The Austrian painter Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller is the artist who embodies in its most perfect form the visual style of the first half of the mid-European nineteenth century. Under the name ‘Biedermeier’ – which came into use later in the century, the word taken from a comic literary character – the art and design produced in the decades after the Battle of Waterloo established an ineffably middle-class set of values and tastes across much of central Europe. With its smart, self-approving neatness and exactitude of finish the Biedermeier achieved a suave charm that is hard to resist, and I make no apology for introducing Christmas this year in the guise of a typically Biedermeier image. It’s Christmas as summed up in that splendid (if rather soupy) Austrian carol ‘Silent night, holy night.’  

Although he painted many portraits of members of the prosperous bourgeoisie and minor aristocracy, Waldmüller’s domestic scenes are very often glimpses of life in the Austrian countryside: ingeniously organised but unaffected, sometimes sentimental genre subjects capturing the life of simple people with sharp-eyed realism. This highly detailed description of a rumbustious farmhouse interior at Christmas is typical of his output.

The settting is an unpretentious though sturdily built farmhouse that seems to be largely cellar, perhaps partly an area where animals used to be kept. The background spaces are in darkness, but closer to us a window is open onto the bright but evidently not too chilly December morning. A large and mostly very young family has gathered eagerly to welcome in Christmas Day. It’s presided over by a proud-looking young couple, with an aunt and two members of an older generation, who are watching the antics of no fewer than seven small children, all in a state of excitement – they have got out of bed so fast that most of them haven’t dressed yet. Presents are being opened and examined; there are plenty of apples for hungry little mouths. And the tree is still to be decorated, that traditional ingredient of central European Christmases which, just at the time this picture was painted, was undergoing its highly successful transplantation to England. 

In 1840, the young Queen Victoria had married a good-looking German prince who was enthusiastically bringing many aspects of his native culture to this country. (It was at his instigation that the highly fashionable Austrian artist Franz Xavier Winterhalter became portrait painter to the Royal Family.) Albert was seriously interested in the fine arts, and his great project in the 1840s, the decoration of the new Palace of Westminster, the Houses of Parliament, was about to become a showpiece for British artists of the younger generation who had adopted the clear linear Biedermeier style, which was having a surprising influence internationally. One of its indirect descendants was English Pre-Raphaelitism, which was to burst on the world in 1848. 

Almost a decade after that, in 1856, Waldmüller made his only trip to England, at the age of 63, bringing with him a handsome selection – about thirty – of his works: he was nothing if not prolific. His intention was to sell what he could, and, especially, to visit the Queen and her Consort. He claimed to be pleased with the results of a sale he arranged with Phillips, the auction house, though there’s no evidence that it was particularly successful. But he was also able to arrange a private audience with Victoria and Albert, through the kind offices of the British Ambassador to Vienna, Sir George Hamilton Seymour. The artist’s technically masterly and perfectly finished work naturally appealed to Albert, and the royal couple bought two paintings by him, one for the Queen’s birthday and one for the Prince’s. Victoria’s picture is still in the royal collection. So perhaps Waldmüller ought to be rather better known in this country than he is.  

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