Centuries after Rubens and Van Dyke and two generations before John Singer Sargent, German-born Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805 – 1873), improbably the son of a Black Forest farmer, painted his way across Europe. Watch season six of Downton Abbey, and you’ll hear his name being dropped during the house-tour episode — touted as one of the highlights of Lord and Lady Grantham’s collection
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s luscious blockbuster, “High Society: The Portraits of Franz X. Winterhalter,” literally shakes the dust off Worth gowns and reprises canvases stowed in some of the toniest regal collections you may never have heard of. Co-organizers of the touring tour de force include the MFAH and its respective German and French venues, Städtische Museen Freiburg and the Musée du Château de Compiègne.
Houston is the second stop for “High Society” — and its only American presentation. Winterhalter painted from his seat of power, a studio in Paris, and headlining this show are some of Winterhalter’s most connected sitters and greatest portraits: Prince Albert and Queen Victoria (he was the monarch’s preferred painter; she commissioned an astounding 120 canvases over a 20-year period),
Second Empire rulers Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie of France, Czarina Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, Queen Isabella II of Spain, Habsburg nobles Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth of Austria, and Grand Duke Leopold and Grand Duchess Sohpie Wilhelmine, the German aristocrats whose patronage launched the promising painter on his career path. (One lone American makes it in, but you’ll have to see the exhibit to learn who; we’re not divulging.)
Beyond the pedigrees of his subjects, it’s the paintings themselves that are arresting, marrying the imposing grandeur of each subject with exquisite vestments that signify power and beauty. Worth gowns and other glorious frocks from the era are also included. Occasionally the visages that peer back are hauntingly modern.
All told, 45 paintings and 10 garments are showcased, loaned from more than 60 public and private collections including Versailles and Great Britain’s Royal Collection Trust. Watch for the definitive Winterhalter, a Holy Grail of a painting that depicts Empress Eugénie in a sylvan setting surrounded by eight ladies in waiting; the breathtaking 116-by-165 inch canvas dates from 1855, and it’s hard to imagine an image that evokes the idyllic life of the consummate royals with more charm and persuasion.
This rewriting of the history of titled portraiture and 19th-century grand-manner painting follows up on the MFAH’s grand — and glam — slam exhibitions under Gary Tinterow’s directorship: recent blockbusters devoted to the Habsburg dynasty’s collecting acumen (2015) and the riches of Houghton Hall (2014).
“High Society: The Portraits of Franz X. Winterhalter,” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, April 17 – August 14, mfah.org. Catherine D. Anspon