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Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Gallery of Beautiful Faces and Beautiful Minds

Nymphenburg Palace photo by Wilfried Hösl /Presseamt München.

Long before Hugh Hefner created the Playboy Mansion, King Ludwig I of Bavaria created the Schönheitengalarie (Gallery of Beauties), in the former small dining room in the south pavilion of the Nymphenburg Palace in Munich.  The Schloss Nymphenburg is a Baroque palace commissioned by Ferdinand Maria and Henriette Adelaide of Savoy in 1664, and completed in 1675.  It served as the main summer residence of the rulers of Bavaria.  It went through several remodellings and extensions on its way to its present form, and although open to the public, remains the home and chancery for the head of the house of Wittelsbach.

Nymphenburg Palace in 1761, oil on canvas.
Bernardo Bellotto (il Canaletto),  National Gallery of Art, Wash., D.C.

Ludwig I (1786-1868) succeeded his father on the throne in 1825.  He is known for his enthusiasm for the arts, the German Middle Ages, and women.  The occasion of his marriage to Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen on October 7, 1810 was the first ever Oktoberfest.  (It was so much fun it was decided to do it again the next year, and the rest, as they say, is history.)  He was a fanatical art collector and enthusiast of ancient Greece and the Italian renaissance.  Although his collection interests focused on Greek and Roman sculptures, he also collected early German and Dutch paintings, Italian renaissance masterpieces, and contemporary art for his galleries and museums.  He was a notoriously bad poet, to boot.  But his most famous venture is the Schönheitengalarie.  This gallery houses the portraits of 36 women, most of them by court-appointed painter Joseph Karl Stieler, with two additional ones by Friedrich Dürck.
Portraits of King Ludwig I and Queen Therese by Josef Stieler, circa 1810.
Images courtesy of Destination Munich.

The portraits were painted between 1827 and 1850.  The women were considered the most beautiful women from all strata of society.  A few of the portraits are of family members.  This was not the first such gallery, however.  There was an earlier one in Munich of French beauties from Versailles.  In England there were two collections:  the Windsor Beauties and the Hampton Court Beauties.  Ludwig I supposedly had scouts searching the kingdom for beautiful women.  Leo von Klenze, his architect and confidant, was said to have kept a dossier of the king's conquests, which is rumored to have listed over fifty names.  Ludwig had several mistresses, the most famous, and the one which led to his downfall, was Lola Montez.

Lola Montez.

By the time she hooked up Ludwig in 1846, Lola Montez (her stage name) had already been associated with Alexander Dumas and Franz Liszt, and been married and divorced.  A "wild woman", meaning she led her life on her own terms, she had a reputation for her beauty and quick temper.  Born Eliza Gilbert in Ireland, she had lived in England, Scotland, and India before shocking Europe with her "Spanish dancer" burlesque.  Ludwig made her the Countess of Landsfeld, and granted her a large annuity.  Because of her influence on the king, over whom she exercised considerable political power, and because of her perceived arrogance and temperamental outbursts she was unpopular with the locals.  In 1848 Ludwig abdicated the throne under public pressure.  Lola went on to many other places and things, dying in New York at age forty-two, where she was involved in rescue work with women.

Jane Digby painted by Stieler in 1831.

Jane Digby, the daughter of an English admiral, was another of Ludwig's paramours.  Another "scandalous" woman who was sexually active, she also later had an affair with Ludwig's son, Greece's King Otto, among others.  She moved to Syria when she was forty-six, and fell in love and married Sheikh Medjuel el Mezrab under Muslim law.  Although he was twenty years younger than she, their marriage lasted for twenty-eight years until her death.  She adopted Arab dress, lived half the year as a nomad in the desert, and the other half in a villa in Damascus.  Arabic became her ninth language.  She became friends with Sir Richard Burton and his wife Isabel while living there.  She was an adventurous and intelligent woman.

Marianna Marches Florenzi, painted by Stieler in 1831.

Marianna Marquesa Florenzi was an Italian noblewoman.  She had a literary education and was devoted to reading philosophical works and translating them. She was one of the first woman to study natural sciences at the University of Perugia in the first part of the 19th century.  She represented the female ideal of an educated woman, and hosted cultural gatherings and salons where she was known for her wit.  She translated Leibniz, and promoted the works of Kant, Schelling and Spinoza.  In 1850 she published Some Reflections on Socialism and Communism. This, along with most of her work, was listed on the church's Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the Catholic Church's list of prohibited publications, a sure sign, to my mind, of her liberated thought and emancipated opinions.  She was Ludwig's lover for forty years, and he often sought her advice.  4,500 letters of correspondence between them survive today.

Charlotte von Hagn, painted by Stieler in 1828.

Charlotte von Hagn was a German actress and daughter of a businessman.  She was celebrated wherever she went, famous for her comedic roles and ready wit. She was known as a charming and intelligent conversationalist, and her nickname in the theater was 
"the German Déjazet" (Virginie Déjazet was a very famous actress of the French stage).  She also had an affair with Franz Liszt.  Inclusion in the Schönheitengalarie suggests an affair with Ludwig, and that was rumored at the time, but no records exist of it.

Helene Sedlmayr in Old Munich costume by
Stieler circa 1830.

Perhaps the most famous of Ludwig's inamoratas was Helene Sedlmayr, also known as “Schöne Münchenerin” (beautiful woman of Munich), who was the daughter of a shoemaker.  Queen Therese bought some toys from the shop where Helene worked.  Helene delivered them to the palace where she met Ludwig.  He was so enamoured of her that the court became worried.  She was immediately married off to the king's valet, to whom she bore ten children and remained married to until she died at age eighty-five.

Image of Helene Sedlmayr overhead on the ceiling of a
carousel bar in Munich.  Courtesy of Destination Munich.

The women Ludwig chose for his gallery were not, I think, just chosen for their pulchritude, but from what is known about some of them for their intellect and independence from prescribed roles.  These women were intrepid and chose a life that suited their needs, not society's.  They wanted their intellectual and sexual desires satisfied, and Ludwig was apparently obliging, even admiring.  No Hef he, they appear in the 
Schönheitengalarie fully clothed and classically posed.  Thank goodness things have changed centuries later and women are not constrained by separate standards for behavior.

Wait...we aren't, are we?

Unless otherwise stated, images courtesy of Wikipedia.
For a glimpse at all the portraits in the Schönheitengalarie, click here.

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