Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014
The Royal Family in 1846
In this well-known picture Queen Victoria is skilfully depicted as both sovereign and mother. The scene is one of domestic harmony, peace and happiness, albeit with many allusions to royal status: grandeur in the form of jewels and furniture, tradition (through the Order of the Garter) and the continuation of the royal lineage. The Prince of Wales, wearing a Russian blouse, stands beside his mother but meets the gaze of his father. Prince Alfred is on the left in the skirted outfit typically worn by young boys up to the age of around three. He walks towards his three sisters – Victoria, Princess Royal on the far right, Princess Alice and the infant Princess Helena. Queen Victoria wears an emerald and diamond diadem designed by Prince Albert in 1845 and made by Joseph Kitching at a cost of £1,150. Matching drop earrings and three brooches attached to her bodice complete the parure. Prince Albert wears court dress, consisting of black velvet breeches, a white satin waistcoat and a black single-breasted dress coat cut fashionably tight on the arms. Both wear their ribbon and star of the Garter, and Prince Albert also wears the Garter itself and the badge of the Golden Fleece.
In May 1846 Queen Victoria wrote to the French king, Louis-Philippe, to ask if he would release Winterhalter from his role as court painter in the autumn so that he could paint a large picture of her family for Osborne. Sittings began at Windsor in October 1846 and continued into January of the following year. When finished the picture was considered by the Queen ‘a “chef d’oeuvre”, like a Paul Veronese – such beautiful, brilliant, fresh colouring - & we were enchanted’ (Journal, 18 December, 1846). The Queen later wrote that this was one of her three favourite portraits of the Prince (RA VIC/ MAIN/ Y/ 169/ 69).
The painting was hung in the Dining Room at Osborne. Although intended ultimately for this private setting, it was first exhibited in 1847 in St James’s Palace, where it was seen by 100,000 members of the public. In 1850 it was engraved for public circulation. The throne-like grandeur of the chairs upon which Queen Victoria and Prince Albert sit (made by Morel & Seddon for Windsor Castle in 1828) together with the swathe of red curtain and the landscape background – no doubt intended to suggest the view from Osborne but reminiscent of a theatre backdrop – combine to give the effect of a stage set: a royal family on show to the world. However, some sense of the tension between the royal couple’s official and domestic roles arises from the incongruity of the evening costume they wear to play with their young children. In contrast to all previous royal family portraits, such as those by Van Dyck or Zoffany, the figures seem remarkably unposed, and the children (with the exception of the infant Princess Helena) seem oblivious of the viewer. As a result the painting is almost photographic in its capture of an intimate family moment.
Queen Victoria recorded the admiration expressed by Lord Palmerston, the Duchess of Sutherland, the Cambridge family and Sir Robert and Lady Peel, all of whom saw the picture while it was in progress. However it was not so well received by the press who criticised its ‘coarse handling’ and the ‘sensual and fleshy’ depiction of the royal couple. The Prince’s hands were likened to those of a farmer (Athenaeum, 1847, p.496). The fact that a foreign artist had been chosen for such an important royal commission was also a source of contention (Art Journal, 1850) and even led the critic from the 'Athenaeum' to write that the picture displayed ‘such a want of taste – as make us frankly rejoice that it is not from the hand of an Englishman’ (1847, p. 496). The engraving – by an Englishman, Samuel Cousins (1801-1887) – met with greater critical success (‘the expression in the faces of the Queen and the Prince has far more of the natural benignity belonging to them than the painter had given’, Art Journal, 1850). The print was also admired by Queen Victoria, who wrote: ‘Cousins has just finished the engraving of the Family picture & it is a splendid one’ (Journal, 26 February, 1850).
Text adapted from 'Victoria and Albert: Art & Love', London, 2010