The Bling’s The Thing: Meet The World-Famous Artist You’ve Never Heard Of

The buzz in the antiques market at the moment concerns the possible sale of a sapphire and diamond-encrusted coronet, made for Queen Victoria and designed by her husband Prince Albert. While the art press awaits the news of whether it will be exported from England, which seems unlikely given its historic significance, this piece of jewelry gives me a chance to introduce you to the work of an artist who was once one of the most popular painters in the world, and who now is mostly forgotten. This is a shame, for not only did he paint beautiful pictures, but he managed to capture his time in a way which I believe has been overlooked.

Having your portrait painted by a famous artist has been a status symbol for centuries, from Sandro Botticelli in the 15th century to Andy Warhol in the 20th. In his day, the German painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805-1873) was a hugely successful part of this long tradition. If you were anybody, or aspired to be somebody, during the early to mid-Victorian period, you wanted to be painted by Winterhalter. Emperors, princes, and maharajas all paid hefty sums to be immortalized on canvas by his brush, and the artist rose from obscure, peasant poverty to become a steam engine-era millionaire of international renown.

Winterhalter was in particularly high demand for his portraits of glamorous women, such as the Empress Elizabeth of Austria and the Empress Eugénie of France. Perhaps his most famous painting is a portrait of the latter surrounded by her ladies in waiting, but I prefer his portrait of the former in a white ball gown, wearing diamonds braided into her long hair, a work that is still hanging in the Imperial Apartments at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. [On a personal note, my Mother used this painting as a reference in designing her wedding dress, so it has always been a personal favorite.]

Winterhalter painted many of the royal families of Europe, employing a mixture of flattery and attention to detail that ensured a never-ending stream of prestigious clients. He not only made them look beautiful, in some cases more beautiful than they actually were, but he had an eye for detail that allowed him to capture the subtleties of dress, such as sparkling jewels and silks for the ladies, and polished boots and military medals for the gentlemen. In fact he received so many commissions, that his studio employed dozens of assistants just to keep up with the orders for both original works and copies of them. Although his first big break came in France, it was the British Royal family that really placed the promising young Winterthaler on a firm, international footing.

In 1842, Winterhalter painted his first portrait of the 23-year-old Queen Victoria, who as you can see in the image below just so happens to be wearing the sapphire and diamond coronet that has now come onto the market. The little crown is wrapped in her braids, rather than being placed on top of her head, as you might expect, making what we would consider a fashion statement. Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, designed the piece to be worn this way based on several Van Dyck paintings of Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of the ill-fated King Charles I, who was shown wearing a similar little crown on the back of her head. Winterhalter’s image of the somewhat shy and reserved young Queen became hugely popular, both at home and abroad, and many copies were made.

The British Royals were so pleased with the result, that over the next two decades they commissioned well over 100 paintings from Winterhalter. Prince Albert’s favorite Winterhalter portrait of his wife, which the Queen commissioned in 1843 and gave to her husband as a birthday present that year, was never intended to be displayed to the general public. It shows the young Victoria leaning back against some red velvet cushions, displaying both her décolletage and a heart-shaped locket that had been a gift from Albert. We can see that part of hairdo has come undone, and her long hair trails down the side of her neck in an extremely informal, seductive sort of way.

Stripped of the sentiment behind it, I have always found this to be a rather tacky picture. At the very least, there is certainly nothing dignified about it. It is reminiscent of the “glamour photography” craze of the 1990’s, in which women paid photographers in strip malls to take photographs of themselves dressed as prostitutes, as gifts for their husbands. (No wonder the divorce rate climbed to 50%.)

Winterthaler’s last official portrait of the Queen was painted in 1859, and it is one of his best images of her. Victoria is no longer the shy, young princess suddenly thrust onto the world stage, nor the blushing bride who only has eyes for her handsome husband, but a beautiful, yet strong woman, the ruler of a vast empire. Gazing confidently down from her throne, she is Britannia personified. Images such as this helped to cement the cult of personality that grew up around Victoria, and for a time protected her during the long years of her self-imposed internal exile following the death of Prince Albert in 1861.

So given examples such as these, why is it that Winterhalter does not leap to mind in the same way that other portrait painters like Velázquez or Gainsborough continue to do, centuries later? Perhaps it is because his paintings, for all of their technical skill, can sometimes seem more like interior decoration than works of art. His figures are often ciphers: they may be beautiful or handsome, but in their Winterhalter portraits it appears that we can learn little to nothing about them as individuals.

