Franz Xaver Winterhalter (20 April 1805 – 8 July
1873) was a German painter and lithographer, known for his portraits of
royalty in the mid-nineteenth century. His name has become associated with
fashionable court portraiture. Among his best known works are Empress
Eugénie Surrounded by her Ladies in Waiting (1855) and the portraits he
made of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (1865).
Franz Xaver Winterhalter was born in the small village of Menzenschwand (now
part of Sankt Blasien) in the Black Forest, in the Electorate of Baden, on 20 April
1805. He was the sixth child of Fidel Winterhalter (1773–1863), a farmer and resin
producer in the village, and his wife Eva Meyer (1765–1838), a member of a long
established Menzenschwand family. His father was of peasant stock and was a
powerful influence in his life. Of the eight brothers and sisters, only four
survived infancy. Throughout his life, Franz Xaver remained very close to his
family in particular to his brother Hermann (1808–1891), who was also a
After attending school at a Benedictine monastery in St.Blasien, Winterhalter
left Menzenschwand in 1818 at the age of thirteen to study drawing and engraving.
He trained as a draughtsman and lithographer in the workshop of Karl Ludwig Schüler
(1785–1852) in Freiburg. In 1823, at the age of eighteen, he went to Munich,
sponsored by the industrialist Baron von Eichtal (1775–1850). In 1825, he was
granted a stipend by Ludwig I, Grand Duke of Baden (1763–1830) and began a course
of study at the Academy of Arts in Munich with Peter von Cornelius (1783–1867),
whose academic methods made him uncomfortable. Winterhalter found a more congenial
mentor in the fashionable portraitist Joseph Stieler (1781–1858). During this time,
he supported himself working as lithographer.
Winterhalter entered court circles when in 1828 he became drawing master to
Sophie Margravine of Baden, at Karlsruhe. His opportunity to establish himself
beyond southern Germany came in 1832 when he was able to travel to Italy,
1833–1834, with the support of Grand Duke Leopold of Baden. In Rome he composed
romantic genre scenes in the manner of Louis Léopold Robert and attached himself to
the circle of the director of the French Academy, Horace Vernet. On his return to
Karlsruhe, he painted the portraits of the Grand Duke Leopold of Baden and his
wife, and was appointed painter to the grand-ducal court.
Nevertheless, he left Baden to move to France where his Italian genre scene Il
dolce Farniente attracted notice at the Salon of 1836. Il Decameron a year later
was also praised; both paintings are academic compositions in the style of Raphael.
In the Salon of 1838 he exhibited a portrait of the Prince of Wagram with his young
daughter. His career as a portrait painter was soon secured when in the same year
he painted Louise Marie of Orleans, Queen of the Belgians, and her son, Duc de
Brabant. It was probably through this painting that Winterhalter came to the notice
of Maria Amalia of the Two Sicilies, Queen of the French, mother of the Queen of
In Paris, Winterhalter quickly became fashionable. He was appointed court
painter of Louis-Philippe, the king of the French, who commissioned him to paint
individual portraits of his large family. Winterhalter would execute more than
thirty commissions for him.
This success earned the painter the reputation of a specialist in dynastic and
aristocratic portraiture, skilled in combining likeness with flattery and
enlivening official pomp with modern fashion.
However, Winterhalter's reputation in artistic circles suffered. The critics,
who had praised his debut in the salon of 1836, dismissed him as a painter that
could not be taken seriously. This attitude persisted throughout Winterhalter's
career, condemning his work to a category of his own in the hierarchy of painting.
Winterhalter himself regarded his first royal commissions as a temporary
intermission before returning to subject painting and the field of academic
respectability, but he was a victim of his own success and for the rest of his life
he would work almost exclusively as a portrait painter. This was a field in which
he was not only very successful but also made him rich. Winterhalter became an
international celebrity enjoying Royal patronage.
Among his many regal sitters was also Queen Victoria. Winterhalter first visited
England in 1842, and returned several times to paint Victoria, Prince Albert and
their growing family, painting at least 120 works for them, a large number of which
remain in the Royal Collection, on display to the public at Buckingham Palace and
other royal residences. Winterhalter also painted a few portraits of the
aristocracy in England, mostly members of court circles. The fall of Louis-Philippe
in 1848 did not affect the painter's reputation. Winterhalter went to Switzerland
and worked in Belgium and England.
Persistence saw Winterhalter survive from the fall of one dynasty to the rise of
another. Paris remained his home until a couple of years before his death. A halt
in portrait commissions in France allowed him to return to subject painting with
Florinda (1852) (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), a joyous celebration of
female beauty inspired by a Spanish legend. In the same year his marriage proposal
was rejected, and Winterhalter remained a bachelor committed to his work.
