Franz Xaver Winterhalter an artist adored by European monarchs

Empress Eugenia with the ladies attending her
Empress Eugenia with the ladies attending her

Franz Xaver Winterhaltera famous German artist of the XIX century, an outstanding master of the ceremonial aristocratic portrait. Franz Xaver Winterhalter was also a skilled lithographer in his youth, but in his mature years he devoted himself entirely to painting. The heroes of his paintings were the most powerful rulers of Europe and members of their families, so many of the artist’s masterpieces are still kept in private royal collections. The biography of the painter is an example of the successful career of a genius from art, which was adored by the public and not very much appreciated by critics.

Portrait of Countess Varvara Alekseevna Musina-Pushkina. 1857 hermitage Museum
Portrait of Countess Varvara Alekseevna Musina-Pushkina. 1857 hermitage Museum

Biography of Franz Xaver Winterhalter

Franz Xaver Winterhalter was born on April 20, 1805 in the small village of Menzenschwand, located in the far south-west of Germany, near the border with Switzerland. He was the seventh of nine children in the family of a simple German farmer, although on the mother’s side the ancestors of the future artist had aristocratic roots.

Since childhood, Franz was fond of drawing and immediately after graduating from elementary school at a local monastery, his parents sent him to study at the workshop of the engraver Charles Louis Schuler, a French master who lived and worked in Freiburg. Having studied the basics of painting and lithography, young Winterhalter entered the Munich Academy of Fine Arts in 1823, where he was mentored by the famous portrait painter Joseph Stieler.

Portrait of S.P. Naryshkina. 1858 hermitage Museum
Portrait of S.P. Naryshkina. 1858 hermitage Museum

After receiving his diploma from the academy, 23-year-old Franz Winterhalter, who had an extraordinary talent for painting, managed to get a job as a drawing teacher for Princess Sophia at the court of the Duke of Baden in Karlsruhe. Even then, he began to paint the first portraits of members of the princely family and soon gained fame in the local aristocratic environment.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visiting King Louis-Philippe of France at Château d'E in 1845
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visiting King Louis-Philippe of France at Château d’E in 1845

Traveling in Italy

In 1833, thanks to the financial support of his patron, Duke Leopold of Baden, Winterhalter was able to make a long creative trip to Italy. He visited many cities of this country, where he personally got acquainted with the masterpieces of ancient masters of art. Upon his return to Germany in August 1834, Franz was immediately appointed court painter of the Grand Duke of Baden, but the prospect of staying in Karlsruhe for life did not appeal to him.

Wenceslava Barshchevskaya
Wenceslava Barshchevskaya

Therefore, six months later, the painter left the prestigious service and went to Paris, which at that time was the most influential art center in Europe. In 1836-37, the young master successfully took part in the prestigious Paris Salons. His work was highly praised by critics, and the painting “The Decameron” even received the highest award a large gold medal. Winterhalter was noticed by the French monarch Louis-Philippe I, who appointed him as court painter.

The brilliant painter took responsibility for fulfilling his duties and over the course of several years painted dozens of portraits of the French king and members of his family. Under the patronage of Louis-Philippe, Franz Winterhalter soon became the most fashionable and sought-after portrait painter in France, and a little later acquired pan-European fame. From that time until the end of his life, the artist was literally inundated with orders from the rulers and influential nobles of the Old World. He organized a huge workshop and hired dozens of assistants, and also brought in his younger brother Herman to work together.

Polina Sandor, Princess of the Metternichs
Polina Sandor, Princess of the Metternichs

Portrait painting

Franz Winterhalter, according to friends, repeatedly tried to try his hand at other genres of fine art, but he was sorely lacking time for such experiments. But there was no shortage of ill-wishers and critics, who called him a “frivolous artist”, accused him of excessive sweetness of his works, but, in fact, simply envied the success of the brilliant master.

However, specializing in portraiture helped Winterhalter amass a huge fortune and saved him from financial problems forever. During his long creative career, he painted hundreds of ceremonial portraits, and the permanent customers of the master were members of almost all European royal families.

Empress Eugenia. 1854
Empress Eugenia. 1854

Franz Winterhalter traveled a lot around the world, gladly accepting invitations from royalty to visit this or that capital and paint several paintings. The artist’s creative heritage includes portraits of rulers, family members and prominent courtiers of Spain, England, Russia, Belgium, Poland, Portugal, Germany, Austria and even Mexico.

However, in the early 1870s, the painter showed serious health problems.

Doctors advised him to take a break from work in the Alpine resorts, and the artist did not argue with them. The last few years he spent in Switzerland on the Baden healing springs, gradually moving away from business and enjoying a well-deserved rest.

It seemed that the life of the master was gradually entering a measured channel and he would spend the rest of his earthly journey without any special worries. But during an optional trip to Frankfurt am Main, Franz Xaver Winterhalter contracted typhus and on July 8, 1873, died suddenly from complications caused by this terrible disease. The artist has never been married and he has no direct descendants, and a huge fortune was shared by distant relatives the children of his brothers and sisters.

Empress Eugenie is the wife of Napoleon III.
Empress Eugenie is the wife of Napoleon III.
The most famous paintings by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

The German portrait master has created a huge number of works of art during his creative career. Yet some of the most famous paintings by Franz Xaver Winterhalter include:

  • The Decameron (1837) is a masterpiece for which the artist received the main award of the Paris Salon in the same year. The brilliant artistic illustration of the immortal creation of Giovanni Boccaccio became the highlight of the exhibition and was a huge success.
  • “Portrait of Princess Wittgenstein” (1843) is a wonderful example of a painting from the early period of the artist’s work. The charming maid of honor of the St. Petersburg imperial court is depicted in her in a romantic image against the background of a seascape.
  • “Empress Eugenie surrounded by maids of honor” (1855) is a multi-figured portrait composition depicting the wife of the French monarch. The painting, in which the Empress and the girls collect flowers, was enthusiastically received by both the public and the crowned customer.
  • “Portrait of Emperor Napoleon III” (1853-60) is a brilliant portrait of the last French emperor in full dress. The monarch liked this picture so much that the artist, together with his brother Herman, created about a dozen copies of it.

Franz Xaver Winterhalter was an outstanding artist of his era, who was literally idolized by European rulers. He never paid attention to ill-wishers, but simply created beautiful portraits of his contemporaries, which are still admired by millions of art lovers around the world today.

Carmen Aguado, Duchess of Montmorency
Carmen Aguado, Duchess of Montmorency
Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Varvara Dmitrievna Rimskaya-Korsakova (1834-1879)
Varvara Dmitrievna Rimskaya-Korsakova (1834-1879)
Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Young Italian at the well
Young Italian at the well
Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Princess Victoria (1840-1901)
Princess Victoria (1840-1901)
Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Empress Maria Alexandrovna
Empress Maria Alexandrovna
Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Princess Tatyana Alexandrovna Yusupova (copy)
Princess Tatyana Alexandrovna Yusupova (copy)
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