Official portraitist for the royal courts of Europe, Franz-Xavier Winterhalter was the favourite painter of the Empress Eugénie. Indeed, Eugénie most probably used her own personal fortune to pay for this renowned collective portrait representing the sovereign in 1855 surrounded by her ladies in waiting. Hung in Fontainebleau Palace during the Second Empire, the work finally given to the empress in 1881, where it was hung in the entrance to her residence in Farnborough Hill.
Taking its inspiration from 18th-century bucolic scenes, this monumental composition sets the sovereign and her entourage against the backdrop of a shady clearing in a forest. However, the composition is very artifical and formal. The empress, slightly to the left of centre, is encircled by and dominates the group. To her right sits the Princesse d'Essling, chief lady in waiting, to whom she is offering some honeysuckle. To her left, is the Duchesse de Bassano, matron of honour. Before her sit the Baronne de Pierres and the Vicomtesse de Lezay-Marnésia, both ladies in waiting. In the foreground is Comtesse de Montebello; to the right are three other ladies in waiting, the Baronne de Malaret, the Marquise de Las Marismas and the Marquise de la Tour-Maubourg. In striking contrast to the rustic setting, the ladies in waiting rival each other in vestimentary luxury. Each one is wearing her finest ball gown, thus giving the painter a pretext for a virtuoso display of material painting, even to the detriment of the likenesses. In fact the real subject of this glorification of the crinoline is the silk, tulle, muslin, taffeta, lace and ribbons. Only the simplicity of the jewelry seems to match the pastoral setting.
The work is particularly revealing with respect to extreme refinement typical of the court. Indeed this same pomp was displayed at the opening of the Paris Exposition universelle of 1855, the first major official manifestation of the imperial regime and an important stage in terms of international recognition of the regime. This painting was exhibited on that occasion in the Salon d'honneur, and (despite the official censor) was discreetly pilloried by the art press. Théophile Gautier spoke of the "coquettish and brilliant style […] a little too obsessed with elegance" and Gustave Planche severely criticised this "parody of Watteau" where the "dresses were excessively coquettishly spread out but contained nothing whatsoever". Despite critical scorn, the painting was and still is a huge public success.
Karine Huguenaud (tr. P.H.)