Friday in the atelier: "Madame Barbe de Rimsky-Korsakov" by Franz Xavier Winterhalter

I find myself feeling a little conflicted over Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805-1873). He is undeniably a Master artist, and he became wealthy and famous due to patronage by royalty. But other artists (whose opinions I respect) and art critics (who I respect very little) said that his work was pretentious and superficial due to his pursuit of popularity and wealth.

Would one of Winterhalter’s artistic contemporaries, if pulled through time to the 21st century, call him an “art whore for royalty”? I think they would.

Winterhalter was an extremely prolific painter of royalty, and a favorite of Queen Victoria. The queen hired Charles Burton Barber to paint her dogs, horses and children, but she hired Winterhalter to paint her. He painted over 120 works for the Queen and her family! Winterhalter also painted royals for the courts of Belgium, Germany, France, Belgium, Russia, and Spain.

Why was he so popular with royalty? And why are so many of his paintings of royalty on display in museums around the world instead of hoarded on the walls of ancestral mansions by many-removed descendants? I believe these questions have the same answer. According to Wikipedia (which refers to the book “Franz Xaver Winterhalter: And the Courts of Europe, 1830-70”):
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 jewelry, 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 life-like and pleasantly idealized.
That is why he was popular with royalty – royals were often not very physically beautiful or handsome. Winterhalter could paint them in such a way so that they became radiant, lovely if not beautiful. And the portraits he created were still easily recognizable as the subject in question.

Winterhalter painted quickly, with little fuss and without several preliminary composition drawings that other artists used – which I think must have mollified often impatient royals. He would pose his subjects to tell their story, often including props in the painting that showed the subject’s interests or accomplishments. And of course he was a master painter who could paint beautifully, who could “filter out” that which was unlovely to make the subject in question beautiful.

And I think that is why his paintings hang in museums instead of in private mansions. Royalty didn’t mind letting commoners see paintings that portrayed royals as they wanted to be, instead of as they really were. Perhaps these same royals, or their progeny, were more eager to donate these paintings to museums because they were a bit embarrassed to keep so subtle a lie in their homes - to be confronted with it daily.

Winterhalter’s works made him wealthy and successful during his lifetime – his paintings are beautiful in their own right – it is only in comparison with the original subjects that their lie starts to irritate. His works didn’t translate to admiration or respect of his peers, and I have to think that this affected his personal life too. Winterhalter’s attempts to marry failed and he died a bachelor.

The cropped detail of the portrait that I am showing here is that of Barbara (Barbe) Dmitrievna Mergassov Rimsky-Korsakova, wife of Nikolai Sergeyevich Rimsky-Korsakov. (Click on the link or the portrait for the full version.)

I couldn’t find much in the way of background on Countess Rimsky-Korsakov. Her father in law was a socialite who was famous for hosting elaborate costume balls. Her husband was unremarkable. When they married, she was 16 and he was 20 – they had three children. The fashionable couple starred at many balls, presumably hosted by the elder Rimsky-Korsakov. Like many Hollywood-esq relationships their marriage fell apart and the Countess moved to France where she lived the rest of her life.

The Countess was known for being independent - even though she had lovers and admirers she never again married. In her words:
“I am free and independent. My mistakes are my mistakes. My success is my success. I believe in myself, I do everything alone and don't make a tragedy of it.”
She was also known for society scandals, for showing up to society balls in revealing and provocative costumes. Her beauty was written about in France’s society pages, but the veracity of those articles is debatable. Like today’s Hollywood, France’s society reporters took ‘liberties’ with their descriptions. Certainly Winterhalter painted her as beautiful, but even here you can see that her features are broader and heavier than the delicate beauties found in the works of Winterhalter’s contemporaries.

The Countess Rimsky-Korsakova died at the young age of 45.

As I said, Winterhalter was prolific as an artist. A simple Google image search easily turns up dozens of his works, and I’m sure I could come up with a hundred paintings with some effort. Each royal portrait shows a leader, someone who is both serious and capable of enjoying life, someone that you could trust. They are all beautiful, and are worth your time to view them.

Just don’t ask yourself how much of the real person is reflected in each portrait.


John said...

But other artists (whose opinions I respect) and art critics (who I respect very little) said that his work was pretentious and superficial due to his pursuit of popularity and wealth.

I've found that this critical voice gets louder during the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods, when mass production techniques were first applied to the arts. The elites were increasingly scandalized when the middle class had greater access to art. The Pop Art movement exploited this wedge consciously, particularly Keith Haring's innovation of creating stores which sold nothing but his materials. And now we have Thomas Kinkade factory outlets in shopping malls everywhere, further antagonizing the elitist voice within art.

The Winterhalter debate, of course, is about elites struggling with each other. But there is always a voice in the art world stretching back to the Academic era which says "Mine! Mine! You can't have this!" Those who follow the market are somehow seen as treacherous.

Unknown said...

I am researching varvara, could I ask you where you found information?


Calladus said...

Start with

Then start checking with different art galleries and art sales. People who sell art for a living have frequently researched the backgrounds.

MrsBonnieMoore said...


When I do portraits, I prefer to draw forth the person or creature's more attractive qualities--leave it to other artists to emphasize ugliness. Everyone and everything has an aspect of beauty, and I pride myself on generally being able to find it.

When I paint a cougar, I'm not going to paint its ass. When I paint a friend, I'm not going to paint her warts and moles.


Calladus said...

A good artist can make a comely subject lovely, as you do.

A great artist can paint a subject exactly as it is, and make it beautiful. For example, Rodin's "Belle Heaulmière" or Duffy Sherdan's "Stan Kryszczak".

Even a cat's butt can be great addition if composed well, with some imagination.

Unknown said...

Does anyone know the name of her 3 children?
Please let me know if you do!
Thank you!