Franz Makart’s life-size portrait of his close friend Maria, the Italian aristocrat Countess von Dönhoff (later von Bülow), is a bravura portrait by the artist of choice for European society in the 1870s. Court painter in Vienna, Makart was a brilliant colourist whose fluid brushwork bridged the gap between the polished style of Franz Xaver Winterhalter and the bold, painterly swagger of artists such as Giovanni Boldini and John Singer Sargent. Here, he fully captures the confidence of the early Belle Époque, depicting his subject seated at a piano, glancing knowingly at the viewer, her dress cascading down her side.
Born Principessa di Camporeale, Marchesa di Altavilla, Maria was married first to Count Karl von Dönhoff, whom she divorced in 1884, and with whom she had three children. She was the step-daughter of Marco Minghetti, Italian Prime Minister from 1873 to 1876, and daughter of Laura Minghetti (née Acton), a leading figure in Roman society. In 1886, she sealed her position at the very pinnacle of Europe’s aristocracy by marrying the German statesman, Bernhard von Bülow. The marriage helped further von Bülow’s stellar career, ensuring his appointment as Ambassador to Rome in 1893; he was then promoted to Minister for Foreign Affairs from 1897 to 1900, and subsequently headed his country’s government as Chancellor from 1900 to 1909. Her husband’s rise gave Maria access to the highest levels of both German and British royalty, and in 1905 she became Princess von Bülow, her husband’s rank having been elevated from that of Count by Emperor Wilhelm II.
Maria was renowned as a gifted pianist and singer, having received instruction from Franz Liszt, a close friend who mentions her frequently in his letters. Praising the present picture, Liszt commented: “He [Makart] has painted a large portrait of Countess Dönhoff at the piano, or rather Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier, with garlands in profusion. She told me yesterday that it was a kind of present from Makart. It has been admired here at the Palazzo Vendramin, for I begged Mme D[önhoff] to have it unpacked, and you will see it in Rome, where the graceful live original will herself be next week.” (F. Liszt, The Letters of Franz Liszt to Olga von Meyendorff, 1871-1886, Washington DC, 1979, p. 443).
Maria was also noted for her beauty, and was a favourite model of Makart’s, who painted her in several other works, not just as the subject but as a model for larger narrative compositions. In an earlier letter, dated October 1872, Liszt writes: “Makart is finishing an immense and very sensational picture: The Homage of the Senate of Venice to Catharine Cornaro [today in the Belvedere, Vienna]. In it, Mme D’s hair is a burnished blond, à la Titian”. (op. cit., p. 57).
Makart was best known for his large-scale canvases, and a theatrical sense of the decorative, which he rendered with his bold use of colour, strong chiaroscuro and virtuoso draftsmanship. He considered himself as a history painter in the tradition or Rubens, but adapted his style to portraiture, bowing to the inevitable demands of the many visitors to his studio, a key focal point for Viennese society.