|The First of May 1851|
Queen Victoria commissioned this work from her favorite painter, Franz Xaver Winterhalter. Its genesis as a May Day memory-object is explained at satisfying length in the following text from the Royal Collection Trust –
Queen Victoria holds her third son, Prince Arthur, as he is presented with a jewel casket by his godfather, Arthur, Duke of Wellington. In return the child hands over a nosegay of lily of the valley, a flower traditionally given as a good luck charm on 1 May, especially in France, to mark the arrival of spring. Prince Albert, wearing field-marshal’s uniform with the badge of the Golden Fleece and the ribbon and star of the Garter, stands behind, looking towards the Crystal Palace in the distance. The picture commemorates a date of threefold significance: the first birthday of the infant Prince Arthur, the eighty-second birthday of the Duke, and the opening day of the Great Exhibition.
Queen Victoria wears a diadem of a sunray design said to have been made by Rundell’s for Queen Adelaide, a bracelet of strings of pearls with a miniature of Prince Albert, and the Lesser George badge with a cameo by Nathaniel Marchant, made for George IV. In its composition the painting resembles an Adoration scene; the Duke’s kneeling stance and devotional gesture mimic those of the Magi, Prince Arthur is dressed in classical drapery and the lilies of the valley are a symbol of purity and innocence. Even the sunburst diadem is suggestive of a halo.
Queen Victoria claimed that the suggestion for the painting had been hers, but that ‘Winterhalter did not seem to know how to carry it out, so dear Albert with his wonderful knowledge & taste, gave W the idea’. When she showed a print of the picture to the painter David Roberts in November 1851 she agreed with his judgement that it had not done justice to the Prince. While the costume and jewellery appear to be accurately painted (Queen Victoria did wear this dress and diadem to open the exhibition) the Duke’s gift was not in fact a jewel casket but a gold cup and toys. At the suggestion of Prince Albert, apparently for purely aesthetic reasons, a casket was depicted instead. The Queen later regretted the confusion caused by the switch. In response to a letter from Prince Arthur of 1871 which enquired about a rumour that the jewel casket was a birthday present intended to be opened on his twenty-first birthday, she replied, ‘it is utterly without any foundation…Dear Papa & Winterhalter wished it to represent an Event, like Rubens - & Paul Veronese did, ‘periods’ of History, - ‘without any exact fact’…it only shows how wrong it is not to paint things as they really are’. (Text adapted from 'Victoria and Albert: Art & Love', London, 2010)