By way of contrast, take a look at the work of another society painter, John Singer Sargent, who was working a generation after Winterhalter but still in the Victorian era. In his 1888 portrait of Mrs. Eleanora Iselin, now in the National Gallery here in DC, he shows us a society maven, dressed in rich, dark silks, standing next to a luxurious piece of antique furniture. The genius of Sargent is in the detail of the extended pinkie: hers is such an iron will, that we almost believe that this haughty lady could balance her entire weight on just the strength of her tiny finger.

It is true that Winterhalter rarely exhibits this level of nuance or psychological insight in his images. Popular as his paintings and prints of them were at the time, the art critics of his day never cared for his work in general. As his idiosyncratic style fell out of fashion, and the monarchs whom he painted died or were forced from their thrones, the public lost interest in him as well. People wanted to be able to study a portrait, and walk away from it feeling that they had experienced a kind of revelation about the sitter from the experience, rather than simply having seen a pretty picture.

To give him his credit however, I think we can look at Winterhalter’s work today, and read him as a skilled chronicler of obsession. Many of those whom he painted were incredibly vain and acquisitive, and during the 19th century they and the nations over which they ruled were all in competition with one another on the world stage for colonies and commerce. The Victorians had a seemingly bottomless appetite for accumulation, overstuffing their fussy houses with art, furniture, and bric-a-brac, and displaying as much fabric and bling on their own persons as they possibly could. Viewed through this lens, Winterhalter was simply putting these obsessions onto canvas in tandem with the spirit of the Victorian age.

Thus “Sissi”, as the Empress Elizabeth of Austria was called, was famous for obsessing for hours over preparing her luxuriant hair and maintaining her svelte figure. In fact as she grew older, and her beauty began to fade, she refused to have any more portraits or photographs taken of her, so that people would remember her as she had been. The Spanish-born Empress Eugénie of France loved ordering and helping to design fine clothes, and spent her nearly two decades in power setting standards and starting trends in French fashion. At the same time, she managed to accumulate one of the largest collections of jewelry in Europe.

Queen Victoria, as we all know, was mainly obsessed with her husband – to the point of an almost macabre unwillingness to accept the reality of his untimely death. It is telling that although she had favored Winterhalter with many commissions in the era named for her, after Albert’s death she never employed the artist to paint her again. However when she was finally lured back out into public life, attending the formal State Opening of Parliament in 1866, she did so wearing the same coronet that she had worn when Winterhalter first painted her portrait.

Whatever ultimately happens to that coronet then, it is a tangible reminder of an age of obsession and acquisition which her reign helped inaugurate, and one which Winterhalter knew and understood extremely well.

Monday of Holy Week: Mrs. Pilate’s Dream

[N.B.: A big change is coming to the Blog of the Courtier next week, stay tuned for details.]

Last year I wrote a series of pieces – I hesitate to use the term “meditations” because they fall far short of such a level – on Holy Week, taking as the touchstone works of art and their connection to the events of this season. This year, in a similar vein, I will be reflecting on the St. Matthew Passion which we read at mass yesterday, and examining art depicting the verse(s) chosen. Today we begin with the obscure but fascinating figure of the wife of Pontius Pilate.

St. Matthew tells us that when Pilate is seated before the crowds, debating whether he should free Jesus or the “notorious criminal” Barabbas, a message is brought from Pilate’s wife. We do not know her name with any certainty, though she is recognized as a saint under various names in some of the Eastern Churches. Nor do we know how her message is delivered – whether she does so in person, perhaps by passing her husband a slip of parchment, or whether she remains in another part of the palace and the message is conveyed to him somehow.

Interestingly enough, Pilate’s wife only appears in St. Matthew’s Gospel, and only in a single verse: but a powerful one it is. “Have nothing to do with that righteous man,” Pilate’s wife warns him in St. Matthew 27: 19. “I suffered much in a dream today because of him.”

Among the Gospel writers, St. Matthew was particularly aware of the significance of dreams. For example, in St. Matthew’s Infancy Narrative, both St. Joseph and the Magi receive heavenly messages through dreams, and then act upon them. Throughout the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, important messages are often relayed through dreams; analysis of the subconscious mind was taking place in the Holy Land long before the establishment of psychoanalysis in Vienna.

Here, St. Matthew does not tell us exactly what it is that Pilate’s wife dreamt. Whatever the content of her dream, she is convinced by it of both Jesus’ innocence and sanctity, a conviction which she conveys to her husband by a message. That message is then ignored: she has awoken from a troubled dream, and rather than release from her fears has found herself in a living nightmare.

Surprisingly, despite the dramatic opportunities provided by this single verse from St. Matthew, the dream of Pilate’s wife and her brief but powerful appearance in the the Passion has rarely been treated by artists. Yet there is one notable exception: Antonio Ciseri’s famous “Ecce Homo” of 1871. The painting captures the moment where Pilate shows Jesus to the crowds, just prior to ordering His execution, saying, “Ecce Homo” – “Behold the Man.”