After the accession of Napoleon III, his popularity grew. From then on, under
the Second Empire, Winterhalter became the chief portraitist of the imperial family
and court of France. The beautiful French Empress Eugénie became a favorite sitter
and she treated him generously. In 1855 Winterhalter painted his masterpiece: The
Empress Eugénie Surrounded by her Ladies in Waiting. He set the French Empress in a
pastoral setting gathering flowers in a harmonious circle with her ladies in
waiting. The painting was acclaimed, and exhibited in the universal exposition in
1855. It remains Winterhalter's most famous work.
In 1852, he went to Spain to paint Queen Isabella II with her daughter, Infanta
Maria-Isabel. Russian aristocratic visitors to Paris also liked to have their
portraits executed by the famous master. As the "Painter of Princes", Winterhalter
was thereafter in constant demand by the courts of Britain (from 1841), Spain,
Belgium, Russia, Mexico, the German courts, and France. During the 1850s and 1860s,
Winterhalter painted a number of important portraits of Polish and Russian
aristocrats. In 1857, he painted the portrait of Tsarina Maria Alexandrovna.
During the Second Mexican Empire in the 1860s, headed by Maximilian I of Mexico,
Winterhalter was commissioned to paint portraits of the Imperial couple. The
Empress consort of Mexico, Charlotte of Belgium was the daughter of Louise-Marie of
France, Queen of the Belgians, who Winterhalter painted at the beginning of his
career in France. Some of Winterhalter's paintings of the Mexican monarchs still
remain in their Mexico City palace, Chapultepec Castle, now the National Museum of
To deal with the pressure of portrait commissions, many of them calling for
multiple replicas, Winterhalter made extensive use of assistants. No portrait
painter ever enjoyed such an extraordinary royal patronage as Winterhalter; only
Rubens and Van Dyck worked as he did in an international network.
Winterhalter sought respite from the pressures of his work with holidays abroad
in Italy, Switzerland and above all in Germany. Despite the many years he lived in
France, he remained deeply attached to his native country. For all his success and
popularity, Winterhalter continued to live simply and abstemiously. In 1859 he
bought a villa in Baden-Baden, his favorite vacation spot.
In 1864 Winterhalter made his last visit to England. In the autumn of that year
he traveled to Vienna to execute the portraits of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress
Elisabeth that remain among his most well-known works. As he grew older,
Winterhalter's links with France weakened while his interest in Germany grew. He
was taking a cure in Switzerland at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, the
war that ended the Second French Empire in September 1870. After the war, the
painter did not return to France going instead to Baden. He was officially still
accredited at the court of Baden and he settled in Karlsruhe. In the last two years
of his life Winterhalter painted very little. During a visit to Frankfurt am Main
in the summer of 1873 he contracted typhus and died on 8 July 1873. He was
sixty-eight years old.
Winterhalter came into his own as a portrait painter during the second Empire
and he painted his best work during the last two decades of his life. He matched
his style to the luxury and relaxed atmosphere of the age, its hedonism and gaiety.
His female sitters of the 1850s and 1860s inhabit a different physiological climate
from those he painted earlier; they are not reticent and reserved. His male sitters
inspired few original or memorable compositions.
Winterhalter never received high praise for his work from serious critics, being
constantly accused of superficiality and affectation in pursuit of popularity.
However, he was highly appreciated by his aristocratic patrons. The royal families
of England, France, Spain, Russia, Portugal, Mexico and Belgium all commissioned
him to paint portraits. His monumental canvases established a substantial popular
reputation, and lithographic copies of the portraits helped to spread his fame.
Winterhalter's portraits were prized for their subtle intimacy; the nature of
his appeal is not difficult to explain. He created the image his sitters wished or
needed to project to their subjects. He was not only skilled at posing his sitters
to create almost theatrical compositions, but also was a virtuoso in the art of
conveying the texture of fabrics, furs and jewellery, to which he paid no less
attention than to the face. He painted very rapidly and very fluently, designing
most of his compositions directly in the canvas. His portraits are elegant,
refined, lifelike, and pleasantly idealized.
Concerning Winterhalter's method of working, it is thought that, practiced as he
was at drawing and representing figures, he painted directly onto the canvas
without making preliminary studies. He frequently decided upon the dress and pose
of the sitter. His style was suave, cosmopolitan and plausible. Many of the
portraits were copied in his workshop or reproduced as lithographs.
As an artist he remained a difficult figure to place, there are few painters
with whom to compare him and he does not fit into any school. His early affinities
were Neoclassical but his style can be described as Neo-Rococo. After his death,
his painting fell out of favor being considered romantic, glossy, and superficial.
Little was known about him personally and his art was not taken seriously until
recently. However, a major exhibition of his work at the National Portrait Gallery
(United Kingdom) in London and the Petit Palais in Paris in 1987 brought him into
the limelight again. His paintings are exhibited today in leading European and