Elizabeth was born in 1837, on 24 December, when Christmas was celebrated all over the country. Everyone considered it a good omen, promising a happy life for the newborn: at first it was so. She became the third of eight heirs to the Bavarian Duke Maximilian and his wife, Princess Ludovika of Bavaria.
1.2. Joseph Karl Stieler. Maximilian Joseph, Duke in Bavaria, 1830s
View of Possenhofen, where Sissi spent her childhood
The status and capital of the parents allowed them to deny their children nothing: since childhood, Elizabeth adored walks in nature and animals — a personal menagerie was created for her in the Possenhofen estate, located on the shore of Lake Starnberger.
Princess Elisabeth of Bavaria
Unknown Artist, 1854
Although in her childhood the girl was not considered a beauty, she attracted everyone with her charm and was everyone’s favourite. Her father, a passionate travel lover (Sissi inherited his wanderlust), was rarely at home, and her mother was fully engaged in upbringing.
Image of a boy with a dog. Signed and dated by Elizabeth.
Games, fun, communication with her brothers and sisters — and no pressure from adults: it is no coincidence that later Elizabeth recalled childhood as the happiest time in her life. She was not very fond of studying, but the princess was not forced. Sissi’s other hobby was drawing.
They paid much attention to discipline of her older sister Helene (Néné). She was taught all the intricacies of palace etiquette, because it was she who was chosen as the daughter-in-law by Archduchess Sophie, the mother of Franz Joseph I, the young emperor of the Austrian Empire. She was the girls’ aunt (mother’s sister). Dynastic marriages were known to be concluded according to the principle of political expediency, and feelings and other conventions were usually not taken into account.
It would have happened so, if chance did not intervene. When in August 1853 Helene, accompanied by her mother and 15-year-old Elizabeth, arrived in Ischl to meet with the emperor and future mother-in-law to “make an important decision” — to discuss the engagement, it turned out that it was not she, more adult and restrained, but the fidget Sissi captivated 23-year-old Franz Joseph with her youth and charm. By that time, by all accounts, Elizabeth had turned into the beautiful girl whom the emperor had seen as a ten-year-old until that day.
1.2. Attributed to Franz Russ Sr. Portrait of the young Emperor in his military uniform, 1855
Franz Joseph told his mother about it and asked her to ask Ludovika carefully if Elizabeth would refuse to become his wife: “I beg you only, let Ludovika in no way exert any pressure on Sissi, because by for not every woman would easily agree to share a heavy imperial life with me.” “Yes, I already love the emperor. But why, why is he the emperor?!” kind of answered Sissi, who did not tolerate publicity, palace ceremonies more than anything else in the world and adored solitude. In her diary, following a long-standing habit, she described her feelings in verse:
Oh swallow, give me your quick wings
And take me with you to distant countries.
I'll be happy to break the chains that hold me
And to break the bars of my prison...
Karl Theodor von Piloty and Franz Adam.
Empress Elisabeth of Austria on horseback in Possenhofen
The painting depicts 15-year-old Duchess Elisabeth of Bavaria on horseback against the backdrop of the Lake Starnberg and Possenhofen castle, which belonged to her father, Duke Maximilian of Bavaria. The portrait was presented by the young Duchess to Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria at Christmas, shortly after the announcement of their engagement in 1853. The painting hung in the emperor’s bedroom at the winter Habsburg residence in Vienna for 60 years — until the death of Franz Joseph. And in 2017, the canvas was sold for 1.5 million euros at the Dorotheum auction in Vienna. Its estimated value was 300,000—350,000 euros.
Domineering, ambitious and pragmatic Sophie was unhappy with the choice of her son, but decided not to argue. For her part, she did everything for Franz Joseph to ascend the throne, convincing her husband, Archduke Franz Karl, to abandon the claims to the throne in favour of the heir (and she knew that her boy appreciated the efforts). And now she took an active part in political life, exerting a great influence on her son. But here she decided to give in: Sophie was sure that she could easily make the freedom-loving Sissi, who passionately loved horseback riding, wrote poetry and drew, an obedient wife and daughter-in-law. How much has she mistaken! Sophie found out how wrong she was almost immediately after her son’s wedding: from the first days, Elizabeth tried to do everything in her own way, because of which there were constant quarrels between the ladies.
A drawing from the imperial wedding.
The wedding ceremony took place in Vienna on 24 April 1854. The Austrians heard about the fabulous beauty of the emperor’s bride and wanted to know what she looked like. Therefore, the court made miniatures with images of the couple and replicated them in advance.
