Centuries before photoshop, camera filters and green screen backgrounds, there was Franz X. Winterhalter portrait painter to royalty, and he made the emperors and empresses, princes and princesses look damn good.
While his name might not be familiar to all but the most ardent portrait-lover, he was not only the painter that mid-19th century monarchs relied on to depict their best side for posterity, but he became, in the words of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston director Gary Tinterow, the “arbiter of style” for the age.
Now a remarkable new exhibition at the MFAH, High Society: The Portraits of Franz X. Winterhalter, focuses not only on Winterhalter’s mastery of the portrait form but also his influence on courtly fashion. Along with 45 paintings by Winterhalter, the exhibition features a 10 garment sampling of the highest fashion of the era, including several gowns designed by Charles Frederick Worth, the father of haute couture. The dresses of Worth and his contemporaries are placed in complement to the paintings throughout the galleries of the exhibition because as Tinterow explains, “Worth and Winterhalter conspired together to create these extraordinary portraits.”
During a recent walk-through of High Society, led by the exhibition’s organizer Helga Aurisch, curator of European art at the MFAH, I realized that because of the fashion elements as well as the identity of Winterhalter’s subjects, the exhibition enthralls on many different levels. Come to High Society for the portrait art and stunning gowns but delve deeper for history lessons filled with power, romance and tragedy.
High society as high art
Strolling among the paintings, it’s possible to simply revel in these beautiful depictions of the human form without even pondering that many of these particular humans were the most powerful men and women in Europe at the time. Winterhalter was brilliant at painting the details and intricacies of faces and hands, while depicting the clothing, especially the gowns with open, almost sketching brushwork.
“[Winterhalter] is painting in such an Impressionist fashion already. He is so forward looking in his technique. It’s the wonderful combination of this finely painted head and shoulders and hand, but then a really open and breathtaking fashion sense,” explained Aurisch. Adding further insight on Winterhalter’s depiction of these dresses, many of which were designed by Worth, she noted, “One of the things that makes him so good at fashion is that he captures the essence, just as he captures the essence of the people, but he leaves a lot to the imagination.”
A magnificent history lesson
Don’t let all the pretty faces fool you. Winterhalter painted the who’s who among the European royals and aristocrats of the 19th century. Admire the art of the exhibition, but do read the wall texts throughout the galleries as they give insight on the alliances, marriages, births and deaths inside the royal courts.
With his portraitures, Winterhalter records in painting one of the most opulent periods of European history, a kind of dazzling moment before the world and monarchies completely changed in the early 20th century. The paintings give literal face to the names and dates from history books and the real world game of thrones that eventually led to World War I.
High society as us
Though there’s not a duck face pose in sight, it’s easy to see some connections with these royal portrait subjects and our contemporary culture. Winterhalter was beloved by his imperial and aristocrat sitters because he made them look like a more beautiful version of themselves but still recognizable.
“He has this knack of capturing a likeness but he made it just a little bit better,” explained Aurisch. “He just saw the good and beautiful in people. What you see in a lot of the paintings is an empathy for the person he was portraying.”
While we might never know the grand splendor of the time, it’s almost reassuring that human vanity, and the need to gift to the world — whether the world wants it or not —with some kind of idealized record of ourselves, hasn’t changed that much with the passing centuries. Though our imagined version of Queen Victoria might be of the generally-not-amused one, she did commission some 120 works from Winterhalter. After seeing her portraits by the artist, I have to wonder if we put young Vicky in a time machine and hit 2016 if she wouldn’t have her own Instagram account within a day.
No matter if we declare ourselves emperor of Mexico like Ferdinand Maximilian, whose portrait hangs near the end of the exhibition, and thereby becoming tangentially responsible for Cinco de Mayo or if we’re a 21st century museum-goer wanting to sneak a selfie with poor Max (always ask a guard before you snap), we all want to see our recorded image. And whether done by paint or camera, wouldn’t we all like that recorded image to be just a touch prettier then we really are? High Society illustrates that in this one aspect those kings, queens and rulers of the world were just like us.