19th century, Arts

An Unwilling Empress: Sisi through the lens of her poetry and the portraits of Franz Xaver Winterhalter

By Alice Theobald

Termed by Brigitte Hamann ‘a woman who refused to behave according to her rank’, Empress Sisi’s somewhat playful audacity was always at odds with the official role of Empress of Austria she assumed at the tender age of sixteen. Her childhood spent at Possenhofen Castle fostered an unrestrained environment with few rules or formalities – a freedom conspicuously absent after her marriage to Franz Josef in 1854.

With her older sister arranged to be the wife of Franz Josef, Sisi was particularly unprepared for such a prestigious, politically-significant position (with Austria standing as the second-largest state in Europe after Russia). Distancing herself from politics and even adulthood itself, Sisi withdrew into the recluses of her anguished mind, revelling in the literature of Heinrich Heine.


Sisi in 1865 by Winterhalfter (Hoffburg, Vienna) http://www.gogmsite.net/empress_elisabeth_of _austri/1865_elisabeth_with_diamond.html
Sisi in 1865 by Winterhalfter (Hoffburg, Vienna) gogmsite.net

Previously undiscovered poetry written by the Empress herself reflects her creative enthusiasm that presents an introverted, introspective figure far removed from the figure in the imposing regal portraits executed by Franz Xaver Winterhalter such as the renowned 1865 painting showing her hair lavishly adorned with an array of pearl and diamond stars.

In marked contrast to this official portrait, Winterhalter also produced two ‘intimate’ portraits which were kept secret from the public despite being favoured by the emperor (perhaps an indication of their conveying a truer impression of the empress’s more modest and reserved nature). One such portrait depicts her flowing long hair that took an estimated two hours to arrange, during which time her Greek tutor has reported her fear that her ‘mind escape[d] through the hair onto the fingers of [her] hairdresser’. Despite the widespread praise of her beauty, it seems that Sisi was ultimately primarily concerned with cultivating her mental and creative faculties. While she may have imposed an excruciating exercise regime upon herself, literature was a true pleasure that offered comfort and personal nourishment away from the realities of court life and her diplomatic duties therein.

Just as her physical flight to Corfu in the 1860s developed her self-confidence, so too did the privacy of her mind allow her to cultivate feelings and impulses stifled by court society. Her shyness in public – where she ‘abandoned her pitiful attempts at conversation and contented herself with her lips resolutely closed’ (Hamann, p.133) – could fallaciously be taken for a mental vacuity from which she certainly did not suffer. By contrast, her mind dreamed of wondrous landscapes like those found in the verses of Heine, entertaining heartfelt passions incompatible with the demands of decorum and outward etiquette:

Ich seh’ dich reiten, ernst und traurig,

                In Winternacht im tiefen Schnee;

Es bläst der Wind so eisig shaurig,

Mir ist so schwer zumut, so weh!


Im dunkeln Osten, fahl verschwommen,

Da dämmert jetzt ein blasser Tag,

Mit Centnerlast das Herz beklommen,

Trägst heimwärts du die bitt’re Klag.


[I see you riding, sad and serious,/In the winter night, in deepest snow;/ The wind is blowing so icily eerie,/I feel so heavy, so aching!//In the dark east, pallid-lurid and blurred,/A pale day is now dawning,/Your heart weighed down by tons,/You carry homeward the bitter lament.]

A more intimate view, Winterhalter http://ydnewstyle.com/tag/poem/
A more intimate view, Winterhalter


Similarly, in describing a ballroom scene it is not the lavish ostentation she focuses upon but the spiritual union between ‘zewi Seelen’ [two souls]. The touching of their hands is treated not in terms of physical contact but rather in its providing an entrance to her ‘Seele’ and a ‘so innig vertraut’ [so deeply intimate] moment of communion transcending the immediacy of the physical surroundings altogether.

Echoing Heine’s famous ‘Die Lorelei’ detailing ‘Der Gipfel des Berges funkelt,
Im Abendsonnenschein’[The crest of the mountain […] gleaming/In fading rays of sunshine], the following stanza is taken from a longer poem penned by Sisi:

Ich sah im Traume Gauen,

So weit, so reich und schön,

Umspült vom Meer, dem blauen,

Berkränzt von Bergeschöh‘n

[In a dream I saw territories,/So broad, so rich and handsome,/Lapped by the blue sea,/Rimmed by mountains‘ crests.]

Sisi’s Romantic temperament is also evident in her predilection for the outdoors. In stark contrast to her aristocratic companions, she demonstrated a love of her natural surroundings and the magnificent force of the elements. In line with this, Hamann notes an occasion during Sisi’s time in Corfu when a powerful wind saw her chamber-women flee in fright only for her to urge them to admire the beauty of the sunset and natural landscape.

Just as she herself stated that such tempestuous weather brought her a sense of affinity with nature whereby ‘one feels so close to all things’, so too could it elicit a kind of spiritual experience:

Wie Schwefel schien der Süden,

Denn dort im fahlen Licht

Urplötzlich Blitze glühten

Als naht das Endgericht.


[Like sulfur glowed the south,/For there in the pale light/Lightning flashed abruptly,/As if Judgment Day were drawing nigh.]

Her tragic life reached its culmination in her assassination on 10th September 1898 by an Italian anarchist who attacked her during a visit to Geneva. It seems particularly poignant that Sisi – forever striving to escape her public role – was murdered by someone who openly professed that ‘I came to Geneva to kill a sovereign […] it did not matter to me who the sovereign was […]. It was not a woman I struck, but an Empress; it was a crown that I had in view’. As in Winterhalter’s intimate portrait, this was a crown that she too spent her life trying to subdue.


All poems and translations are taken from Brigitte Hamann’s ‘The Reluctant Empress: A biography of Empress Elisabeth of Austria’, to which this article is indebted for historical details


Brigitte Hamann, The Reluctant Empress: A biography of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, trans. by Ruth Hein (New York: Ullstein)


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