Winterhalter was the younger brother of Franz-Xaver Winterhalter (1805–1873), court painter to all of Europe. The two brothers were as close as brothers could be, working together and living lives so intertwined that Hermann’s biography remains inextricably meshed with that of Franz-Xaver.
Hermann Fidel Winterhalter was born in Menzenschwand, in the Black Forest, in southwest Germany near the French and Swiss borders. His gift for art echoed that of his older brother and he was encouraged by the family to develop the talent as a profession. By the time he was eleven years old, Hermann had been sent to live with Franz in Freiburg, where both brothers apprenticed with an engraver. He traced Franz’s footsteps from Freiburg, then to Munich in 1824, to Karlsruhe, and by the 1830s to Italy. Where Franz went, Hermann eventually followed. In 1840, Hermann arrived in Paris, reuniting with his older brother who had arrived in the French capital in December 1834. Ever after Hermann and Franz remained one another’s closest friend and associate, professional and personal partners for the rest of their lives. Neither man married, although Franz courted a young woman who rejected his suit.
In the 1840s, while Franz-Xaver Winterhalter painted the Belgian, French, and English royal families, Herman remained in Paris, managing his brother’s studio. A striking oil portrait that Franz painted in 1840 (Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, Germany) shows the two brothers on the occasion of their Paris reunion. Franz looks jaunty, in a student cap and shirt with pleated sleeves. He is seated, sketching, while Hermann stands behind, looking over his shoulder. A pencil and watercolor drawing also by Franz, dated Paris 1841, shows the two brothers again, this time both dressed in respectable business garb. Hermann’s duties in the family enterprise included supervising the production of oil replicas, managing prints, and arranging for framing and delivery as well as overseeing the work of studio assistants and occasional students.
Franz’s connections and reputation brought more subjects to his studio than he had time to paint. Thus Hermann was provided with a ready source of referrals of clients who had already decided upon a Winterhalter-style portrait.
It might have seemed that the 1850s would see a lull in Franz’s portrait practice. His principal patron, King Louis Philippe, abdicated the French throne in December 1848, replaced by Louis-Napoleon. In 1852, the Orlean family was banished from France. Franz responded by devoting himself to his other primary royal patron, Queen Victoria and her large family, including, of course, Prince Albert, her German consort. Though Franz Winterhalter was dismayed by the anti-monarchist sentiment of the mid-century reform movements, he saw a silver lining in what he expected would prove a hiatus from portraiture, allowing him an opportunity to paint more highly-regarded imaginative and historical works. That did not happen. Instead, Winterhalter became the favorite painter of first President, then Emperor Louis-Napolean’s wife, Empress Eugénie. In the last twenty years of his career he was as busy as ever, adding royal patrons in Russia, Germany, Spain, and Poland to his French and English supporters.
Meanwhile, the brothers continued not only to work together, but to travel together, taking numerous holidays in Germany. They lived modestly in Paris, maintaining a few friends among French artists, but never truly part of the Parisian art world. Rather, the brothers remained steadfastly German. They retained close ties with their German family and German homeland, visiting frequently, corresponding on a regular basis and sending substantial amounts of money home.