Franz Xaver Winterhalter

Woman Reading a Letter, 1860

About the object

Winterhalter, known for his portraits of royalty, came from the small village of Menzenschwand at the foot of the Feldberg. In a similar way to his portraits of European nobility, his representation of this anonymous woman reading a letter is characterised by a mastery in capturing material texture and the accurate delineation of facial features.
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Franz Xaver Winterhalter was one of the most famous portrait painters of 19th-century Europe. He painted members of all the important aristocratic and royal houses, most especially the powerful women of the age. Winterhalter came from the small village of Menzenschwand at the foot of the Feldberg, the highest mountain in the Black Forest. After initial successes at the court of Karlsruhe, he went to Paris in 1834 and within a very short time established himself in the leading cultural metropolis of the age. He received commissions from the French court and later also from other European courts, above all from Queen Victoria of Great Britain. Victoria commissioned more than 100 paintings from Winterhalter in an effort to preserve her family members’ likenesses in all stages of life. Many of his paintings were very popular, and often he or the assistants in his atelier had to produce second or third versions of works to be given as gifts to other royal courts. More than almost any other artist, Winterhalter succeeded in creating lively and lifelike portraits of his subjects. He rendered their faces in fine detail, but for their clothing or the backgrounds he adopted a free, loose brushstroke in a manner often resembling his Impressionist contemporaries. This approach could result in blurred areas which, however, gave the images greater depth and realism. Later, photographers would take Winterhalter’s painterly technique and apply it to their own medium. This profile portrait of a simply dressed young woman is not signed, and was found in the estate of Winterhalter’s heirs. Most likely this was a woman from his hometown of Menzenschwand, which he visited again and again throughout his entire life even after he had achieved fame and was in great demand. With a concentrated gaze, the young woman contemplates a letter—a motif that has continually recurred in painting since the time of Jan Vermeer (1632–1675). TILMANN VON STOCKHAUSEN (Transl. MELISSA THORSON)

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