Franz Xaver Winterhalter painted practically every royal family in Europe over a career spanning more than forty years. One would have to look back to Peter Paul Rubens and forward to Philip de Laszló to find such extensive royal patronage. An unpretentious German artist, the son of humble parents from the Black Forest, Winterhalter reinvented the tradition of court portraiture and gave it fresh life. He was at his best with 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.
His rise to prominence was rapid. After study in Freiburg and Munich, and some time as a hack lithographer in Karlsruhe, he attracted the notice of Grand Duchess Sophie Guillemette of Baden-Baden. He was appointed her drawing master in 1829, and later court painter to Grand Duke Leopold. In 1834, he moved to Paris, receiving his first French royal commission four years later, a full-length portrait of Princess Clementine of Orléans. There followed rapidly an imposing series of full-length state portraits of Louis-Philippe, his wife and family, a veritable portrait gallery of the Orléans dynasty that hung (and still hangs) at Versailles. They are the complement to that gallery of historical pictures, also at Versailles, with which the King sought to legitimise his seizure of power. He was after all, the product of revolution. Winterhalter executed more than thirty commissions for Louis-Philippe, including several large group pictures, recording historic scenes, such as his reception at Windsor Castle in 1844 (Musée national du château de Versailles).
It was not through the French King that Queen Victoria was introduced to Winterhalter but through her uncle, King Leopold of the Belgians who had employed the artist in 1838. Legitimacy was not a problem for the Queen: she simply wanted an artist who could do justice to her idealistic image of herself as queen, wife and mother. Between 1842 and 1871, Winterhalter painted more than a hundred works in oil for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, including four pairs of state portraits, the great family piece, sequences of their children at various ages and in various guises (as babies, highlanders and debutantes), the growing swarm of relatives that meant so much to the Queen, and quantities of delicious, informal sketches. Winterhalter came to England every summer or autumn for a stay of six to seven weeks. He made few contacts outside the royal circle and exhibited only a token number of pictures at the Royal Academy. He spoke English brokenly, and joined a select group of German retainers at court. Queen Victoria liked him because he was simple and modest. His portraits of the royal family were elegant, naturalistic and pleasingly romantic. He captured the spirit of domestic felicity and idealism, which inspired the royal couple both as parents and rulers. Queen Victoria, whose chief concern was that portraits should be lifelike, was easily satisfied. The more knowledgeable Prince Albert responded to the academic and technical virtuosity of his compatriot.
With Louis-Philippe and Queen Victoria behind him, Winterhalter had an easy passport to the courts of Europe. His suave, cosmopolitan style transcended national boundaries, and made him universally popular as a court painter. The fall of of the French King in 1848 caused him no problems. He slid effortlessly into the good graces of the Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie, becoming the royal iconographer of the Second Empire. His masterpiece, the huge alfresco group of the Empress Eugénie Surrounded by her Ladies-in-Waiting (1855, Musée national du château de Compiègne) captures the mixture of hedonism and grandeur that characterized the court. From Paris, Winterhalter travelled to Berlin, to Madrid and Lisbon, to Amsterdam, and later to Vienna, where he captured the beauty and élan of the Empress Elizabeth. The artist is not known to have travelled to Russia, but that did not prevent him from painting the Russian Imperial family, who spent their summers in the spa towns of Germany and Switzerland. In 1856, Winterhalter had painted Queen Olga of Württemberg, Grand Duchess of Russia (fig. 2), in the spa town of Bruckinau, and the following year he painted her brother, Emperor Alexander II (untraced) and sister-in-law, Empress Maria Alexandrovna (Hermitage, St. Petersburg). The imperial pair 'did not know which of the two portraits to prefer, each being thrilled with his or her own', as the Empress's lady-in-waiting, Countess Tolstoi, informed the artist.
Winterhalter spent much of the 1840s and 1850s in Paris, a social hub for European nobility. After he had painted the Tsar and his wife, Russian aristocrats flocked to his studio there: 'The Tsarina set a trend among the ladies of her court. Everyone wanted to be painted, and over the course of the following three years, Winterhalter received sittings from a succession of Russians... [including] Princess Bariatinsky in 1858 [and her daughter] Princess Troubetskoi in 1859.' (Ormond, op. cit. p.51).
Princess Elizaveta Alexandrovna Bariatinskaia (1826-1902) was among the highest members of the Russian nobility. The eldest daughter of Prince Alexander Ivanovitch Chernyshov and his second wife, née Princess Elizaveta Nikolaevna Zotova, she was married to Prince Vladimir Ivanovitch Bariatinsky (b. 1815). In the present work, Winterhalter has displayed her three-quarter length, using an oval canvas, his preferred support for paintings of this type. The pose is informal and sympathetic, the sitter's clothes described in quick strokes of white, black and blue; the overall effect is to create a work of far greater charm and softness than Winterhalter's more rigidly posed and highly finished state portraits.