Austrian, 1840 – 1884

The Valkyrie, 1877

Oil on canvas
50.5 x 33.25 in.

Collection of The Bass
Gift of John and Johanna Bass

Born in Salzburg, Hans Makart studied with the most famous German history painter of the period, Carl von Piloty, at the Munich Academy from 1860 to 1865. Several exhibitions in 1868 brought him instant fame and a summons from Kaiser Franz Joseph I to the Imperial city of Vienna. The construction of the Ringstrasse was in full swing and a great number of artists were needed to decorate its monumental buildings.

One of the most influential history painters of his generation, Makart introduced a new freedom of subject matter and an unusual richness of color. He led the life of a “Prince of Painting,” working in his sumptuous studio where he held celebrated parties. Makart had an influence not only on the painting of his time but also on fashion, interior decoration (the “Makartbouquet” was to be found in almost every salon), and the theatre. Even now, the years from 1870 to 1890 in Vienna are referred to as the “Makart Period.”

Makart was known for his many virtuoso portraits of women. His sitters belonged to the aristocracy or to the theatre, where he liked to portray them dressed up in historical or fantasy costume. This painting is a portrait of actress Helene von Racowitza dressed as a character from Richard Wagner’s Ring der Nibelungen. Makart was an ardent admirer of Wagner (who was a guest in the artist’s atelier on several occasions), having painted a series of scenes from the Ring in his honor.

The sitter of The Valkyrie was a celebrated beauty, notorious as a femme fatale. As a teenager in 1864, her fiancé fought a duel on her behalf in which the famous German political theorist and founder of the worker’s movement, Ferdinand Lasalle, was killed. Makart was fascinated with Helene’s Titian-esque golden red hair. The Valkyrie was acclaimed as a masterpiece in its day and was included in several important exhibitions. It is a prime example of a historicizing portrait, reverting to a sixteenth-century tradition well represented in the works of Italian Renaissance painter Titian (Tiziano Vecellio).