If you thought photo manipulation and fake news were modern phenomena, think again.
European monarchs understood the power of portraits and paintings to influence the viewer, manage public sentiment, and build a royal brand. Which is why Mozart ended up as a celebrity guest at wedding celebrations he never attended…
Paintbrush as propaganda tool
It’s no surprise to learn that royal portraits could be about as accurate as today’s magazine cover photos.
Painters were obliged to be somewhat flexible in their representations, depending on the aims, schemes (and pride) of their customers. After all, the paintbrush can be mightier than the sword, particularly when it comes to arranging marriages across long distances.
After meeting her fiance (the future George IV of England) for the first time in 1795, Princess Caroline of Brunswick famously said, “He’s nothing like as handsome as his portrait”.
To be fair, George wasn’t too impressed either, needing a brandy to recover from the encounter. Needless to say, the marriage was not the happiest in European history.
But selective truth in painting wasn’t limited to portraits.
In 1760, Empress Maria Theresa’s son and heir, the future Emperor Joseph II, married Isabella of Parma to consolidate the Habsburg empire’s new alliance with the French (Isabella was a granddaughter of Louis XV of France).
Martin van Meytens, the leading court painter of the time, captured the marital celebrations in Vienna on canvas for posterity. You can see four of his huge creations in the Hall of Ceremonies at Schönbrunn Palace.
(Schönbrunn Palace, Hall of Ceremonies © Schloß Schönbrunn Kultur- und Betriebsges.m.b.H. – Alexander Eugen Kolle)
The paintings include the famous procession of carriages that announced the arrival of European aristocracy for the grand occasion, the wedding service in the Augustiner Hofkirche, and the wedding feast and musical entertainment in the Hofburg Palace.
These artworks serve as important historical resources, depicting the clothes and buildings of the time in considerable detail. But they’re not entirely accurate.
Look closely and you’ll find a young boy pictured among the guests…none other than the child prodigy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart!
Or so (allegedly) the painter would have you believe.
Except it can’t be Mozart.
At the time of the wedding, which was a couple of years before van Meytens completed the paintings, the young Mozart was actually a relatively-unknown four-year-old boy living in Salzburg.
By the time the paintings neared completion, Mozart had achieved considerable fame in Vienna and at court. So much so that historians suspect it was deemed necessary to include him in the audience.
The false Mozart wasn’t the only example where van Meytens was, shall we say, “economical with the truth”.
That giant procession of wedding guest carriages pictured on one canvas certainly took place, but not in an open square as depicted in the painting. Artistic licence essentially removed the buildings that lined the long procession so viewers could better appreciate the splendour of the event.
Visitor tip: See the “fake” Mozart on the Grand Tour of Schönbrunn Palace.