Tragic 19th Century Empress and Culture of Celebrity Explored in Professor’s New Book
(Delaware and Chester Counties, PA • March 8, 2023)—The trend-setting and tragic Empress Elisabeth of Austria (1837-1898), one of the world’s first celebrity fashion icons and the recent focus of a Netflix series, is the subject of The Celebrity Monarch: Empress Elisabeth and the Modern Female Portrait (University of Delaware Press, 2022), a new book by Olivia Gruber Florek, Ph.D., associate professor of History, Delaware County Community College.
The wife of Habsburg Emperor Francis Joseph I (1830-1916), Empress Elisabeth was celebrated as the most beautiful woman in Europe. She did not look to her fellow queens for inspiration—but rather to actresses, opera singers and ballerinas of her time. The explicit alignment with the world of entertainment rather than royalty resulted in glamorous portraits that set a new standard for femininity across all visual arts. Portraits by Franz Xaver Winterhalter and widely collected photographs spread news of Elisabeth’s beauty, and the 20th-century German-language film trilogy Sissi, the name she also went by, cemented her legacy. Yet despite the enduring fascination with the empress, art historians have never considered Elisabeth’s role in producing her public portraiture or the influence of her creation. “Elisabeth recognized the permanence of photography far sooner than many of her peers,” Dr. Florek says. “In shunning public appearances and refusing to be photographed after age 30, she ensured she would be remembered as eternally youthful.” Yet this demand for privacy led Elisabeth to maintain a small retinue and security detail, leading to her assassination in 1898.
The Celebrity Monarch reveals how portraits of Elisabeth transformed monarchs from divinely appointed sovereigns to public personalities whose daily lives were consumed by spectators. With resources ranging from Gustav Klimt’s paintings and Elisabeth’s private photography to 21st century collages and films by TJ Wilcox, the book positions Elisabeth as the primary engineer of her public image and argues for the widespread influence of her construction on both modern art and the emerging phenomenon of celebrity.
“The Celebrity Monarch offers a significant contribution to the fields of German studies, art history, and history in important ways,” says reviewer Beth Ann Muellner, Ph.D., professor and department chair of German Studies and Russian Studies and Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies, The College of Wooster. “It brings the misunderstood and seemingly static genre of royal portraiture into a conversation with modernity and contemporary interpretations of royalty, connecting to modern discourses of celebrity culture.”
Dr. Florek holds a doctorate in Art History from Rutgers University.