“I am in love like a lieutenant and happy like a god!” wrote Emperor Franz Joseph after the wedding to his friend. “My unforgettable and beloved angel!” he addressed to Sissi in his letters.
Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I and Empress Elizabeth. Portrait miniatures: the young emperor in uniform, the young empress with a blue scarf, watercolours on a printing board.
Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I, 1853
This is what Franz Joseph looked like in the year he engaged to Sissi
To his credit, despite the burden of the statesman’s duties, he always treated his wife with trepidation, trying to fulfil her desires and whims, even if they seemed strange and incomprehensible to him. And, to the best of his ability, he served as a buffer in a tough confrontation between two women he loved — his mother and wife, which turned into a real Cold War over the years. Sophie did not want to give up positions, and Elizabeth did not know how to forgive insults.
Sissi’s mother-in-law literally sought to control her every step, of course, with the best of intentions, because absolutely everything had to be done in accordance with strict court etiquette, which she did not know. She surrounded her with “her” trusted ladies, isolating her from everyone she knew and loved in that past, carefree life. “This is how it should be!” Sophie thought. And Elizabeth resisted with all her might, if only because psychologically she could not constantly be in public and live by someone’s established rules.
Sophie, Archduchess of Austria. Lithograph by Franz Aibl, c. 1860.
When the imperial couple has born the daughters of the same age, princesses Sophie and Gisela, one after another, the mother-in-law completely eliminated the young mother from their upbringing. Tired of fighting and shedding tears from impotence, Elizabeth only found solace in communication with her husband and lonely walks in the park.
1.2. Unknown artist. Duchess Gisela of Austria as a child. 1864
Franz Joseph knew the impression the beauty and charm of his wife makes on his subjects, therefore he took her with him on trips: he hoped thus to melt the ice in relations between Austria, Italy and Hungary, who still remembered the brutally suppressed (not without Sophie’s participation) revolution of 1848—1849. On one of these tours, overcoming the resistance of their grandmother, they took their girls with them, but both fell ill on the way. Gisela soon recovered, but the eldest, two-year-old Sophie, died. Elizabeth blamed herself for everything and became even more isolated.
1.2. Cesare Dell’Aqua. Visit of Empress Elisabeth at the Castello di Miramare in 1861. Charlotte of Belgium (in the white dress) greets Elizabeth while her husband Ferdinand Maximilian and his brother Emperor Franz Joseph I wait in the boat. Historical Museum of Castello di Miramare (Trieste)
Two years later, a son was born in the family — Crown Prince Rudolph, who, of course, was immediately taken under the care of his grandmother and the educators she assigned.
1.2. Empress Elizabeth with her two children and a portrait of the late Archduchess Sophie Friederike
Sissi wanted to take a break from quarrels and fruitless attempts to change the situation and decided to go on a trip. In this connection, it was announced to everyone that the Empress was seriously ill. How else to explain her four-month stay in Madeira to the people? Subsequently, such travels became regular: only away from the palace, its intrigues and unbearable rules, alone with herself, did she find peace and harmony. While wandering, Sissi remembered her children and her still beloved husband: she wrote detailed letters and sent gifts.
1.2. Sissi’s personal train.
All her contemporaries artists considered it an honour to paint a portrait of the beautiful empress, who was humanly simple and friendly in personal communication. Of all the canvases that captured Sissi with or without reason, one could make a whole gallery: in different years of life, in different outfits, from different angles.
Franz Xaver Winterhalter.
But in 1864, and then in 1865, the most popular and demanded painter of Europe, Franz Xaver Winterhalter, was invited to paint the empress. His brush painted portraits of almost all the crowned heads and the first beauties of the 19th century. He was born in Germany, and although he was never fully appreciated in his homeland, the royal families of England, France and Belgium were happy to instruct him to portray them. His monumental canvases created a solid reputation for Franz Xaver, and lithographic copies of his portraits helped spread his fame.
Sissi knew that Winterhalter’s portraits were valued for their subtle intimacy, and that his popularity among patrons was due to the artist’s ability to create images that his models wanted to show to their subjects. He was able to grasp the moral and political climate of each court, approaching customers individually. Today his paintings would be said to be press releases issued by a public relations specialist.
He created several portraits of Elizabeth, the most famous being full-length, with diamond stars in her hair, in a dress for receptions by the founder of haute couture Charles Frederick Worth. By the way, the Russian Empress Maria Feodorovna (Dagmar), the mother of Nicholas II, also used the services of “the personal tailor and supplier of Her Majesty’s court” in France for 30 years.
