Winterhalter and the Courts of Europe
Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1801-73) 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 Orleans 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 1857 he painted the Empress Maria Alexandrovna (Hermitage, St. Petersburg) as well as her husband, Emperor Alexander II (untraced), in the spa town of Bruckinau. The imperial pair 'did not know which of the two portraits to prefer, each being thrilled with his or her own', as the Empress' lady-in-waiting, Countess Tolstoi, informed the artist.
The exact circumstances in which Winterhalter came to paint Crown Princess Olga (later Queen) of Württemberg are not known, but he first painted her in 1854/1855 executing two versions of the same three-quarter length portrait (see Massenbach, op. cit, p. 76), one of which (fig 2) is now in a German private collection. Massenbach records (op. cit.) that the present painting was executed in June 1856. In her diary entry of 9 June, she records "Transferred to the villa. Sitting for Winterhalter, from the front. Informal. Roses." At the same time he painted her mother, the recently widowed Dowager Alexandra Feodorovna, in the same pose and similar dress as the earlier portrait of her daughter (Hermitage, St Petersburg). Her husband, Emperor Nicholas I, had died the year before, and the portraits of his wife and daughter may have been done with his memory in mind; it is significant that Crown Princess Olga wears a clack velvet wristband and no jewellery of any kind. Crown Princess Olga's portrait was not the artist's first Württemberg commission. As early as 1839, he had painted a portrait of the thirty-five year old Prince Alexander Friedrich Wilhelm of Württemberg (known only through a lithograph), and in 1841 he twice painted Prince Alexander Philip of Württemberg as a young boy (Musée national du château de Versailles, and Royal Collection, Great Britain). In 1850, Winterhalter painted Sophia Fredericka Mathilda of Württemberg, Queen of Holland (untraced), and a later three-quarter-length portrait of the same sitter in 1863 (Riijksmuseum, Amsterdam).
Winterhalter painted Olga again in 1858, this time in an oval bust portrait, for which there exists a preliminary watercolour. The portrait of Grand Duchess Olga catalogued here may be the picture listed by Franz Wild in his 1894 catalogue of his uncle's works (see reference in bibliography above): 'La Grand-duchesse Olga Princess Royal de Württemberg, 3p' [the last word perhaps intended for 'three-quarter-length']. The second portrait of her listed by Wild, 'La Reine du Württemberg, en pied' must be the full-length in Stuttgart Old Castle, administered by the Württembergisches Landesmueum Stuttgart, a resplendent image of queenly dignity and hauteur. Two portraits of her husband, painted before his accession, are listed by Wild, 'Le Prince Royal de Württemberg, 2 Portraits' (neither traced), but Winterhalter was not asked to paint him after his accession to the throne as a pair to the full-length of his wife.
The portrait of Grand Duchess Olga as Crown Princess of Württemberg, is a more informal and sympathetic characterization than the picture of her as queen. It belongs to a type of seated female portrait which Winterhalter had pioneered in the three-quarter-length oval of the Empress Eugénie (1854, private collection). It was adapted for later portraits of members of the Russian court, like the Princess Yussupova (1858, Hermitage, St. Petersburg), and Countess Maria Lamsdorf (1859, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). The still youthful Crown Princess Olga (she was thirty-four at the time) is seated in a landscape, gracefully holding a pair of red roses, evidently plucked from the rose bush behind her. She is wearing a white silk, long-sleeved gown, trimmed with ruched lilac panels edged with lace and lilac ribbons. It is difficult to be certain but she may be wearing a thin tulle wrap over the dress. A fine lace veil is pinned to her hair at the back and tied loosely at the throat. Her dark hair is parted in the centre, looping over the ears and presumably coiled behind. She sits at perfect ease, in an imaginary Arcadian landscape, her billowing dress framed by the curve of the oval which encloses her. Unusually for him, Winterhalter executed a primary study in watercolour for the head, a subtle and delicate piece of draughtsmanship. The oil portrait is painted with Winterhalter's customary verve and panache. The direct lighting from the left throws the whites and mauves of the costume into brilliant relief against the dark green foliage, and shadows the right side of the sitter's face to give her a pensive and mysterious air. The present work shows that he could not only make his subjects regal and glamourous as figures of state but also romantic as individuals.
Olga Nikolaevna, Grand Duchess of Russia, Queen of Württemberg
The third of seven children born to Emperor Nicholas I and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna of Russia, Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna was born at the Anichkov Palace, St. Petersburg, on 11th September 1822. Of her two sisters, the elder Maria and the younger Alexandra later married Maximilian of Leuchtenberg and Friedrich of Hessen-Kassel in 1839 and 1844 respectively. Of her brothers, Mikhail, Nicholas, Konstantin and Alexander, the latter succeeded their father to become Emperor Alexander II in 1855.
