The present lot shows a hunting party with the Habsburg monarch Franz Joseph I of Austria (1830-1916) and his spouse Elisabeth of Bavaria (1837-1898), better known as Sissi. The story of the couple started in 1853, when they met at Franz Joseph's birthday party. His mother Sophie wanted him to marry his cousin Helena, the eldest daughter of the duke and duchess of Bavaria, the sister of Sophie. She thought the girl would be a suitable wife, as she was supposed to have the best wedding, being the eldest child. With this prospect in mind, the duchess had given Helena the education that was expected by high society. Sophie arranged that the girl would appear at the birthday party, accompanied by her mother and sister. But instead Franz Joseph could not take his eyes of her younger sister Elisabeth. Sophie wrote down the words Franz Joseph had spoken: 'How delicious Sissi is. She is as fresh as an almond which springs from its shell, and her face is framed by such a splendid crown of hair! She has such beautiful gentle eyes! And her lips are like strawberries!' (Bled, J.P. Franz Joseph, Oxford 1992, p. 87). Elisabeth felt honoured, but at the same time distressed, because she had not been educated for an imperial wedding with matching responsibilities, a preoccupation that would return many times during their marriage. However, it was impossible to refuse to marry the emperor. Eight months after their first encounter the wedding took place.
The first years of the marriage were the happiest ones; Franz Joseph and Elisabeth were madly in love with one another. Elisabeth tried to overcome her negative feelings towards the official life she had to lead by accompanying her husband on official journeys and gatherings. Unfortunately, she could not ignore the sentiments that had plagued her since the few weeks of married life, as she wrote down in a poem:
Would that I never left the path
Which would have led me to freedom.
I awakened in a cage
With my hands bound.
And my nostalgia increased all the time.
And Liberty! You have turned your back on me. (Ibid, p. 98)
The uncomfortable feelings towards imperial life were enforced by the isolation she was put in. Franz Joseph had to rule his people, after all, in times of international political turmoil.
The present monumental painting by Von Blaas portrays Franz Joseph and Elisabeth attending a hunting party, probably an informal gathering, judging from the equestrian clothing the emperor is depicted in; he is usually shown wearing his Austrian officer's uniform in official portraits. Elisabeth is represented with a very small waistline, which may point towards her anorectic lifestyle: following strict diets and spending much time on physical exercise, she weighed 50 kilos with a height of 1.72 metres, despite having given birth to three children.
As to why Elisabeth is portrayed in black remains unclear. Perhaps it is a reference to her mourning over their son Rudolph, who had committed suicide in 1889, but it could also point to her own death in 1898, two years before the painting was completed.
Julius von Blaas was taught by his father Carl von Blaas (1815-1994) and trained in Venice, Florence and Rome. He was also influenced by his celebrated brother Eugen von Blaas (1843-1931). Julius von Blaas became a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and is especially admired for his equestrian portraits, though, as is the case in this painting, he would sometimes combine the horses with other subjects. In the present painting he merged his favourite animals with a poignant contemporary theme.