Monday, December 2, 2013

The Girl in the Last Audience of the Hapsburgs

The Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon was a nice diversion for an afternoon during my recent trip to the Northwest. One painting in particular captured my attention for some time. (Click on either image for a much larger version.)

"The Last Audience of the Hapsburgs" was painted in 1918 by Artur von Ferarris, a Hungarian painter who lived from 1856 to 1936. It's not the kind of painting I usually find riveting.


Here's the text that accompanied it:

When this unfinished canvas was first exhibited in Eugene fifty years ago, it was described as a "painting with a history as romantic as old Vienna." Given that it was smuggled into the United States in a carpet roll by a political refugee, this claim is not unfounded.

The artist began the work in October of 1918 at Sch├Ânbrunn Palace, where the young Empress Zita (1892 - 1989) received an audience of war orphans and a group of wealthy noblewomen, the Organization of War Godmothers, who had "adopted" them. Within hours, Empress Zita (shown seated on her throne), her husband, and their own eight children were forced to flee across the Swiss border because of the contentious political climate. Despite several attempts, they were never able to reestablish themselves on their thrones; both the Emperor and Empress died in exile.

The unsettlingly incomplete canvas mirrors the frustrated desires of both the artist, who spent the rest of his life wandering the globe, and the people pictured in it, many of whom were displaced in the aftermath of the First World War. Yet the audience members wear placid, even bored expressions as the children present their flowers, betraying no portent that one of the oldest dynasties in Europe would crumble within a matter of days.
In person, the painting is a lesson in the methods of oil painting -- the drawing, the underpainting, and the move toward the final level of detail, all exposed by its incompleteness. Many of the adult faces have a grayish cast because they were awaiting their layer of color. Almost none have the specific features intended by the painter.

The one exception is this girl in the lower right corner:


Surrounded by the pencil ghosts of her fellow orphans, she gazes at the viewer, solemn but not accusatory, enigmatic. I can't help making up stories about why the painter had completed this one face so perfectly. Even the empress is not as finished. Was this girl one of the orphans who especially captured his artistic eye, or was she not part of the portrait group at all, but special to him in his own life?

The painting is thought to be romantic because it captures a lost age, but I'm not romantic about that, democrat (lower case D) that I am. The romance is in the missing story of this child. What happened to her?

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