It is always a thrill when iconic works by Franz Xaver Winterhalter turn up on the art market. While transferring the ‘custodianship’, they test the strength of the market and re-invigorate the collectors’ following.
Such was the case with Winterhalter’s Portrait of Mélanie de Bussière, Comtesse de Pourtalès (1838-1913), of 1857, at the sale Collection Schickler-Pourtalès: Art et Pouvoir au XIXe siècle by Sotheby’s Paris, on 16 May 2019 (lot 59). The understated beauty of the portrait, the delicate colour scheme, the vigorous and unrestrained brushwork, as well as the willingness of its various owners to lend it to exhibitions made it one of the most famous and most beloved of Winterhalter’s portraits. Its various artistic and aesthetic aspects are a fitting illustration to the artist’s enduring reputation as one of the most sought-after elite portrait specialists of the era.
Aged barely nineteen, the countess is painted standing, in a semi-turn to the right, against a loosely-executed verdant background. Portrayed almost en face, her gaze is directed at the viewer. She is wearing an evening gown of white satin, edged with azure ribbon and lace, and with matching bows of azure silk on the sleeves and the bodice. The date of the portrait suggests that it was commissioned to commemorate Mélanie de Bussière’s marriage to Edmond, Comte de Pourtalès-Gorgier (1828-95). Although she became the wife of one of the richest men in Paris, she wears no jewellery save for a wedding band and a small gem-set ring, reflective perhaps of the personal modesty of the sitter.
While the authorship of the portrait is beyond doubt, the signature may have been overpainted and / or added by a different hand.
Over the last 162 years of its existence, the portrait appears to have always remained in the family, passing between various branches and belonging to various descendants of the Countess, moving between their homes in Paris, Strasbourg, and Cherbourg.
The excellent condition of the portrait, its lustre as one of the most iconic works by the artist, as well as the added cache of continuous family ownership all played their magic. Estimated at € 120,000-150,000, the portrait sold for € 732,500, or, roughly, US$821,500.
It was widely rumoured that the city of Strasbourg was fundraising to secure this picture, as well as that it may have been secured by another member of the family. While the rumours have not been confirmed and the identity of the new owner has not been released, one humbly hopes that such important work was acquired for a public collection.
© Dr Eugene Barilo von Reisberg, 9 July 2019