An unpretentious German artist, the son of humble parents from the Black Forest, Franz Xaver Winterhalter reinvented the tradition of court and society portraiture, giving 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 and transforming his sitters with a carefully crafted virtuosity and chic.
Over a career spanning more than forty years, Winterhalter painted almost every royal family in Europe. He had an extraordinary ability to adapt himself without regard to politics, for example, acting as court painter to both Louis-Philippe and Napoléon III, and to different national artistic sensitivities. Always flattering, he nonetheless reflected back at his sitters an image that they wished to project of themselves: in the case of Victoria, an idealistic image of herself as queen, wife and mother which projected domestic felicity; in that of Empress Eugénie, a more hedonistic and Romantic image which had its roots in the French 18th century tradition of the fête galante.
Winterhalter was introduced to Queen Victoria by her uncle, King Leopold of Belgium, who had employed the artist in 1838. Between 1842 and 1871, he painted more than 100 works in oil for her and her husband Albert, coming to England every summer for a stay of six to seven weeks. However, despite the frequency and length of his visits, he made few contacts in the country outside the immediate royal circle. As a result, it was in Paris that Winterhalter made his reputation and it was the painter’s talent as a portraitist and his ability to flatter the noble and rich women he depicted that underpinned his entire artistic career.
The sitter was born Elena Ivanovna Tchertkov, daughter of Ivan Dmitrievich Tchertkov and Baroness Elena Grigorievna Stroganova. Baroness Stroganova was the daughter of Baron Grigorii Stroganov, who had served as grand chamberlain of the Imperial court and ambassador to Sweden, Spain and Turkey and was made count of the Russian Empire in 1826, and his wife Princess Anna Sergeievna Trubetskaya. Elena first married a Count Orlov-Denisov, presumably Mikhail Vasilieivitch, a civil servant who attained the rank of Polkovnik, or collegial counselor (equivalent to an army colonel). Following his early death in 1864, the young widow married Count Peter Andreievitch Shuvalov who rose to the highest ranks of Russia’s civil service and ambassadorial corps. The couple had five children.
Countess Orlov-Denisov was twenty-three when she sat for Winterhalter in Paris in 1853. A striking beauty and extremely rich from her own family’s money as well as that of her husband, she fit neatly into the type of clientèle Winterhalter sought. The Countess is posed three-quarter length, against a plain background, in a billowing white dress, a string of white pearls knotted at her throat. The Countess projects an image of poise, elegance and quiet confidence, which is conjured from a dazzling pictorial symphony of whites, subtly graded across a range of different surfaces and textures, and which provides an ethereal background against which to highlight the carefully picked out details – pink cheeks and lips, the pink rose entwined with pearls at her breast, silky dark but brightly highlighted hair, richly worked jewelry – which describe her beauty and her status.