I love finding images of Winterhalter’s works in vintage photographs – such as this photo from the interiors of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg.
The above image represents the study of the Emperor Alexander II, and it is believed to have been taken in the early 1880s, shortly after his assassination. The eagle-eyed Winterhalter fans would readily recognise on the lower left the portrait of the Emperor’s mother, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna (1798-1860, née Charlotte Prinzessin von Preussen), painted by Winterhalter in Germany, in Wildbad, in 1856, and showing the Empress Dowager in a white gown with turquoise jewellery – traditional signs of mourning at the Russian Imperial Court.
The portrait of the Emperor’s mother is complemented on the lower right by the portrait of the Emperor’s wife, Empress Maria Alexandrovna (1824-80, née Wilhelmina Marie Prinzessin von Hessen-Darmstadt), painted by Winterhalter also in Germany, in 1857, with the sittings recorded at Bad Kissingen and Brückinau in late July 1857. It would be no exaggeration to state that the portrait became one of the most beloved images of the Empress, being popularised through versions, copies, and prints directly after – or inspired by – the portrait.
Portraits of the Emperor’s father, Emperor Nicholas I, and of the Emperor’s grand-mother, Empress Maria Feodorovna (wife of Pavel I), by other artists, can also be distinguished on the walls. The two Winterhalter portraits sandwich a later portrait of the Empress Maria Alexandrovna by Heinrich von Angeli, who would later succeed Winterhalter at the British Court as one of Queen Victoria’s favourite portrait painters.
It is believed that the two Winterhalter portraits had remained in the Emperor’s study at the Winter Palace, which was left untouched following his assassination in 1881. Both portraits were loaned to the celebrated exhibition of portraits from Russian private collections, which took place at the Tauride Palace in 1905 and curated by Sergei Diagilev. They also appear to have featured in the exhibition celebrating the Tercentenary of the Romanov Dynasty in 1913. Following the Revolution of 1917, the portraits were nationalised with the rest of the Imperial Collections, and have entered the collections of the State Hermitage.
© Dr Eugene Barilo von Reisberg, 17 July 2019