L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Friday, June 9, 2023

Endlich die charmante Kaiserin - the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1865


Other than my wife, the painter Franz Winterhalter is the most frequently mentioned name on this blog. And yet, I'm just now getting 'round to focusing on one of his most famous works, the celebrated "stars in her hair" portrait of the Empress Elisabeth. This very famous painting, the pinnacle of mid-nineteenth-century beauty and glamour, has been the inspiration for countless interpretations - film, fashion and costume design, portraiture - both directly related to its subject or having nothing at all to do with her, the interpreter merely hoping to capture a reflection, a fraction of her timeless allure. 

The pose and lighting are incredibly effective; as she turns back to smile at the viewer, the spangled tulle of her gown - thought to be the work of the great couturier Worth - both diaphanous and sparkling, trails romantically back into the shadows. The lighting and the structure of the composition leads everything back to the delicate face, crowned by her own mass of luxurious chestnut hair and the diamond stars nestled there. 

Considered one of the greatest beauties of the nineteenth century, that perception has remained intact while others in that lofty category have not so endured; the Empress Eugénie, for example, looks distinctly odd to most people now. It's certainly because the Austrian empress' beauty more properly aligns with our present tastes. She was very thin and fine-featured, with a small head, her proportions rather like what we'd expect of a present fashion model. (Of course, the comparison doesn't end there, as her eating disorders are very well documented.) And her face - nothing like the pale, long-nosed, drooping faces the age usually glorified - is appealing, a natural, healthy looking beauty. 

In reality, a very complicated, very troubled and unhappy woman, the artist has yet captured the side of her personality that was able to, at least momentarily, transcend that, and has left us with proof of her very real charm and her self-confidence in her own beauty, an exquisite image of elegance and feminine grace whose magic has proved indelible.


The portrait was, of course, a pendant to that of her husband, the Emperor Franz Joseph I, by the same artist. Today both hang in Vienna's Hofburg Palace.

An 1879 bust of the empress by Victor Tilgner is rather unfortunately wedged into the space between the portraits.

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