Portrait of Leonilla, Princess of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn, 1843
Born on 20 April, 1805 in the Black Forest region of Germany, Franz Xaver Winterhalter was an aristocratic portrait painter in Europe and Russia. Known for his sensual use of colors and adding gracefulness to his sitters, Winterhalter may not be a household name today but in his day was quite in demand. Critics from his own era sometimes dismissed his style as superficial and sentimental, a sort of Rococo artist with strong Italian Renaissance roots that painted an enormous amount of portraiture, but Winterhalter gave his clients what they wanted, which was elegance and grandeur without being formulaic. Considering the sheer amount of portraits he painted of aristocrats, including Queen Victoria herself, Winterhalter resisted the cliché that affected many British artists of the period who attempted to be Van Dyck or Reynolds but simply were not.
In the Portrait of Leonilla above he graces this beautiful Russian Princess on a Turkish-style sofa draped in silk against a harem-like veranda, columns swathed with red fabric. The open blue Mediterranean sky adds a feeling of summer air to the composition. The pose and the concept is highly unusual and risqué for its time, even though fully clothed she appears ready to disrobe at any moment. Winterhalter may have been commissioned to paint this for her husband, Ludwig, Prince of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg. Note the deep grays in her white dress. Winterhalter arranges the pink sash like delicate arrows that lead to her groin, and the way she toys with the pearls around her neck suggests a courtesan, yet her facial expression denotes an intelligence beyond her age. Winterhalter saw something very special in Princess Leonilla, and has immortalized her here in a way that royalty seldom has the courage to allow themselves: as sensual human beings.
This gorgeous painting illustrates a story from Roderick, the last king of the Spanish Visigoths before the arrival of Islamic rule, more commonly known as the Moors, in Iberia. According to the legend, Roderick chooses Florinda (center-left draped in green) from his bevy of fair maidens, which instigates her father to incite the Muslims to attack and conquer Roderick and the Visigoths. Winterhalter's flair for sumptuous drapery and soft flesh is combined with an elegant composition that uses alternating figures to heighten visual interest. Winterhalter may not have the naturalism of Bouguereau, but the Classicism here is graceful and eloquent. Winterhalter makes clear of the fact that this is fantasy and even the light coming from above is bathing them in an imaginary sensuality. The faces of all the women themselves seem to be all alike, suggesting he may have used the same model for each of these figures.
Based on the famous collection of stories by Giovanni Boccaccio from the fourteenth century, Winterhalter is one of the few artists in history that based one of his paintings on a famous work of literature. Note the particular attention to costume and color harmony. Despite the simple and contrived appearance, there is a lot of thought put into this figure arrangement and the extensive use of triangles. Note how all the figures to the left are seated while those on the right are standing, except for the far right figure who has one knee against the ground. Winterhalter uses hands to describe each character here, something that all artists can learn from today.
Young Italian Girl at the Well, 1834
One of Winterhalter's rare portraits not commissioned for royalty or aristocracy. Again, his vibrant use of color looks natural yet eye-catching at the same time. Her left hand is painted so delicately, with that soft shadow of her sleeve, while the folds of her drapery seem so effortless; Winterhalter creates character from the barest of information. Winterhalter's fascination with Italy and sensuous women is quite clear here.
Below are some samples of Winterhalter's formal aristocratic portraiture. Note the attention paid to costume and the liveliness of color, his use of gentle warm tones in the shadows, and the yellowish glow of his backgrounds. Winterhalter always sought the person behind the title in all of his portraits...
Édouard André, 1857
Portrait of Empress Maria Alexandrovna, 1857
Princess Kotschoubey, 1860
Portrait of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their children, 1846
Portrait de l'empereur Napoleon III, 1860
Above is a commanding yet sensitive portrait of France's first president and the man who created modern-day Paris, Napolean III. Despite the stiffness of the pose and the coronation robes, Winterhalter captures his facial expression as sincere and real, reminiscent of Van Dyck and revealing the person underneath. As in the family portrait of Queen Victoria above, Winterhalter's use of red here imbues the royalty with passion and dignity at the same time. In the eyes of Winterhalter, color was not merely something to enhance, but to breathe life into his subjects. He was one of Germany's most sensual painters, musical and rich, to be savoured like an expensive wine. If he had been able to paint everyday life and mythology like he painted nobility, his name would be more well-known today.