MFAH’s High Society Showcases Work by Forgotten Painter Franz X. Winterhalter

An underappreciated German portrait artist finally sees his spotlight.

By Laura Gillespie April 11, 2016

Winterhalter   princess leonilla of sayn wittgenstein sayn erurc3

Franz X. Winterhalter's 1843 "Princess Leonilla of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn," oil on canvas, from the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

You’ll be forgiven if you don’t recognize the name of the artist in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s latest exhibition—Franz X. Winterhalter. After World War I, the 19th-century painter’s work capturing the who’s who of European aristocracy fell by the wayside. In this century, one of his few, brief modern mentions was a recent Downton Abbey episode. Now, MFAH is putting his work, and name, in the spotlight with the new High Society: The Portraits of Franz X. Winterhalter.

“He’s a wonderful painter whose name has been forgotten,” says Helga K. Aurisch, curator of European art at the MFAH. “I thought he was forgotten unjustly and I thought it was time to revive him.”

While his work is featured in museums across the country, High Society—which first debuted in Germany and is now making its American debut in Houston—marks Winterhalter’s first exclusive exhibition. The MFAH will display 45 of his original works, alongside a number of real late 19th-century gowns that match the beautiful, delicate dresses shown in his paintings.

“He was the last of the really great court painters,” Aurisch says. “He painted more royals than any of the others—he painted the Queen of Spain, he did Portugal, he did the Netherlands, Russia, Prussia, Queen [Victoria] of England.”

Kaurisch cites her favorite in the exhibition as “Princess Pauline De Metternich,” a portrait of an Austrian princess shrouded in layers of bridal-esque white tulle and cloth. It exhibits what Kaurisch highlights as Winterhalter’s skill on portraying layers of “white on white on white,” while still retaining recognizable fabrics. It’s this incredible talent portraying then-modern fashions that makes him stand out from his contemporaries.

“[The exhibition is] really a revival of a particular moment in history,” Aurisch says.  “It’s also just a joy at looking at really lovely paintings. They tell you so much about, not just the individual, but the time.”

April 17 - August 14. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet.  713-639-7300.

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