Franz X. Winterhalter

Franz Winterhalter is one of my most favorite painters, his delicate, feminine, and luxurious portraits paint an intimate picture of 19th century high society. My love for Winterhalter, coupled with a recent exhibit I saw of his work at the MFA Houston called “High Society: The Portraits of Franz X. Winterhalter,” inspired this post. The exhibit was one of the most beautiful I have ever seen in any museum in the world. I visited the exhibit multiple times and became even more fascinated with not only the paintings but also the man who painted them.

The exhibit, containing mostly portraits, was a sumptuous display of the grandeur and over-the-top elegance of royal and aristocratic Europe in the 1800s. The paintings display his most beautiful and influential subjects wearing gargantuan diamonds, sumptuous fabrics and furs, and couture gowns. My interest was not only piqued by the obvious display of opulence and glamor, but also the refined elegance and subtle intimacy of the portraits, a delicate balance that Winterhalter achieved in all his paintings. His unique take on Neo-Rococo style spoke to the hedonistic and indulgent life-styles lived by his subjects, yet his depictions remain romantic and refined.

Franz Winterhalter is without a doubt one of the most significant portrait artists of the 19th century and is especially known for his portraits of women. Although he started out as an unknown German lithographer, similar to a print-maker, he made his foray into portraiture when he secured a position doing the portraits of the German royal family. He quickly became a known and lauded portrait artist because of his ability to portray his subjects with such understated intimacy and sensuality.

Winterhalter soon became famous for his portraits of aristocratic and royal women. His ability to capture the essence of each woman allowed him to produce some of the most non-traditional and intimate portraits at the time. His unique attention to detail brought his famous subjects to life–the fabrics have a 3-Dimensional looking texture, the jewels sparkle as if they are really there, and the faces look like pictures. Winterhalter’s talent for beautiful portraits made him famous in the courts from Paris to Vienna, and the lithographic copies of his portraits made him a celebrity artist worldwide.

But to understand the full beauty and excellence of Winterhalters’ portraits, one must look at them in person. I highly recommend  going to see the MFA Houston exhibit of his work which is on view until August 14th.

1864 Portrait of Princess Sophia Radzivil
1854 Portrait of Empress Eugénie of France
Portrait of Empress Elisabeth of Austria
1858 Portrait of Anna of Prussia
1865 Portrait of Empress Elisabeth of Austria
Detail of portrait of Katarzyna Potocka
Detail of 1857 portrait of Empress Maria Alexandrovna


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Fabergé Eggs

Peter Carl Fabergé was a famous Russian jeweler born in St. Petersburg in 1846. Fabergé revolutionized the House of Fabergé, which he inherited from his father, turning it into one of the most notable jewelry Houses of the 19th century. His excellent and extensive education in goldsmithing and classical European art allowed Fabergé to turn his family business into one that is still considered one of the most influential jewelry houses in the world. Fabergé was able to create unprecedented master works–most notably his Fabergé eggs–that brought his company worldwide and decades long recognition.

Fabergé took over the family company after an eight-year long tour and education in Europe and a ten-year long apprenticeship under the House of Fabergé workmaster Hiskias Pendin. By this time he was considered a master jeweler and goldsmith at the age of 36. Not only was he immediately granted the title of master goldsmith at the House of Faberge, but he also had caught the eye of the Russian Imperial Family.

In 1885 at the age of 39, Fabergé was appointed to the Supplier to the Court of Tsar Alexander. In his new prestigious post, Fabergé was able to hone his craft and develop a personal style that is now so recognizably Fabergé. Instead of crafting traditional 18th century French-style jewels that were popular at the time, Fabergé was able to innovate his work by taking inspiration from the art work housed in the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, access which was not available to him before his appointment.

Shortly after Fabergé’s appointment, the Tsar commissioned him to create a precious Easter egg for his wife, Empress Maria. The first Fabergé egg was inspired by the tradition of giving out hand-dyed eggs on Easter, the most important holiday in the Russian Orthodox Church. This egg, however, was to be crafted out of precious metals and gemstones. Furthermore, there was to be surprised hidden somewhere in the egg. The first egg was called the Hen Egg. From the outside it looked like a regular egg with an opaque white shell, however on the inside of the egg was a solid yellow gold yolk that opened to reveal a gold hen, an egg shaped ruby, and a miniature diamond crown. This was the start of years-long annual tradition of the Tsar gifting the Tsarina priceless eggs crafted out of diamonds, pearls, platinum, and gold that housed surprises like a perfect ruby or a tiny carriage crafted out of gold.

After his first commissioning, Fabergé was given complete creative control of the Egg design and manufacturing process. The only requirement was that the eggs were made with precious materials and contained a surprise on the inside. For example, the Rose Trellis Egg, created in 1907, was made to look like a garden trellis adorned with roses, however the trellis was made out of rose-cut diamonds and the leaves were made out of emeralds. The surprise on the inside of the egg was a diamond pendant with a picture of the Tsar’s son Alexei. Due to the complex designs of the eggs and the incredible skill required to properly execute them, each egg took about a year of 16-hour work days to complete.

One of the most famous and valuable eggs is the Winter Egg. This egg was created in 1913 and was masterfully crafted out of diamonds, platinum and rock crystal. In 2002, the egg sold to a private buyer through Christies New York for $9.6 million US dollars. Most of the Imperial Eggs are still surviving, out of the 50 made, only seven have been lost. Many of the eggs are on view at the Fabergé Museum in St. Petersburg, however, many have also been purchased by private collectors.

