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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Major

Portrait of a Lady

The Historical Writers Forum is a place for writers of history, whether fiction or nonfiction, published or not, to connect and support each other. For the past few years, they have produced an anthology of short stories, all chosen from works submitted by their members. This year, the brief was to write a short story inspired by a work of art.


I spent a few days online looking at the collections of various museums and galleries. The painting that captured my interest was one by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805-1873). Held at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, it dates to c.1840s/1850s and is simply titled, ‘Portrait of a Lady.’



Winterhalter hailed from Germany. Born into a peasant family, his talent brought him fame and fortune. He travelled between the European courts, painting royalty and those in the upper echelons of high society. When this particular portrait was acquired by the MIA, in the 1950s, a report was written. In that, it claimed that the unnamed lady in question was one of those who ‘fluttered’ around Queen Victoria.


What is more unusual is that the subject of the painting is holding a mantle edged with ermine. In art, this usually denotes royalty or at least a high peerage. It seemed strange that, in a little more than a century, a woman who was noted enough to be painted by Winterhalter had lost her identity.


That is where my story emerged. I began to think of differing scenarios about who this woman could have been. The same 1950s writer who claimed the sitter fluttered around Queen Victoria also noted Winterhalter’s lack of flattery.


Set primarily in 1844, my story – also titled Portrait of a Lady – uses the French Revolution, the Napoleonic era, and the exile and restoration of the French monarchy as a backdrop to my heroine’s story. The conclusion is in 1880, in a London saleroom where this portrait is included in an auction.




My writing background is in historical nonfiction but I hold a BA and MA in Creative Writing. This is one of my first forays into the world of historical fiction. Masterworks: Historical Short Fiction Inspired by Works of Art contains ten other amazing stories besides my own and it’s available on Kindle now. You can find out more by clicking the links below.


To buy Masterworks on Amazon UK, click here.

To buy Masterworks on Amazon US, click here.


Strolling through an art gallery gives art appreciators a glimpse at the heart of creativity artists from across time and distance have poured onto canvas, into clay, through wood, metal, and stone. Art inspires us and helps us connect with emotions and ideas. But have you ever wondered what inspired the artists themselves? Perhaps it was a loved one, a moment of suffering or despair, a celebration, or a victory. Have you ever wondered what stories these works tell? We asked the authors of the Historical Writers Forum these questions, to imagine what stories might be revealed in the history of famous works of art. Through their short stories, you will be transported back in time to the magnificence of works of art from ancient Mesopotamia to nineteenth-century America, exploring the people, events, and emotions that may have inspired incredible works of art.

The previous Historical Writers Forum anthologies are Hauntings and Alternate Endings, both currently free via Kindle Unlimited.

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