The other two portraits are more modest: they show Sissi with her hair down. But it was them that Franz Joseph hung in his office — one at his side, the other opposite his desk. They remained there until the emperor’s death. These are the so-called “intimate” portraits of Elizabeth. Although their existence was kept under wraps from the general public, they were beloved portraits of the ruler and consort.
1.2. Franz Xaver Winterhalter. Portrait of Elizabeth of Bavaria, 1865 Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Nature gave Elizabeth beyond measure: a beautiful appearance, a slender figure, long thick hair almost to her feet, a waist of 51 cm.. With a height of 172 cm, she weighed about 50 kg.
There is a story that tells how Winterhalter returned to Paris to paint another portrait of Empress Eugénie and told her about the extraordinary beauty of Sissi and about fascinating conversations with her while posing. After that, the French “colleague” of Elizabeth decided to see for herself whether she was really as nice as they say about her, and at the same time to “measure” beauty with her.
1.2. Georg Martin Ignaz Raab. Portrait of Empress Elisabeth. Lviv Art Gallery
During the visit of Sissi and her husband to Saxony, Elizabeth caused a real boom, as the Queen of Saxony wrote in her letter to her respondent: “You cannot imagine the delight that the beauty and charm of the Empress caused here. I have never seen our calm Saxons so excited: old and young, nobility and common people, respectable gentlemen and frivolous rakes, everyone was crazy about her, and many still idolize her. Her stay here is a whole epoch.”
Only Elizabeth knew how painful such events were for herself, who ran away from the palace again and again, quenching her sadness in travel.
Ferdinand von Piloty.
Ludwig of Bavaria in coronation robes, 1865
One of the few people with whom she made friends after meeting in her adulthood was her second cousin Ludwig of Bavaria, in who she had found a kindred spirit. For his unusual behaviour, not inherent in monarchs, he was called the “fairy king”, and after his early (at 40) mysterious death — the most tragic figure of the 19th century. He, like Sissi, loved solitude, adored painting and music. Love for the works of Richard Wagner and friendship with the composer himself prompted him to decorate the interior of the newly built Neuschwanstein Castle with scenes from his friend’s favourite Lohengrin opera. On the basis of his passion for Wagner, he became close to Elizabeth’s younger sister Sophie Charlotte, with whom he carried on a romantic correspondence and was even engaged for some time, but suddenly broke off the engagement in 1867.
1.2. Sophie Charlotte Auguste of Bavaria, the bride of Ludwig II after the breakup of the engagement. Lithograph 1867
Sissi felt offended for her sister and wrote to her mother about this: “How much I am outraged by the king, and the emperor too, you can imagine. There are no words for this behaviour. I just do not understand how he now appears in the eyes of people in Munich, after all that has happened. I am only glad that Sophie perceives it this way; God knows, she would not become happy with such a person.”
Neuschwanstein Castle, 1883
Most likely, Sissi was not mistaken: in the last years of his life, he increasingly avoided people, retiring to Neuschwanstein. His ministers had to find the king in the mountains in order to get documents signed. And in the country, rumours spread about his mental illness (there were enough reasons for such judgments) and close “friendly” relations with men: even specific names were called.
Execution of Emperor Maximilian, 1867
In June of the same year, another event happened in the family, a dramatic one: the rebels shot Franz Joseph’s brother, Maximilian I, the Emperor of Mexico. This moment was captured in The Execution of Emperor Maximilian painting by Édouard Manet. The sad story of his wife, Charlotte of Belgium, who was painted by the same Winterhalter more than once, is a story that deserves a separate essay.
1.2. Franz Xaver Winterhalter. Charlotte of Belgium (Empress of Mexico), 1865
Paradox: Sissi, who was enthusiastically received everywhere, was not loved at the Viennese court. Not only for disregard of etiquette, but also for “excessive sympathy for Hungary”: she learned the language of this country, loved their traditions and costumes. And against the wishes of her mother-in-law, she surrounded herself with court ladies of Hungarian origin.
Elizabeth of Bavaria with the ladies of the court. The Illustrated London News, probably late 1870s or early 1880s.
Although she did not care much about politics, thanks to her sincere interest in the country, she managed to influence her husband in the matter of improving relations with Hungary. All in the same 1867, Franz Joseph and Elizabeth were crowned in Budapest as King and Queen of Hungary.
