This trademark portrait by Franz Winterhalter depicts the 31 year-old Sarah Vanderbyl (née Alexander); it was painted in 1866, the same year that Sarah’s wealthy South-African-born husband Philip was elected to Parliament as M.P. for Bridgewater, becoming the first colonial-born member of the House of Commons. For the Vanderbyls, commissioning a portrait from Winterhalter – Court Painter to Queen Victoria and portraitist of choice for British high society – would have commemorated their formal entry into the British Establishment.
An unpretentious German artist, the son of humble parents from the Black Forest, Winterhalter reinvented the tradition of court and society 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, and transforming his sitters with a carefully crafted virtuosity and chic.
Over a career spanning more than 40 years, Winterhalter painted practically every royal family in Europe. He had an extraordinary ability to adapt himself to the political wind -- acting, for example, as court painter to both Louis-Philippe and Napoleon III -- and to different artistic national 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.
The present portrait was indeed painted in Paris, where Winterhalter had spent most his life since 1840, maintaining a studio to which the great and the good travelled from throughout Europe. Tellingly, however, the artist has here tailored his pictorial style to the nationality of his sitter, creating an image of Sarah that is clearly Victorian, combining a sense of material wealth with one of quiet virtue. Sarah is posed three-quarter length, against a plain background, in a billowing white dress. Her marmoreal pose, pale skin, sharply delineated profile and braided hairstyle hint back to the values of classical antiquity, while her crossed hands and the crucifix she wears around her neck suggest more traditional Christian virtues. Sarah 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, silky hair, richly worked jewellery – which describe her beauty and her status.