(b. 1805, Menzenschwand, d. 1873, Frankfurt)

The First of May 1851

Oil on canvas, 107 x 130 cm
Royal Collection, Windsor

Although Queen Victoria appointed British artists to the post of Principal Painter, the efforts of Sir David Wilkie, Sir George Hayter and James Sant were supplemented by the work of certain European painters brought to the queen's attention. Such was the case with Winterhalter, who was born in Germany, but had an extremely successful career as a fashionable portrait painter based at the leading European courts. He was essentially a peripatetic artist of a truly international status who, with the help of studio assistants, had by the end of his life amassed a considerable financial fortune. First recommended to Queen Victoria by Louise, Queen of the Belgians, Winterhalter came to England in 1842 and subsequently worked regularly for the queen and her family over the next two decades. Queen Victoria had a very high opinion of Winterhalter, admiring particularly his ability to capture a likeness and his fresh, invigorating colour. In addition, the painters dexterous brushwork and high finish were also praised, although doubts were quite rightly expressed about the accuracy of his drawing. Together with Landseer, Winterhalter provides a vivid record of Queen Victoria's court and he was responsible for many of the more important and lasting images of the queen and the Prince Consort. His achievement is in many respects comparable with Van Dyck's images of the early Stuart court.

The First of May 1851 is a cryptic title for a painting that shows the aged Duke of Wellington presenting a casket to his one-year-old godson, Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, who is supported by Queen Victoria. Behind these figures and forming the apex of a pyramidal composition is Prince Albert, half looking over his shoulder towards the Crystal Palace in the left background. Both the Duke of Wellington and Prince Albert are dressed in the uniform of Field Marshal and wear the Order of the Garter. In addition, Prince Albert wears the badge of the Golden Fleece. The painting derives its title from the fact that both the Duke of Wellington and Prince Arthur were born on 1 May, which was also the date of the inauguration of the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. The Crystal Palace was the principal building in the Great Exhibition to which Prince Albert made such an important contribution. Queen Victoria recorded in her Journal that on 1 May 1851 the Duke of Wellington in fact gave a gold cup to Prince Arthur, as opposed to a casket, and received from him, as depicted here, a nosegay.

The painting was commissioned by Queen Victoria, but Winterhalter clearly encountered some difficulties in devising an appropriate composition. In the queen's words, he 'did not seem to know how to carry it out' and it was Prince Albert 'with his wonderful knowledge and taste' who gave Winterhalter the idea of using a casket. As regards the composition, and to a certain extent the iconography, the painting resembles an Adoration of the Magi, and, indeed, is not unlike works of that subject by sixteenth-century Italian painters such as Paolo Veronese.

Prince Arthur (1850-1942) was Queen Victoria's third son. As befitted a godson of the Duke of Wellington, he pursued an active military career, distinguishing himself during the Egyptian campaign of 1882, and was promoted to the rank of Field Marshal in 1902. Subsequently he was made Governor-General of Canada (1911) and retired from public life in 1928.

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