Saturday, January 20, 2018
Arts

In focus: van Meytens' 'Portrait of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria'

All mothers affect their children's lives in obvious and unknowable ways. This Mother's Day we take a look at a mother whose influence on her children affected them personally, of course, as well as on a grand historical scale. This portrait of Maria Theresa of Austria was painted between 1745 and 1750 when she was in her 30s and in her early years as the ruler of the Austrian empire. Her most famous child, Maria Antonia, later known as Marie Antoinette, had not yet been born. The artist is Martin van Meytens, Maria Theresa's favorite court painter. The work is part of the permanent collection of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota.

Lennie Bennett, Times art critic

The artist

Martin van Meytens (1695-1770, pronounced MY-tens) was born in Sweden. His father, Martin Meytens the Elder, was also a painter. He began his career early, traveling to London, Paris and Italy as a miniaturist portrait painter. When he settled in Vienna, Meytens converted to large-scale portraits and became Maria Theresa's favorite painter, creating many individual portraits of the empress, emperor and their children along with group portraits. "He was prolific, which was important for a court painter," says Virginia Brilliant, the Ringling Museum's curator of European art. "He was also able to make them look like themselves but better than themselves, sort of like celebrity photography of today, except the Hapsburgs (Maria Theresa's family) weren't photogenic. He had a knack for depicting the finery that goes with these paintings." Meytens was reportedly charming, another important quality in court life.

The subject

Empress Maria Theresa (1717-1780) was one of the most important rulers of the 18th century. Her empire spread over a big chunk of Europe, and during her reign she was involved in two major wars to keep it intact. She and her husband, Emperor Francis I, had 16 children. In a time of high infant mortality, they had a remarkable survival rate: nine of them lived to adulthood, three to their teens before they died from smallpox.

By the standards of her day, Maria Theresa was a good mother. She loved having a large brood and cultivated a domestic atmosphere away from the strict court etiquette that Marie Antoinette, especially, remembered with nostalgia.

She was, though, a pragmatic ruler who viewed her progeny as dynastic opportunities to marry into other great houses of Europe and expand Austria's influence. She cared not about any personal objections they might have to her matches for them and wrote extensively to them with critical advice after their marriages. (She was particularly critical of Marie Antoinette.) They were expected to obey and behave, which was ironic given her own marriage, a passionate love match that probably wasn't as illustrious as it could have been. The one exception she made to her chessboard strategy was to her favorite child, Marie Christina, who was allowed to marry for love to a lesser suitor, partly because her mother could keep her close that way. Her greatest matchmaking success was the marriage of Marie Antoinette to Louis, Dauphin of France, when she was 15. They became the king and queen of France in 1774. Marie Antoinette was beheaded in 1793 after being convicted of treason by the French Revolutionary government.

The painting

This portrait is known as a pendant painting, meaning it was created as part of a pair, in this case, accompanied by a companion portrait of Maria Theresa's husband that also is in the Ringling collection. They share the same visual backgrounds and their clothing is complementary. "They were meant to be hung side by side," Brilliant says, which is how they are displayed at the museum.

Maria Theresa is shown shortly after the War of Austrian Succession has ended, a nine-year conflict with other European monarchies over her right to succeed to the throne and retain her territories after her father died because she was female. "She's usually shown with one crown," Brilliant says, "but it's really cool to have all of them."

The empress' sumptuous clothing and surroundings are meant to impress and to make subtle points. The lavish use of lace on the dress, Brilliant says, is a reminder that Belgium, part of the empire, was the dominant provider of that commodity.

The style is formal, even stern, a reminder that monarchy is divinely invested with absolute authority. Brilliant likes to compare royal portraits from the Baroque era to later ones. A favorite comparison is between this portrait and one in another gallery at the Ringling by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun of Maria Theresa's daughter, Marie Antoinette, as Queen of France. "It's more gentle, relaxed, in the Rococo style," she says. "When the gallery is renovated, we plan to have the family together."

The provenance

"Provenance" for a work of art is its history of ownership, an important element in authenticating the work. Brilliant said this portrait first surfaced in the 1920s in Paris when its owner, a private collector, put it up for sale during the time that John Ringling had kicked into high gear amassing his own collection. He bought it at auction in New York. Before that, Brilliant speculates that it was probably in a royal household; portraits such as these — and Meytens painted many, which have been authenticated, for his patrons — were often gifts to friends and allies. Ringling was a circus impresario who began collecting important art and decorative objects in the early 1900s after his marriage to Mable Burton in 1905. By the mid 1920s, he had decided to build a museum to house his now formidable Old Master collection. Royal portraits were an important component in having a comprehensive collection, so this one and its pendant "ticked a box," says Brilliant.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.

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