A Paragon of Beauty – Ruminations on a Portrait
Some of you keen observers noticed this charming lady serenely smiling out of the Hunt Collection sale photos from Thursday. I’m excited to introduce you to the newest resident here at Dogwood House: Fräulein Auguste Strobl (1807 – 1871)!
Auguste came to me by way of auction, and I must confess to only leaving a minuscule throw away bid on her while pursuing more lucrative treasures. But low and behold when the hammer fell, this charming portrait was mine!
The catalog description only labeled her:
Oil on Canvas Portrait of Woman Ornate Gold Leaf F
Yep, literally that’s all the information I had. I could tell from the photos that the painting was not very old, but I thought it elegantly done, so off I went to pick her up hoping that there would be some paperwork with her or perhaps a family story I could needle out of the auction staff.
No such luck I’m afraid!
She arrived home with me and I set her in the living room to further examine her and contemplate her life story. Upon said examination it became clear to me that the painting, while reasonably well done and framed nicely, was very new and a reproduction. Two clues gave this away:
No. 1 A pristine canvas and paint surface with no craquelure, stains, tears, marks, and minimal debris.
No. 2 The frame was stamped “Made in Mexico.”
Hmmm…where did this leave me? With a pretty painting of minimal value and no clue who she was! Her clothing and hair style identified the sitter as Romantic Era so 1820-1850 that was something!
I had half determined to keep her as she looked lovely above the sideboard, and I was already concocting a narrative about her life…perhaps as a Charlotte of Sandition or a Margaret of North & South when it dawned on me to run a Google Image Search.
I’d say they are helpful about half of the time, but immediately upon dragging and dropping in her picture to the search engine POP there she was!
Fräulein Auguste Strobl with her swan like neck, lustrous hair, bright eyes, ruler straight schnozz, and milk white skin staring back at me from a hall of legendary Bavarian beauties.
In fact, Auguste was officially a card carrying member of the most beautiful in the land club. A 19th century Ms. Bavaria, if you will. So declared by King Ludwig I when he made her part of his Schönheitengalerie (Hall of Beauties) at Nymphenburg Palace. Dear Luddy commissioned her portrait not once but twice from Joseph Stieler (1781-1858) in the late 1820s, and apparently lauded her visage and charm in verse. Although I have not been able to track down those lyrical lines yet.
Not one but three copies of this portrait were made: one for Ludwig’s Hall painted in 1827, another done in 1828, and the third canvas for the Hamburger Kunsthalle. The 1828 version was sold at auction in 2019 and brought a whopping 161,200 Euros. Once seeing the original portrait by Stieler you can really see the difference a talented portraitist makes! It’s quite jarring in fact!
Look how life like Stieler captured her! The way the shadows play and her luminous skin! The airy gauze of her sleeves! It is impressive.
But back to what I learned of Auguste… It is not clear whether she returned Luddy’s appreciation or not. Several of the other 37 beauties immortalized in the Hall were reportedly ensnared in affairs of the heart or ahem…nether regions with His Royal Highness. A mitigating factor may have been the not insignificant detail that Auguste’s father held the purse strings as a royal accountant.
Auguste may have been one of the few to diss His Royal Highness, and reportedly refused gifts from Luddy. Then preferring a lowly forrester named Hilber with whom she married and had five children.
Ludwig’s Hall of Beauties seems grossly uncomfortable to my modern sensibilities upon first learning about it, but with reflection it is not any more voyeuristic than today’s fashion magazines or obsession with celebrity. Historically, we have always tried to define and codify physical beauty. The Greeks idealized flaxen hair and a perfectly proportioned face, while Rubens gave us the voluptuous femme fatale.
It turns out Ludwig wasn’t the only monarch creating these rooms to female perfection: two different beauty collections grace Hampton Court Palace in England as painted by Sir Peter Ley and Sir Godfrey Kneller. Ludwig was in fact a great patron of the arts and architecture, ushering Munich into a modern industrial age during his reign. There is an interesting article here about Ludwig I, his Hall, and obsession with beauty.
Unfortunately, finding more about Fräulen Auguste Strobl has been challenging. Online there are no scholarly articles or books, and very few of the entries about the portrait or Hall provide references, excepting to a German monograph on The Schönheitengalerie written in 1997.
My German is a bit rusty, so I haven’t ordered a copy yet. Presumably, this book is where much of the information about Auguste is sourced. Perhaps someone living in or touring Munich who wants to visit the Palace and local archives could do some research for us…any volunteers?
This is one of the most maddening parts of studying women’s history, so much of women’s daily lives were not recorded or their papers not saved. But that doesn’t stop me from wondering…
How did Auguste feel about being a paragon of beauty immortalized for physical attributes beyond her control? What about her character, her virtue, her sense of humor?
Did she preen in her role?
Did she feel entirely honored?
Did she compete for it?
Or did she consider it a matter of course?
Was she bullied and intimidated into posing by His Royal Highness?
She was 20 at the time of her portrait sitting, which young by our modern standards not a girl by hers. How much agency did she have?
Stieler portrayed her with a serene contented look and a small, perhaps secretive, smile tilting up her lips. Of course we are seeing a male gaze interpreting another male’s standard of beauty, so can we really glean from this painting she was contented?
Ah…this portrait leaves me much to consider, so I shall keep her above my sideboard for now! Welcome Auguste!
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