HERMANN FIDEL WINTERHALTER (1808–1891)
Trois demoiselles de la famille de Chateaubourg, 1850
Oil on canvas (oval), 40 1/4 x 32 in.
Signed and dated (at center right): H. Winterhalter / 1850
EX COLL.: the de Chateaubourg family, by descent until after 1975 // [Wildenstein Gallery, New York, by 1994]: to private collection, New England, until the present
Hermann Winterhalter was the younger brother of Franz-Xaver Winterhalter (1805–1873), court painter to all of Europe. The two brothers were close, working together and living lives so intertwined that Hermann’s biography remains inextricably meshed with that of Franz-Xaver.
Hermann Fidel Winterhalter was born in Menzenschwand, in the Black Forest, in southwest Germany near the French and Swiss borders. His gift for art echoed that of his older brother and he was encouraged by the family to develop the talent as a profession. By the time he was 11, Hermann had been sent to live with Franz in Freiburg, where both brothers apprenticed with an engraver. He traced Franz’s footsteps from Freiburg, then to Munich in 1824, to Karlsruhe, and by the 1830s to Italy. Where Franz went, Hermann eventually followed. In 1840, Hermann arrived in Paris, reuniting with his older brother who had arrived in the French capital in December 1834. Hermann and Franz remained each other’s closest friend and associate, professional and personal partners for the rest of their lives.
In the 1840s, while Franz-Xaver Winterhalter painted the Belgian, French, and English royal families, Herman remained in Paris, managing his brother’s studio. A striking oil portrait that Franz painted in 1840 (Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, Germany), shows the two brothers on the occasion of their Paris reunion. Franz looks jaunty, in a student cap and shirt with pleated sleeves. He is seated, sketching, while Hermann stands behind, looking over his shoulder. Hermann’s duties in the family enterprise included supervising the production of oil replicas, managing prints, and arranging for framing and delivery as well as overseeing the work of studio assistants and occasional students.
Franz’s social connections and reputation brought more subjects to his studio than he had time to paint. Thus Hermann was provided with a ready source of referrals of clients who had already decided upon a Winterhalter-style portrait.
Hermann exhibited his own portraits six times in the Paris Salon between the years of 1838 and 1869. In 1844, he was awarded a medal for his portrait of the Vicomtesse de Bondy.
This striking oval oil portrait depicts the three sisters of the de Chateaubourg family. It amply demonstrates the skill at portraiture that made Hermann a plausible stand-in for his more famous brother. Chateaubourg is a commune in Brittany, and the de Chateaubourg family is diffuse with roots that date back to the eleventh century. That is all that is presently known with respect to the precise identity of these subjects. The girls, all dressed in simple white frocks, form a triangle, a favorite compositional device for group portraits.
The eldest girl sits in the center, supporting her two younger sisters, who lean into her, propping themselves against her lap. Though of different ages, the sisters share a marked family resemblance. The sister on the viewer’s left, the middle child, has a blue scarf draped around one shoulder, while the youngest child, on the right, wears a red, white, and blue plaid ribbon sash around her waist. The eldest, with no embellishment to her white dress, has a small bouquet of flowers on her lap, symbols of promise and purity. She has a nurturing expression on her face, as she shelters her two younger siblings. Her left hand rests on the youngest sister’s left shoulder and her right hand rests on the middle sister’s right forearm. The middle sister seems to look to her older sister for guidance, while the youngest sister engages the viewer directly, with the innocent stare of childhood afforded only to very young children.
Winterhalter’s palette here is fresh and bright. The white of the girls’ dresses and the peaches and cream of their faultless complexions are set off against a backdrop of a brilliant blue sky, flecked with spots of fluffy clouds reflecting shades of pink and gold. The choice to place the girls against a natural background, unencumbered by the finery that money can buy, emphasizes the simple grace of the girls, underscoring the notion of a quality of natural nobility that coincides with high birth. It was just this ability to express the intangible worth of the portrait subject, to paint aristocrats as they preferred to see themselves, and as they preferred the world to see them, that made the Winterhalter studio a favored place for portrait commissions.