1911 Bay Tree Egg made of gold, enamel, diamonds, rubies, pearls, onyx, and amethysts. The top of the tree opens to reveal a singing bird.
1898 Lilies of the Valley Egg created for the Tsarina out of pearls, diamonds, and rubies. Lilies of the Valley were her favorite flower.
1901 Gatchina Palace Egg opens to reveal a miniature replica of the Gatchina Palace outside St. Petersburg.
1907 Rose Trellis Egg made of diamonds, gold, enamel, and emeralds.
1913 Winter Egg crafted out of diamonds, platinum, and rock crystal. It opens to reveal a bouquet of flowers that symbolize spring.

The State Bed

Royals and aristocratic families commissioned elaborate State Beds during the 17th and 18th centuries to display their wealth or in hopes to one day host an important guest.  Aristocratic people commissioned these beds that cost exorbitant amounts in hopes the king may visit one day. Oftentimes, however, the King never came and the family spent much of their money for nothing, all in hopes of perhaps furthering their social influence and cultivating an important royal relationship. For the king himself, his State Bed was not meant to be slept in, but instead was used during important royal tradition of receiving guests in the bedroom called the petit lever, with the creation of such intricate beds an equally complicated facet of royal etiquette and tradition emerged as well. 

Aristocratic families commissioned State Beds by famous furniture makers and spent large amounts of money on the finest upholstery, textiles, and hiring skilled craftsmen. The beds back then costed a couple of hundred dollars, making them some of the most expensive pieces of furniture ever made. Usually, the bed remained un-used and reserved for special visitors, but if the king or another high-born person did come, the bed was greatly appreciated, and gained the family credibility and the respect of the ruler. 

Robert Adam and Thomas Chippendale were famous for their work in State Beds. They created some of the most expensive and elaborate pieces for kings and wealthy people. Their beds were crafted using only the finest textiles and materials, and hundreds of hours of intense labor, typically over 600, were spent fashioning a bed fit for a king. Their creations became synonymous with the wealth and grandeur of European society. 

When these beds became popularized in Europe around the 1600s, the Baroque style was all the rage, and a large portion of these beds were crafted in this style. The tones were rich and bold, and colors like red, gold, and deep green were popular and frequently employed in upholstery and matching wallpaper. The beds were upholstered with very expensive damask fabric woven with intricate patterns. The structure of the bed itself was crafted either with gilt-wood, which is wood that has been gold-leafed, or a finished wood.  Some of the most notable examples of State Beds are located at Harewood House in Leeds, England, which houses the last Thomas Chippendale beds created for a non-royal person.

Design by Thomas Chippendale for King George III, 1792.
State Bed at Harewood House by Thomas Chippendale.
Gilt-wood details and green damask fabric on the same Chippendale bed pictured above.
State Bed at Harewood House by Thomas Chippendale.
State Bed at Osterly Park by Robert Adam, 1775.
State Bed created for King James I, he never slept in it.
State Bed at Hardwick Hall created for the visit of a king or queen.

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Chinese Blue and White Porcelain

Blue and white Chinese porcelain is one of the most long-lasting decorative items to date. The wares first appeared in the ninth century in Henan province, China and have since become an chief figure in interior decor worldwide.

Blue and white porcelain increased in popularity after their inception in the ninth century due to the refining of porcelain making skills and techniques and the growing Islamic trade. China imported all of the cobalt color used for the blue and white pieces from Persia, and the increased trade between the two countries led to increased production of the porcelain. During this time, the porcelain trade moved from Henan province to Jingdezhen, now known as the Porcelain capital of China.

The blue and white wares being produced at this time, however, did not look like how they look today. Instead the items had notable Islamic influences that included Persian and Arabic scripture and design motifs, most likely attributable to the active trade between the Middle East and China. Approaching the 17th century, however, the design motifs and overall appearance of the wares began to shift into what we would now recognize as ‘traditional’ Chinese blue and white porcelain. This shift occurred when the porcelain was made for export to the European markets. Exotic Chinese items were in high demand, thus the porcelain was now exclusively painted with traditional Chinese scenes and designs.

The porcelain became so popular in the European market that the Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin, a palace containing arguably the most valuable and exotic collection of antiques in the world, created a room called the Porcelain Cabinet. The room was decorated with the most valuable and rare blue and white Chinese porcelain objects, wares, and oriental antiques. The room still draws huge numbers of visitors annually as it is considered one of the most beautiful rooms in the world.

Still today, vases, decorative plates, and other wares are incredibly popular forms of the porcelain. They give a fresh touch to a home with their light, fresh colors. Blue and white Chinese porcelains have become a staple antique for any antique collector.

The Porcelain Room at Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin
Charlottenburg Palace

Blue and white garlic neck bottle vase. Ming Dynasty, Chongzhen Period, circa 1640 for sale at Sotheby’s.
A New York kitchen uniquely decorated with Chinese wares. Featured in Architectural Digest
Antique Chinese vases in my living room. Purchased by my mom in a New Orleans antique shop.


Sources and extra information:

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Gustavian Interiors

Gustavian architecture and décor, born out of the Gustavian age in Sweden under the rule of Gustav III in the late 18th century, is known for its muted colors and rustic aesthetic. Gustavian furniture and décor is the pared down equivalent to the more elaborate French style of furniture that was popular during this time.

The furniture of the French court heavily influenced King Gustav III during a, extended visit prior to his rule. The Gustavian rendering of the neoclassical furniture was more subdued and appealed to the average Swedish citizen. Although the furniture was initially reserved for the Swedish royal palaces, the style of furniture became equally as popular with the Swedish people, and in these people’s farmhouses is where the distinctive Gustavian style was cultivated. Instead of having guilded furniture, the people whitewashed their wood or painted it neutral tones. This simplistic décor became the basis for the modern Scandinavian aesthetic.



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