Franz Xaver Winterhalter was the Cecil Beaton of his day: an iconographer whose ability to flatter with a virtuoso mixture of Romance and elegance attracted the great and the good from around Europe. His images of Queen Victoria and Emperor Napoleon III still have a resonance today.
After several years painting the English royal family - for whom he painted more than a hundred portraits - Winterhalter settled in the French capital, a social hub for the European nobility, where he spent much of the 1840s and 1850s. The present work was painted just as his fame was being launched on a wider European stage, soon after he had re-established himself in Paris following the revolutionary upheavals of 1848. With established royal patronage, he had an easy passport to the courts and aristocracy of Europe.
Winterhalter was at his best as a painter of women, creating out of the frothy fashions of the times images of great elegance and sophistication. There was nobody with a similar ability to transform his sitters through a carefully crafted virtuosity and chic. He worked in a range of keys, sometimes creating dreamy, billowing concoctions, in which his female sitters appeared as Romantic, wistful figures against a background of flowers and soft, transparent fabrics. Other portraits were designed to emphasise grandeur and status, and were rooted in the English tradition of the swagger portrait, while others - such as the present work - were rooted in the classical tradition of Winterhalter's contemporary, Jean-August-Dominique Ingres. In all cases, Winterhalter tuned his key to the wishes and status of his sitters, and 'was able to paint an accurate likeness while subtly enhancing their features, and to record in what resembles almost photographic detail, every item of costume and sitters.' (R. Ormond, Franz Xaver Winterhalter and the Courts of Europe 1830-70, exhibition catalogue, London, 1987, p. 66).
In the present work, Winterhalter's sitter is clothed in an elegant but sober dress, which characterized the demure style of the 1840s. She is represented three-quarter-length in the artist's preferred oval format - polished, refined, and quietly stylish. Her identity is unknown, although her jewellery and clothing show she is a lady of stature. The commission was clearly private, as the painting lacks the Romantic bombast of Winterhalter's many royal portraits, exuding instead a sense of quiet and confident restraint. The sitter's sober but dignified expression and the plain, sketched background provide a perfect foil to highlight Winterhalter's virtuoso skills in rendering the texture of jewellery, or the pleats and sheen of the black fabric which sets off the wearer's fine complexion. Finally, the painting is brought vividly to life by the device of the colourful fan, which radiates like a spray of flowers against the black dress. Every aspect of the painting is carefully calculated, revealing Winterhalter not only as a portraitist, but as a painter of high fashion able to depict his sitters in the best possible light.