Lola Montez: Her Finest Character

Lola Montez – feisty, fearless and legendary! The mythology that surrounds this 19th century actress is so great that just mentioning her name is enough to start a conversation about her most infamous moments. 

Was it the racy and daring Spider Dance? Or horse whipping local Ballarat Times editor, Henry Seekamp in Main Road as retaliation for a poor review? And then there was the husbands and lovers… at least four husbands, two charges of bigamy, and lovers too numerous to mention.  

Lola Montez always had a plan, a way out or a way forward. Royal lover forced to abdicate the throne? No problem, head to London, via Switzerland, create a one-women show and commence a world tour!  Lola Montez was the Madonna of her day.  As circumstances and trends changed she shifted character and found a way to make it work for her.  She played a myriad of characters and determining the ‘real’ Lola is challenging.

A recent acquisition of a Lola Montez portrait in to the Sovereign Hill Museums Association Collection provides insight into the character of the legendary Lola Montez.  The object speaks to the way in which she manipulated her public image to suit the conditions of the moment and to her ability to achieve financial gain through the sheer force of her character.

The Beauty Gallery, Schloss Nymphenburg, Munich (see Hojer, Gerhard, King Ludwig I’s Gallery of Beauties, page.19)

In 1846, after a string of high-profile lovers (including composer Franz Liszt) and performances in front of all manner of European royalty, Lola Montez arrived in Bavaria and becomes the lover of King Ludwig I.  She persuaded him to bestow upon her a title, the Countess of Landsfeldt, and caused outrage in the court for her political views, numerous indiscretions and expensive lifestyle.  But Ludwig was smitten and he continued to shower her with gifts and extoll her virtues to all who would listen.

In Ludwig’s youth he had travelled extensively around Europe and in places such as Castle Versailles and Castle Dachau, he had seen portrait galleries dedicated to the beautiful women of each region.  He was inspired to commission his own Gallery of Beauty.

In Ludwig’s youth he had travelled extensively around Europe and in places such as Castle Versailles and Castle Dachau, he had seen portrait galleries dedicated to the beautiful women of each region.  He was inspired to commission his own Gallery of Beauty.

King Ludwig I had something of an obsession with beauty; for him beauty was the manifestation, virtually a symbol, of higher morality and human integrity.  Only women who as beautiful in appearance as they were irreproachable in their moral conduct were to be admitted to the ‘collection’. Lola Montez is said to have stated that Ludwig “adored beauty like one of the old troubadours”. 

Ludwig’s Gallery of Beauty, which ultimately totalled 36 portraits, was painted by a single artist, Joseph Karl Stieler, who worked on the gallery for more than 27 years (1823-1850) having received the title of Royal Bavarian Court Painter in 1820.  His conventional and harmonious court style was exactly what Ludwig was seeking.  The works were hung in Schloss Nymphenburg, Munich.

Stieler painted Lola Montez twice.  The first portrait painted in November 1846 was rejected by Ludwig and thus the second was painted in 1847.  The labelling on the back of the artwork provides an insight into the character that Lola was playing at the time –  although of Irish birth, she asserted she was Spanish (born in Sevilla) and provided a birth date (1823) that made her somewhere between 3 and 5 years younger than she actually was.

The portrait also demonstrates what Lola wanted the world to see.  A women who was young, innocent, almost demure (no shoulders to be seen here) and who was exotic, the Spanish descent clearly inferred by the lace mantilla and the flowers in her hair.  Even the brooch at her throat has a hint of Catholic cross about it.  This is the Spanish Princess of which Lola Montez claimed to be a descendant.  This is the one of her finest characters.

Portrait of Lola Montez, 1847, Gallery of Beauties, Munich (see Hojer, Gerhard, King Ludwig I’s Gallery of Beauties, page 117)

This portrait of Lola becomes a defining image.  It is used almost like a postcard, a memento of a loved one.  And that is what our object is – a reproduction of this artwork, painted on ivory, in an ebony frame.  Beautifully produced, it does have some minor differences to the original artwork, for example the flowers are a different colour, but when compared to many of the other reproductions of this work, this piece is quite faithful to the original.

Miniature of Countess of Landsfeldt (Lola Montez) (The Sovereign Hill Museums Association Collection, acc no 2018.0778)

Lola Montez and Ludwig I is a romance doomed.  Political chaos in Bavaria and general dissatisfaction with the influence Lola has on the king, sees Ludwig I abdicate and Lola fleeing to Switzerland.  It is 1848 and while Ludwig is trying to come up with a plan to reunite them, Lola has already moved onto a new lover while still extorting Ludwig for more money. Ultimately it all gets too hard for Lola and she heads for London.

German collector’s cigarette card, adapted image of Lola Montez from original portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler (The Sovereign Hill Museums Association Collection, acc no 2018.0822)

Lola Montez is a legend of the Victorian Goldfields and it was her time in Bavaria that sets up the character she plays so convincingly on arrival in Australia.  Images based on her portrait in the Gallery of Beauties are in circulation, even on cigarette cards!  Her reputation for daring and independence makes her the darling of the goldfields and her tour of Australia is a triumph, with just the right amount of scandal to ensure her next adventure in America has similar success.

Written by Michelle Smith, Head of Curatorial and Collections Department, The Sovereign Hill Museums Association

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Czernis-Ryl, Eva (Editor), Brilliant: Australian Gold and Silver 1851-1950, Powerhouse Publishing, Sydney, 2011

Hojer, Gerhard, King Ludwig I’s Gallery of Beauties, Schnell & Steiner, Regensburg, 2006

Seymour, Bruce, Lola Montez: A Life, Yale University Press, 1996

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