Olga's Gallery

Olga's Gallery

January 16, 2001

Dear Friends of Art,

In today's newsletter we'd like to introduce the German painter Franz Xavier Winterhalter (1805-73) to you. Nowadays he is not widely known, but in the 19th century he was highly esteemed as one of the best portraitists in Europe. He devoted his brush to the European aristocracy. That is why his work is a long line of beautiful and somewhat idealized portraits of the titled personas. He complimented very tactfully and depicted the lavishness of draperies, glimmer of pearls and luxury of lace of his sitters’ dresses with great skill. Is there any woman who is indifferent to the dress in which she sits for an artist? Winterhalter could transfer to canvas the silkiness of the hair, the shine of the eyes, the velvet of the skin and the sensitivity of the lips... he was severely criticized exactly for this capability: ‘unnaturally beautiful’, ‘art for art's sake’… But the critics could not stop the flood of commissions from rich countesses, princesses, duchesses, and empresses. Today we would like to discuss in particular the portrait of  “the Tatar Venus” from Musée d'Orsay, Paris:

Countess Rimsky-Korsakova

Barbara Dmitrievna Rimsky-Korsakova, née Mergasova, came from a rich and noble family, which did not show itself and is not remembered in Russian history. But the family into which she was married was very notable, it produced a lot of military commanders, politicians and statesmen. Barbara's father-in-law, Sergei Nikolaevich Rimsky-Korsakov, was not outstanding in his service to his state. He devoted his life to high society and was famous for his costume balls - dreams of all young Moscow and provincial ladies. “…the best partner, the first star in the hierarchy of the ballroom, a renowned director of dances, a married man, handsome and well-built, Yegorushka Korsunsky” (Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, part I, chapter 22) is none other than Nikolai Sergeevich Rimsky-Korsakov, the husband of our heroine. Their marriage took place on May 20, 1850, when she was 16, and he 20. They had three children. Barbara became a fashionable beauty and also the star of many balls.

Let's return to Leo Tolstoy, who described the young pair under the name of Korsunsky: ‘Is there any one we have not met? My wife and I are like white wolves – every one knows us,’ says Korsunsky. Tolstoy noted as well the remarkable passion of young Barbara Rimsky-Korsakova to demonstrate her body: “There – incredibly naked – was the beauty Lidi, Korsunsky's wife…” Rich, beautiful, fashionable and sociable though they appeared, there was disharmony in the family, which made them separate. Barbara left for France and lived there till her death.

In France, it was the time of Napoleon III, who, as if wanting to amaze Europe with the luxury of his court, spent outrageous money on magnificent balls, multiple mistresses and extravagant entertainment… Women, following the example of their attractive Empress Eugénie (Eugénie de Montijo), demonstrated super-sophisticated gowns that were overloaded with gems and jewelry. (Born in Spain in 1826, María Eugénie de Montijo married Napoleon III in 1853. From the time of her marriage, she became an arbiter of fashion. Winterhalter recorded her legendary beauty and elegance in a series of images that made him the empress's favorite painter.) The beautiful but unfortunate empress, left by her unfaithful husband, enjoyed being the center of attention at balls and could not tolerate any rivals. In this atmosphere, the following episode took place.

In the winter of 1863, the Russian countess Rimsky-Korsakova arrived at an imperial costume ball in the outfit of the priestess Tanit (the novel Salammbô by Gustave Flaubert was in fashion). All her attire consisted of a gauss shawl. Naturally, her wonderful shapely figure was openly demonstrated. Naturally, the guests were shocked. The empress flushed. Several minutes later Rimsky-Korsakova was invited to leave. Nonetheless she attained her goal: the scandal was grandiose. With her nudity she mocked their sophisticated fashion and pretentious manners.

This was not the only scandal of such character. The papers wrote that the Russian countess used to surprise the French public with other acts of impudence. At the ball in the resort town of Biarritz, “this Russian nymph looked like she had just left a bathtub”. At the costume ball in the Naval Ministry she appeared on a carriage, her coachman was dressed as a crocodile and she as a barbarian; the multicolored feathers that winged her body, allowed the society to appreciate “the best-shaped legs of all Europe”. We'll excuse the exaggeration; journalists of the time did not have much opportunity to see the bare legs of women from high society.

The Parisian portrait of Barbara was painted by Winterhalter in 1864. She wears no jewelry and again prefers a semi-transparent gauze shawl. It's easy to see that she is far from an ideal beauty – broad cheekbones, plump cheeks, heavy eyelids are not the features of goddesses. One can easily say that her ancestors were Slavs and Tatars, but may be these flaws in combination with her daring, impudence and extravagance build up an original and unforgettable person. She had a lot of admirers and many love affairs, but wished to stay alone, which was too original for a woman of the 19th century. She told about herself, “I am free and independent. My mistakes are my mistakes. My success is my success. I believe in myself, I do everything alone and don't make a tragedy of it.” She was out of place in her time. She died young, only 45 years old, and beautiful.

We have found 15 works by Franz Xavier Winterhalter, all of them are beautiful.

During the first fortnight of 2002 we've also published a collection of John Singer Sargent, American-British painter of the late 19th and early 20th century, and updated the collection of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

We would be glad to receive your opinions and comments on our newsletters. Please write to webmaster@abcgallery.com

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