later on. Winterhalter wielded an almost magical brush, able to make the, as some might say, plain Victoria, if not beautiful, at least charming. It was an ability which made him much in demand in all of the royal courts of Europe.
Considering the extent of Victoria’s patronage, the death of Albert in 1861, and a subsequent decline in commissions for English royal portraits, might have been almost as much of a blow to Winterhalter as to the widow herself. But by then he’d been embraced in Second Empire Paris as enthusiastically as in Victorian London. Many of his most spectacular and important paintings came from his time as virtual court painter to the Emperor Napoleon III and his beautiful Spanish Empress, Eugénie. Everybody who was anybody wanted to be painted by him, but he’d reached such heights that only those who really were somebody got their wish. Winterhalter joined a rare group of ultimate portraitists that includes Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Velázquez and, more recently, John Singer Sargent and maybe Andy Warhol — artists whose portraits defined their age.
I wanted to dislike these paintings. Oh, how I wanted to dislike them, in part because most are portraits of people depicted only because they were lucky enough to be born at the very top of a system in which most peoples’ places were fixed for life, often in poverty. Since Winterhalter was so good at what he did, his portraits were a pillar of the propaganda machine that kept the system standing. But that’s politics, and it’s remote enough now that it takes actual work to find out about it. Looking at the paintings only as paintings, no backstory considered, I can’t dislike them.
As paintings — only paintings — they’re magnificent. Look at the gossamer film of white lace over blue in the baby dress in Hélène-Luise-Elizabeth of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Duchess of Orléans, and Her Son, the Count of Paris (1839). And the tender way the count clutches the bow at his mother’s bodice — an echo of myriad Madonna and Child paintings, including the MFAH’s own Virgin and Child (c. 1395-1400) by the Master of the Straus Madonna, on view in the Beck Building across the street.
Winterhalter was well schooled in the old masters, but also forward looking. Some of his effects are even proto-impressionistic. See, for instance, the fabulous froth of fabric in the skirt of Lydia Schabelsky, Baroness Staël von Holstein (ca.1857-58).
Even Houston’s own Empress Eugénie (1854), a fairly recent addition to the collection, which may have been the inspiration for bringing this show here, though one of the less grand paintings, is a dream: The Empress sits in a foam of white lace, accented with white camellias, and with swaths of rich fabrics in lavender, emerald green and wine red. It’s an intimate, almost floating-on-air, portrait that hung above the desk of her husband, Emperor Napoleon III, at the Château de Saint-Cloud.
For me it was a particular thrill running into Princess Kotschoubey (1860) from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. It’s the only Walters painting that I actually remember seeing, after many visits to that museum during my brief time as a Baltimoron 30 years ago. Even then I thought it was divine, and I still do.
Unfortunately, the painting called in the catalog “Winterhalter’s masterpiece” (though that may be something of an understatement), Empress Eugénie and Her Ladies-in-Waiting (1855), a huge group portrait almost 10 x 13 feet, was too huge to make the trip to Houston. We’ll have to go to France to see it (undoubtedly worth the trip). But we can get an idea of what it’s like from another grand, similarly composed multi-figure group that did come here. Florinda (1852), bought by Victoria as a present for Albert, depicts a harem’s worth of semi-nude beauties swaddled in sumptuous fabrics, set in an idyllic landscape — being spied on by one man back in the trees. Perhaps, after all, Victoria wasn’t quite the prude we thought we knew.
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What becomes a Winterhalter sitter most? A gown by Worth, of course. That would be Charles Frederick Worth (1825-1895), an Englishman who moved to Paris in the 1850s and founded haute couture fashion. The two foreigners worked in tandem, if not quite hand in hand, to give royalty (and wealth in general) a look befitting its status. A number of creations by Worth and others are interspersed among Winterhalter’s portraits. Though none of the gowns in the galleries are actually in these paintings, the spirit is there; and what a nice reunion that they’re being shown cheek by jowl in the exhibition. It’s worth noting that a Spanish Empress, a German painter and an English dressmaker gave the look to the French Second Empire. Just goes to show that globalism isn’t anything new.
Of course, not everything was paradise even for the demi-deities Winterhalter and Worth made so beautiful. Albert died and Victoria spent half a century in black. The Empire fell and Eugénie lived out her life in English exile. Even Winterhalter himself, forced by the Franco-Prussian War to leave the Paris where his fame had been made, died shortly after returning to his native Germany. But the glorious paintings remain, and for a little while we have the chance to see them here in Houston.
The exhibition is expansively and beautifully installed in the ballroom-sized Upper Brown Pavilion in the MFAH Law Building. Surrounded by exquisite paintings on jewel-toned walls, you may find that you too have the urge to slip into one of Worth’s gowns and waltz though the galleries. Or is that just me? On the rating scale of beautiful-old-things exhibitions, this one comes in at a strong Antique Ivory Handmade Lace. If it’s already your kind of show, you’ll know what that means. If you don’t, go see it and find out.
“High Society: The Portraits of Franz X. Winterhalter”
Through August 14. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300, mfah.org