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.

Dangerous Design: Sonia Rykiel, Victorians, and Burkinis

​As the design world today mourns the loss of iconic French designer Sonia Rykiel, two recent controversies involving what one should be allowed to wear in public make me wonder what she might have made of these stories.

Ms. Rykiel catapulted to fame back in 1963, when Audrey Hepburn sought out her boutique in Paris after seeing one of the designer’s “poor boy” sweaters on the cover of Elle, and bought 5 of them on the spot. She employed a mostly dark palette punctuated by electric colors and designs from the Pop Art movement. She was particularly praised for her knitwear and for the use of unusual textures in her work; I am fortunate enough to have several somber but pleasing ties designed by her house. When it comes to style, you could not get much further away from Ms. Rykiel’s aesthetic than the prim and prudish Victorian era, even though she herself was famous for her almost Pre-Raphaelite auburn hair.

Today however, it is Victorian prudishness which is considered shocking. As this article from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation describes, Washington State couple Gabriel and Sarah Chrisman recently took a trip to Canada to celebrate their 14th wedding anniversary. Mr. and Mrs. Chrisman take the idea of period living far beyond simply putting on old clothes at the weekend for something like a Civil War reenactment, and actually try to live as much a Victorian lifestyle as possible – albeit with a very 21st century divergence, in that they blog about their experiences. Thus, when the couple visited Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia during their vacation, they were unpleasantly surprised to be asked to change clothes or leave, since the park maintains a “no costumes” policy.

Then yesterday, news stories and photographs surfaced from France, in which police officers were shown asking Muslim women who had covered themselves up on the Riviera to remove their Victorian – or perhaps better put, Medieval Revival – coverings or leave the beach. The commentariat went ballistic, as summarized in this opinion piece in the New York Times. There were photographic posts of men in wet suits or nuns in their habits at the seaside, asking what was the difference between the French allowing such garb to be worn at the beach, but not allowing Muslim women in France to cover themselves up in the so-called “burkini” or similar garments.

Being French and a member of the Legion of Honor, I would imagine that Ms. Rykiel would mock the Canadians but side with her own countrymen. The French have a habit of chastising everyone else while making exceptions for themselves. Given how many times their country has been subjected to Islamic terrorism in recent years, there is a tendency even among the left-leaning French to categorize Fundamentalist Islamic forms of dress as an actual public danger, rather than as an expression of modesty.
That being said, a ban on the wearing of costumes in a park seems to me just as untenable as insisting that women remove their clothing at the beach. Do we draw the line of acceptability of either practice at whether the space is publicly or privately owned? Who gets to decide what is a “costume”, or what makes an article of clothing dangerous? I would be curious to read some debate in the comments section.

Sonia Rykiel (1930-2016)

Stupid Times, Stupid Media

Stupid Times, Stupid Media

On a somewhat regular basis, I see friends and followers on social media commenting on news stories with the observation, “What a stupid time to be alive.” Generally speaking, they are referring to policies or statements which they dislike. However what I find more disconcerting about the present state of media is not so much the promotion of views with which I strongly disagree – every dog must have its day – but rather the almost cavalier attitude that we have taken toward the media that we consume. For not only are we failing to question the basic newsworthiness of what we read, but we also seem not to question the way in which that news is being presented to us.   

Whether or not something is newsworthy has traditionally been a topic for editors and reporters to fight over, but of late the standards for what deserves both publication and promotion seem to have been largely abandoned. For example, recently an individual made a video mocking former London Mayor Boris Johnson, in the wake of the Brexit campaign, and then uploaded it to a website of ill repute. This is not newsworthy, or at least, it is a news item of such miniscule importance that it is hardly worth sharing with the entire planet. Nevertheless this story was not only reported, it was actively promoted as a leading headline on Facebook for hours.

This morning, to provide another example, the Drudge Report tells us – in that appalling approximation of English which we have come to expect from that site – that “Women more s*x with robots than men 2025…’Robophilia’ revolution…” This headline, if one can call it that without a verb, points the reader to an article in The Daily Mirror which is so outrageous that I will not link to it here. As it happens, there is no news here, only a spinning out of one individual’s bizarre theories, or more likely fantasies. Nevertheless, its presence on the Drudge site gives it a false veneer of being an actual news story.

While many news stories we read today are about utterly stupid topics, there is also a predilection for covering subjects which, heretofore, were considered too unseemly for general publication. Try to imagine your grandmother opening the newspaper in 1940 and reading, “American women groom their p*bic hair, for diverse reasons”, as Fox News reported this morning, and you will see what I mean. However the way in which many otherwise legitimate news stories are presented to us, in the same prurient style as the foregoing, ought to give us pause. Are these news outlets actually giving us the real story when they resort to clickbait headlines?

Yesterday, for example, Mashable declared that “31 scientific societies just told Congress to take their climate denial and shove it” – an occurrence which would be rather surprising news indeed, but for the fact that this headline is untrue. The signatories to a letter, which you can read here, presented their concerns to Congress regarding climate change, and urged action by U.S. legislators on this subject. The document does not contain an imperative demanding that Congress “shove it,” and in fact presents quite the reverse, i.e., an offer of assistance, rather than a statement of dismissal. “We, in the scientific community,” the letter concludes, “are prepared to work with you on the scientific issues important to your deliberations as you seek to address the challenges of our changing climate.” Whatever your views on climate change, we can agree that the letter and the news headline do not match up.

At this point, no doubt my readers will present reasons as to why one must make allowances for such things. Surely, they will argue, there are significant benefits in having a more loose, diverse way of reporting on issues of interest, particularly in areas that might otherwise remain relatively unknown to the world at large. Far be it from me to invoke the sorites paradox in this context when, arguably, I myself am taking away a few more grains of sand by simply writing and publishing this very piece.

Yet I do wonder about the net effect of such lowered standards in our news media, on both our society and ourselves. If I choose to behave like a 14-year-old schoolyard bully when I am online, I would imagine that there is a greater risk that I will start to behave like one in the real world. Perhaps the behavior pattern will start with people I do not know, such as a stranger on a train or in the supermarket to whom I choose to be rude or unhelpful. Over time, perhaps it will come to affect the attitudes that I take toward work, social obligations, or familial responsibilities.

Never let it be said that I am unaware of my own tendency to overanalyze everything, a flaw to which I freely admit. However in this instance, I do think there is something to be said for better awareness in the media choices we make, rather than absent-mindedly allowing messages of questionable merit to seep into our collective consciousness. Poor scrutiny of the stupidity now routinely trumpeted by our media, it seems to me, leaves us but one step away from making rather stupid life choices ourselves. And while all of us, myself included, have made and will continue to make some rather stupid choices throughout our lives, we certainly do not need to be increasing the frequency with which we make them.

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Detail, The Ship of Fools (c. 1490) by Hieronymus Bosch