But, as so often in life, it is the missing pieces that linger in the memory. I have never forgotten the stars in Elizabeth’s hair; they shine as brightly in my imagination as they must have done in Hofburg Palace in Vienna in 1865, when the portrait was painted. Elizabeth was thirty when Winterhalter was summoned to Vienna and she had been an Empress since she was sixteen. Her marriage to Franz Joseph was not an easy one; Sisi hated the ossified rituals of the Hapsburgs and the overbearing control of her mother-in-law, who was also her aunt. After giving birth to three children and seeing one of them die, Sisi had a nervous breakdown and disappeared to Madeira for six months. On her return she had changed. She may not have had political power, or influence at court, but Sisi was beautiful.
She was tall by contemporary standards – a good few centimetres taller than her husband – and very slender with a nineteen-inch waist that she accentuated with tight lacing. But of all her physical attributes it was Sisi’s hair that was the most striking. It reached to her heels. Putting it up into the coronet of plaits she liked to wear could take up to three hours. Washing it in a mixture of cognac and a dozen eggs took a whole day. Her hair was so heavy that, at night, Sisi would sleep with it suspended from the ceiling in two long ropes to relieve the pressure on her head.
When it came to having a portrait painted, Winterhalter was the only choice. He had already made his name around the courts of Europe turning doughy princesses into glorious tulle-framed swans. The pose that Sisi adopts in the portrait is reminiscent of a Van Dyck. She looks back at us over her left shoulder. Behind her the sky is dark with thunder clouds. To her right, just above the vast, sparkling meringue of her skirt, is a plant with vivid red flowers that explode out of the picture like flames. Although the Empress herself appears serene in the picture, I can’t help wondering if the ominous clouds and the scarlet gash of the flowers is Winterhalter’s way of suggesting the passions she is trying to suppress. The expression on Sisi’s face is dreamy – she looks as if she is thinking about ice cream. Her red lips are shaped into a Giaconda half-smile. When she arrived at the Viennese Court her mother-in-law, with customary tactlessness, told Sisi that her teeth were so bad that she would do better to smile with her mouth shut tight. Here, Sisi keeps her mouth firmly closed.
But back to the stars in her hair. When I finally saw the originals of this picture, which hangs in Hofburg Palace in Vienna, I was struck by how big they were. The portrait is life-size and the stars are the size of a child’s fist. Sisi had twenty-eight stars in all, threaded together on black velvet ribbon. The ribbons strike an incongruously practical note against the glamorous confection of the spangled dress. You wonder why Winterhalter chose to include them. The black ribbons look rather like reins, but perhaps that was Winterhalter’s point. The Empress may be radiant and decked with jewels but she is, after all, a puppet. Pull the ribbons and you can turn her head.
This is the last portrait of Sisi. As she grew older she refused to sit for painters or to have her photograph taken. She did not want the world to see her ageing. She was so concerned about people taking unauthorised pictures that she went everywhere with a leather fan that she would flick open whenever she thought a photographer was getting too close – the nineteenth-century equivalent of today’s celebrities hiding from the paparazzi in a baseball cap and sunglasses.
As a result, it is Winterhalter’s portrait that you see everywhere in Vienna. In the shop attached to the Sisi Museum at Hofburg Palace you can buy chocolate, Christmas tree ornaments, snow globes and of course jigsaw puzzles featuring the Empress with the stars in her hair. You can even buy your own stars, for twelve euros each.
I stopped wanting to be a princess by the time I was twelve, but my hankering for the accessories of royalty has lingered. Recently I found myself at an antiques fair looking at a diamond Victorian star very similar to the ones sported by Sisi in the Winterhalter portrait. As I held it up to my hair and saw the way it refracted pinpoints of light around the room, I thought seriously about parting with a sum of money roughly equivalent to a small car in order to have some of that royal sparkle. In the end I forced myself, reluctantly, to walk away.