Olga's childhood appears in many ways to have been idyllic and she herself referred to her intimate family circle as 'a happy island'. Indeed, she entitled her memoirs (which perhaps significantly, conclude with her marriage) Son iunosti, or Dream of youth, emphasising the fairytale quality of her childhood and its poignant memory. Visitors at court commented on the unexpectedly tender relationship between Emperor Nicholas I and his children, who regularly accompanied their parents on trips and divided their time between the Winter Palace and numerous Imperial summer residences.
Olga was educated alongside her sisters on the first floor of the Winter Palace and was tutored by some of the most enlightened of Russia's intellectuals, including the poet and critic Petr Pletnev (1792-1852). The latter particularly encouraged a love for the work of Pushkin amongst the Imperial children; in her memoirs Olga recalls how she was encouraged to learn Pushkin's Poltava, The Fountain of Bakhchisaray, and Boris Gudunov by heart (Son iunosti, Paris, 1963, p. 66). Olga's prodigious artistic talent was recognised by Alekandr Zauerveid (1783-1844), an artist known for his impressive battle-scenes, and by her early twenties she was an accomplished landscape artist.
Olga became a strong-minded and independent woman who lacked the impulsiveness of her elder sister Maria and the frivolity of her younger sister Alexandra. Considered by some to be the most beautiful of her sisters, she was known as much for her fierce intellect as for her grace and kindness. A keen political awareness was coupled with a strong sense of the responsibilities linked to her Imperial statues. In 1845, Olga became the Chief of the 3rd Husar Elizabetgradskii regiment, highlighting her desire to take on a public role as a Grand Duchess of Russia.
The question of marriage was of great political concern to the Imperial family and although many suitors were considered, including Archduke Stephan of Austria, Olga was the last daughter to wed. Like many, Grand Duke Petr Vladimirovich Dolgorukov believed this was largely due to Olga's personality, 'Although...a woman with spirit, blessed with all the wonderful female qualities...she has also the gifts of cold reason and common-sense bound with high self-esteem; she rejected one of the influential German sovereigns only because he was not a King, but at the same time was dissatisfied when a plan was hatched to marry her off to the Crown Prince of Bavaria...'. It appears that due to necessity a match was eventually made with her cousin, Karl Friedrich Alexandr Crown Prince of Württemberg. The wedding took place on 26th July 1846 when Olga was 23 years of age. In her memoirs she writes, 'All that day, which was packed with ceremonies, seemed to me endless. At last, in the evening, we were solemnly conducted to our future apartments, where we were met by Sasha and Marie [the future Emperor Alexander II and Grand Duchess Maria] with bread and salt. The heavy silver damask gown and also the crown and necklace were taken off me and I donned a light silk dress with a lace mantilla, and also a cap with ribbons, because now I was married!' (ibid, p. 95).
Shortly after the ceremony Crown Princess Olga and Crown Prince Karl took up residency at Villa Berg in Stuttgart, the capital of Württemberg. However, the marriage was apparently loveless, and the couple almost immediately began to live separate lives with Crown Prince Karl spending most of his time in unsavoury company on the Riviera. Crown Princess Olga continued to focus her attention on her official engagements, organising splendid receptions, diplomatic dinners, concerts and balls. Increasingly isolated in her empty and childless marriage, Olga began to dedicate more of her time to charitable works.
In 1864 Crown Prince Karl became King of Württemberg, and as Queen Olga continued to use her influence to aid charitable causes. During the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) she spearheaded an organisation set up to care for wounded soldiers and her Palace was transformed into an education centre for voluntary female workers. The education of girls and professional training for women had always been of interest to Olga, demonstrated by her support for the initiative to build a monastery for women in St. Petersburg in 1844. Olga was also instrumental in the development of hospital treatment in Württemberg, helping to set up one of the first centres for medical care in the region. The Olga-Hospital, renowned to this day for its paediatric care, was founded in Stuttgart in 1894 in her memory. Olga's impact in the field of charity work was so great that in 1870 King Karl I created the Order of Olga, rewarding acts of charity, particularly involving the sick and war-wounded.
Throughout this activity, Olga's ties with Russia remained strong; she continued to correspond with Empress Maria Alexandrovna and frequently travelled to St. Petersburg with her friends and relatives. However, Olga's attempts to increase the influence of Württemberg by strengthening its links with Russia were constantly undermined by her husband's less astute political acumen.
Karl I died on 7 October 1891, ending 45 years of married life. He was succeeded by his cousin, Wilhelm II. Olga outlived her husband by one year and died at Friedrichshaven Castle aged 71, on 18 October 1892. During her funeral, prelate Schmidt summed up the extent to which this Grand Duchess of Russia had endeared herself to the people of Württemberg with the words, 'We called her our own- 18 years a Crown Princess, 2] years a Queen, and one year a widow.'