Marie Valerie of Austria (daughter of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elizabeth) as a child, 1870
A year later, a daughter, Marie Valerie, was born in the imperial family, who immediately became Elizabeth’s favourite. It happened during Sissi’s stay in her beloved Hungary: later there were rumours that the girl’s father was a Hungarian count. This time, Elizabeth defended the right to raise her daughter independently and instilled love for this country and its culture in her. It is possible that she herself was imbued with sympathy for Hungary already for the fact that her mother-in-law hated her so much.
Years passed, the children grew up. Relations with Franz Joseph finally broke down over time: during 14 years the emperor had an affair with the wife of a railway employee, Anna Nahowski. There is an assumption that he became the father of her two children. And his romance with his “heartfelt friend” actress Katharina Schratt was never hidden and continued until the last days. They said that Sissi was not jealous of her husband — on the contrary, she herself introduced him to Katharina in order to compensate for her constant absence. She was even called the “uncrowned empress”.
1.2. Unknown artist. Katharina Schratt, mistress of the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, 1880. Hermesvilla collection, Vienna.
Bertalan Székely. Portrait of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, 1869
Besides her love of travel, Sissi had another passion — the desire to keep her beautiful appearance, face and figure, in perfect condition as long as possible. “Auntie worships her beauty as a pagan worships an idol. Contemplation of the perfection of her body brings her a feeling of unspeakable satisfaction,” wrote the Empress’s niece, Countess Larisch. Over the years, the cult of her own beauty, which she supported and protected with all her might, turned into a phobia: Sissi was afraid of old age. Perhaps that is why the empress’s favourite delicacy was the candied petals of violets.
“To get old… What a despair… To feel how merciless time is taking more and more power over you, to see more and more wrinkles appear… To be afraid of the daylight in the morning and know that you are no longer desired…” Elizabeth complained.
Emperor Franz Joseph I and Empress Elisabeth with hunting party, 1876
Her youthful passion for equestrian sports was replaced by an obsession with exercise. She literally exhausted herself every day. In addition, the Empress slept on a hard cushion instead of a pillow, and her thighs were wrapped overnight with scarves soaked in violet and apple cider vinegar. In order to preserve her thin waist, which was the envy of all her European “colleagues”, Sissi followed a special diet.
Georg Martin Ignaz Raab. Sissi in Rubies, 1879
In order not to give to eternity her look that was losing its attractiveness, after 35 years she began to avoid photographers, and her constant companions were her fan, her veil and an umbrella. But they only emphasized the symbolic wall that she had erected all her life between herself and the outside world.
It is believed that the few photographs of the later period are corrected earlier ones. The rest of the surviving photographs were taken from afar and, as a rule, have poor quality. Since her self-esteem and inner state were largely dependent on her appearance, mood swings and depression inherited from her father increased. It is known that at the end of the 19th century, the properties of cocaine were recognized as psycho-regulatory, and many members of the aristocracy used it against their blues (intravenously). Elizabeth was no exception.
In 1889, the son of Sissi and Franz Joseph Rudolph was found dead in Mayerling Castle: according to the official version, the heir to the throne committed suicide after killing his 17-year-old mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera.
1.2. Baroness Mary Vetsera, second half of the 19th century. Vienna Furniture Museum
Archduke Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria (1858-1889), kills himself and his mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera, in his hunting lodge at Mayerling 1889
“He was ruined by my Bavarian-Palatinate blood,” Sissi allegedly said, suggesting that there is a definite connection between Rudolph’s suicide and the frequent cases of mental illness in her Bavarian relatives.
According to another version, the crown prince was the victim of a political assassination in order to deprive the throne of the direct heir. In any case, the goal was achieved: the emperor’s nephew Franz Ferdinand became the new heir to the throne, whose assassination in 1914 in Sarajevo served as a formal pretext for the outbreak of the First World War.
On 28 June 1914, in Sarajevo, the Serbian high school student Gavrilo Princip killed the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Duchess Sophie von Hohenberg.
However, Sissi did not know it: the woman who was always far from politics, became the victim of an Italian anarchist. In 1898, Luigi Lucheni killed her when she was walking accompanied by her only companion, by hitting her with a knife. He was caught and imprisoned, but this did not bring Sissi back to life.
1.2. Smiling and proud anarchist Luigi Lucheni returned to prison after the first interrogation about the murder
“There is nothing left for me in this world,” wrote Franz Joseph in one of his letters. Perhaps at that moment, as never before, he understood the meaning of the phrase that Elizabeth often repeated: “The world is beautiful if you avoid people...” In her case, these words became prophetic.
Author: Olga Yankovaya