The sharply contrasting lighting and skillful foreshortening employed by Ciseri, almost anticipating cinematography, draw the eye to the center of the beautifully composed picture. The painter positions us inside the cool stone and marble walls of the palace, looking out and imagining a seething crowd down below, bathed in bright Mediterranean sunshine. We all recognize what is taking place, though the more observant will note that we do not see the faces of most of the players in this scene at all.

The only figure whose face we can clearly make out is that of the tall, elegantly dressed Roman matron shown in 3/4 profile, to the right of the scene, who both by her presence and her carriage Ciseri intends to represent Pilate’s wife. Using the sight lines of the picture we realize that her back is turned to that of her husband – or rather, he has literally and figuratively turned his back on her – and she dejectedly walks away from him. She is accompanied by a servant girl whose face is still pointed in the direction of Jesus, but like those of her mistress her eyes are downcast.

In Ciseri’s painting, we see that Pilate’s wife has placed her left hand limply on the girl’s left shoulder, in a gesture simultaneously seeking support and acknowledging defeat. “I’ve done all I could do,” that hand says, “and I have to give up.” We can sense that in the next moment that languidly posed hand is going to slip back down to the lady’s side, and shortly thereafter the maid will turn and follow her mistress back off the balcony and into the governor’s palace. Thus Pilate’s wife walks off the stage of history, and we do not know what subsequently happened to her.

Despite or perhaps because of the rejection of her cause, i.e. seeking mercy for a good and just man, Pilate’s wife has unwittingly drawn closer to Christ. She is taking a risk by acting on His behalf, even though she does not know Him, because it is the right thing to do. But in a way, she has had a parallel experience to that of Christ, for her message of justice and compassion is rejected, even though she is under her own roof. “A prophet is not without honor,” Jesus says in St. Matthew 13:57, “except in his native place and in his own house.”

If the dream of Pilate’s wife and her conveyance of that message are a kind of prophecy, then Pilate and the others ignore that prophecy to their peril, as indeed they ignore the rest of Christ’s message. Admittedly, most of us will not be visited by heavenly messengers, waking or sleeping. Yet during Holy Week we, too, should be attentive to God’s word to us, where it is that He wants us to go or what He wants us to do, even if undertaken at significant personal cost or risk of rejection.

“Ecce Homo” by Antonio Ciseri (1871)
Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Florence

Goya and the Spanish Love of Hate

Today is the birthday of the great Spanish painter Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), and it gives me the opportunity to draw the attention of my readers to a rather nightmarish but deeply affecting work from his brush. Two men wielding cudgels are rushing at each other in a landscape, about to beat each other’s brains in. Are they fighting over a woman? Was there some insult, or act of theft? No one knows. And yet it is quite possibly the best representation, in a single image, of the history of Spain presently in existence.

Though older by a generation, in both sympathy and in a wider European context Goya can be viewed as a kindred spirit to Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Both men lived through incredibly tumultuous times, from the downfall of the Ancien Régime to the Napoleonic Wars and the unsettled politics which followed. Both were passionate, tortured geniuses whose work, as they aged and as their respective maladies overtook them – including shared deafness – distanced them more and more from the frothy, light-hearted places from which each of them began.

Goya should not properly be considered an Old Master painter, though I have seen him erroneously included in such lists on numerous occasions. As I have written about previously, the designation “Old Master” is, admittedly, to some extent dependent on an arbitrary cut-off date of 1800. Artists like Goya and J.M. W. Turner, whose work straddled the turn of the 19th century, are often segregated by more sensitive minds into a category known as the “Romantic” painters. This leaves us with a critical problem however, since much of the Rococo art which Goya himself produced early in his career, such as in his cartoons for the Royal Tapestries in Madrid, is an echo of the work of artists a generation older than he who are definitely Old Masters, such as Tiepolo.

But it is not on this lighter work that today’s spotlight falls, but rather a picture from Goya’s so-called “Black Paintings”. Painted between 1819 and 1823, these works are the ravings, in paint, of a very troubled mind. By this time Goya had already been exploring the violent and the macabre for some years, though his earlier efforts pale in comparison to these later nightmares.

In 1793 Goya went deaf following a lengthy, serious illness, and the painter whose wit and connections had made him a popular society figure – in part due to his alleged affair with the Duchess of Alba – started to turn in on himself and away from the world. He began to produce strange little paintings aside from his commissioned work, and published etchings of nightmarish scenes criticizing the follies of contemporary society, in a series known as the “Caprices”. These were followed by the “Disasters of War”, in which Goya chronicled the death and destruction wrought by Napoleon and the Peninsular Campaigns in both paint and engraving.

