Franz Xaver Winterhalter (20 April 1805 – 8 July 1873) was a German painter and lithographer, known for his portraits of royalty in the mid-nineteenth century. His name has become associated with fashionable court portraiture. Among his best known works are Empress Eugénie Surrounded by her Ladies in Waiting (1855) and the portraits he made of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (1865).
Franz Xaver Winterhalter was born in the small village of Menzenschwand (now part of St. Blasien) in the Black Forest, Grand-Duchy of Baden on 20 April 1805. He was the sixth child of Fidel Winterhalter (1773–1863), a farmer and resin producer in the village, and his wife Eva Meyer (1765–1838), a member of a long established Menzenschwand family. His father was of peasant stock and was a powerful influence in his life. Of the eight brothers and sisters, only four survived infancy. Throughout his life, Franz Xaver remained very close to his family in particular to his brother Hermann (1808–1891), who was also a painter.
After attending school at a Benedictine monastery in St.Blasien, Winterhalter left Menzenschwand in 1818 at the age of thirteen to study drawing and engraving. He trained as a draughtsman and lithographer in the workshop of Karl Ludwig Schüler (1785–1852) in Freiburg. In 1823, at the age of eighteen, he went to Munich, sponsored by the industrialist Baron von Eichtal (1775–1850). In 1825, he was granted a stipend by Ludwig I, Grand Duke of Baden (1763–1830) and began a course of study at the Academy of Arts in Munich with Peter von Cornelius (1783–1867), whose academic methods made him uncomfortable. Winterhalter found a more congenial mentor in the fashionable portraitist Joseph Stieler (1781–1858). During this time, he supported himself working as lithographer.
Winterhalter entered court circles when in 1828 he became drawing master to Sophie Margravine of Baden, at Karlsruhe. His opportunity to establish himself beyond southern Germany came in 1832 when he was able to travel to Italy, 1833–1834, with the support of Grand Duke Leopold of Baden. In Rome he composed romantic genre scenes in the manner of Louis-Leopold Robert and attached himself to the circle of the director of the French Academy, Horace Vernet. On his return to Karlsruhe, he painted the portraits of the Grand Duke Leopold of Baden and his wife, and was appointed painter to the grand-ducal court.
Nevertheless, he left Baden to move to France where his Italian genre scene Il dolce Farniente attracted notice at the Salon of 1836. Il Decameron a year later was also praised; both paintings are academic compositions in the style of Raphael. In the Salon of 1838 he exhibited a portrait of the Prince of Wagram with his young daughter. His career as a portrait painter was soon secured when in the same year he painted Louise Marie of Orleans, Queen of the Belgians, and her son, Duc de Brabant. It was probably through this painting that Winterhalter came to the notice of Maria Amalia of the Two Sicilies Queen of the French, mother of the Queen of the Belgians.
To deal with the pressure of portrait commissions, many of them calling for multiple replicas, Winterhalter made extensive use of assistants. No portrait painter ever enjoyed such an extraordinary royal patronage as Winterhalter; only Rubens and Van Dyck worked as he did in an international network.
Winterhalter sought respite from the pressures of his work with holidays abroad in Italy, Switzerland and above all in Germany. Despite the many years he lived in France, he remained deeply attached to his native country. For all his success and popularity, Winterhalter continued to live simply and abstemiously. In 1859 he bought a villa in Baden-Baden, his favorite vacation spot.
In 1864 Winterhalter made his last visit to England. In the autumn of that year he traveled to Vienna to execute the portraits of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth that remain among his most well-known works. As he grew older, Winterhalter's links with France weakened while his interest in Germany grew. He was taking a cure in Switzerland at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, the war that ended the Second French Empire in September 1870. After the war, the painter did not return to France going instead to Baden. He was officially still accredited at the court of Baden and he settled in Karlsruhe. In the last two years of his life Winterhalter painted very little. During a visit to Frankfurt am Main in the summer of 1873 he contracted typhus and died on 8 July 1873. He was sixty-eight years old.
Winterhalter came into his own as a portrait painter during the second Empire and he painted his best work during the last two decades of his life. He matched his style to the luxury and relaxed atmosphere of the age, its hedonism and gaiety. His female sitters of the 1850s and 1860s inhabit a different physiological climate from those he painted earlier; they are not reticent and reserved. His male sitters inspired few original or memorable compositions.
Winterhalter never received high praise for his work from serious critics, being constantly accused of superficiality and affectation in pursue of popularity. However, he was highly appreciated by his aristocratic patrons. The royal families of England, France, Spain, Russia, Portugal, Mexico and Belgium all commissioned him to paint portraits. His monumental canvases established a substantial popular reputation, and lithographic copies of the portraits helped to spread his fame.
Winterhalter's portraits were prized for their subtle intimacy; the nature of his appeal is not difficult to explain. He created the image his sitters wished or needed to project to their subjects. He was not only skilled at posing his sitters to create almost theatrical compositions, but also was a virtuoso in the art of conveying the texture of fabrics, furs and jewellery, to which he paid no less attention than to the face. He painted very rapidly and very fluently, designing most of his compositions directly in the canvas. His portraits are elegant, refined, life-like, and pleasantly idealized.
Concerning Winterhalter’s method of working, it is thought that, practised as he was at drawing and representing figures, he painted directly onto the canvas without making preliminary studies. He frequently decided upon the dress and pose of the sitter. His style was suave, cosmopolitan and plausible. Many of the portraits were copied in his workshop or reproduced as lithographs.
As an artist he remained a difficult figure to place, there are few painters with whom to compare him and he does not fit into any school. His early affinities were Neoclassical but his style can be described as Neo-Rococo. After his death, his painting fell out of favor being considered romantic, glossy, and superficial. Little was known about him personally and his art was not taken seriously until recently. However, a major exhibition of his work at the National Portrait Gallery (United Kingdom) in London and the Petit Palais in Paris in 1987 brought him into the limelight again. His paintings are exhibited today in leading European and American museums.