Yet by comparison the subsequent “Black Paintings” overwhelm these earlier works, not only because they are, nearly a century before the tortured explorations of the psyche by Symbolist and Expressionist painters such as Edvard Munch and Egon Schiele, astoundingly innovative, but also because they were private. Goya’s “Caprices” and “Disasters of War” were created for public consumption; the “Black Paintings” were not. The 14 images, some of them quite enormous, were painted directly onto the plaster walls of his house in Madrid. They were never exhibited to the public during his time there, and Goya fled to France in 1823, leaving them unfinished.

Of course there was no intent to “finish” them, per se, because they were not meant to be shown. They are, in paint, the thoughts of a man who has done and suffered much, and is haunted by what he as seen. In its way Goya’s bizarre home decorating project reminds me of a similar project by one of my Catalan ancestors, the last direct male heir in his line, who spent his declining years in the 16th century carving his name followed by the words, “a sinner”, into the walls of the now-ruined castle in which his family had lived since the days of Charlemagne.

Although today each of the “Black Paintings” has a name, so far as we know Goya himself never titled these works. The sobriquets that have subsequently been assigned to them over the course of time by art historians or the Prado Museum, where they are now housed, try to give them descriptions so that we can understand them better. Yet if Goya had been working in the 20th century or today, like many modern and contemporary artists I suspect he would not have found it necessary to actually give names to his work: the choice of “Untitled” by an artist, whether directly or through a refusal to name his piece, is a deliberately enigmatic act.

The fresco of two men about to brain each other – variously titled “A Fight to the Death with Clubs”, “Duel with Cudgels”, etc., – is one of these legendary “Black Paintings”. There is a universal aspect to it in Goya’s recognition of man’s tendency, since the time of Cain and Abel, toward violence against our brother, despite our intellect and ability to reason. From all he had seen and experienced, Goya recognized that the line between civilization and savagery is a very fine line indeed. Greed, lust, anger, and all of the other deadly sins which have accompanied us since Adam and Eve decided to play Johnny Appleseed can cause us to do unspeakable things to one another. Yet on a more personal level, this work is affecting for anyone who knows the history of Spain.

Spain can be categorized in part as an historic construct based on geographic limitations. There has existed a politically united Spain for only just over 500 years, with some interruptions, and during those centuries the peoples who inhabit the Iberian Peninsula, from Basques and Catalans to Galicians and Castilians, have been fairly constant in going about fighting with each other. On top of this, there is a never-ending battle between rich and poor, Catholic and anti-clerical, intellectual and philistine, that has led to a recognition of blood and violence as a permanent aspect of the culture. It is folly for contemporary Spain, as more and more people seek to ban bullfighting, to think that the bloodlust so much a part of the country’s character has disappeared merely because everyone now has televisions and microwave ovens.

For this reason Goya’s painting is a far more powerful mirror of the horror that is often the experience of Spain than is Picasso’s more famous “Guernica”, which seems to be the de rigeur image chosen for the dust jacket of any contemporary work on Spanish history published over the last 30 years or so. Picasso condemns the horrors of violence, yes, but his condemnation is one-sided: it is the forces of General Franco who are doing the killing, and the Leftists who are doing the dying. It is a painting which is completely unbalanced in its representation not only of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, but also in its understanding of the Spanish psyche.

What Picasso’s masterpiece fails to show, and where Goya’s is immeasurably more successful, is a reality which Spain does not like to admit but which is inherent to understanding Spain as a whole: Spaniards hate one another, equally, regardless of what side they happen to be on in an argument. They are not a gentle, loving people with one another nor, as a result, are they particularly good at organizing themselves into a nation. Insult and put-down is a skill practiced and honed from a Spanish child’s earliest days, and the class structure, while not as grossly apparent as in Britain, still informs how people treat one another in ways which in the U.S. would seem almost unimaginable. The history of Spain since 1492 is not one of a peaceful, prosperous people united by a common language and culture, but one of unabashed and often violent tribalism which has never really gone away, but merely taken on different forms.

It is in this deceptively simple yet deeply profound painting that we get a glimpse of the true character of Spain, whatever Spain actually is outside of demarcations on a map. Beyond the vibrant spectacle of flamenco dancing, glorious octopus-predicted soccer victories, and PBS’ José Andrés happily pretending that he knows how to cook, there is a very dark nature to the Spanish character which Goya understood and appreciated better than any other Spanish painter before or since. In this single image he encapsulates everything that you need to know about Spain, and he does so unflinchingly, which in itself is a supremely Spanish thing to do.

“A Fight to the Death with Clubs” by Francisco de Goya (c. 1820-1823)
Prado Museum, Madrid