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Elisabeth’s life was shaped by her efforts to prove that
her privileged social position was not only due to her
rank as empress but also to her personality and
individual achievements. Convinced of her uniqueness,
at times she felt herself to be superior to other
A characteristic that manifested itself in many of her activities
was a propensity for extremes. She concentrated all her
energies on particular subjects, pursuing them to the point of
exhaustion. For example her passion for Greece led her to
learn Ancient and Modern Greek and to spend huge sums on
building an ideal palace on Corfu called the Achilleion, in which
however she promptly lost interest again once it had been
A similar situation pertained with the cult of beauty with which
posterity has come to associate her. At 1.72 m, she was
unusually tall for a woman of her times. Her height paired with
her extremely slender figure contributed to her elegant
appearance. She devoted great attention to caring for her
flawless complexion and her magnificent head of chestnut hair.
Elisabeth’s ideal was that of natural beauty. She used hardly
any cosmetics or perfume and did not slavishly follow the latest
fashions, preferring understated clothing that was intended to
enhance rather than overpower her physical advantages.
Although not a classic beauty, Elisabeth made an impression
through her aura and presence, which according to
contemporaries gave her something ‘fairy-like’. At the same
time she hated nothing so much as being gawped at: her
beauty was thus an end in itself.
The empress would only let selected artists paint her portrait,
with the result that only a handful of authentic portraits or
photographs of her exist. The majority of published images are
simple retouched variants or photomontages of these
authorized portraits. There are virtually no authentic paintings
or photographs of Elisabeth in her later years. In the latter
decades of her life she made hardly any official appearances
and when she appeared in public she concealed her face
behind veils, fans or parasols, determined to preserve the
legend of her remote beauty at all costs.
Her enthusiasm for physical exercise also took on extreme
aspects at times. A natural athlete, she hiked for hours every
day and had exercise rooms installed in her apartments (one of
these has been preserved in the Vienna Hofburg), which was
highly unusual for a woman in her elevated circles.
The empress was passionately fond of riding, and her capacity
for endurance and readiness to take risks made her one of the
best horsewomen in Europe of her time. Here too Elisabeth
was prepared to spend enormous sums on her ambitions.
At the beginning of the 1880s she was forced to give up riding
due to health problems. In compensation she devoted her
energies to writing poetry in the style of her idol, the German
poet Heinrich Heine. However, this was to remain a secret
passion, as she stipulated in her will that her poems, in which
she dealt with the world around her in very critical and even
scathing terms, should only be published fifty years after her
death. Today Elisabeth’s poetic works are appreciated less for
their literary qualities than as a personal testament of a
historically important figure.
Bankl, Hans: Die kranken Habsburger. Befunde und
Befindlichkeiten einer Dynastie,Wien 2001
Conte Corti, Egon Caesar: Elisabeth. Die seltsame Frau, Wien 1942
Hamann, Brigitte: Elisabeth. Kaiserin wider Willen, München 1981
Hamann, Brigitte / Hassmann, Elisabeth (Hg.): Elisabeth. Stationen
ihres Lebens, Wien/München 1998
Katalog: Elisabeth von Österreich. Einsamkeit, Macht, Freiheit; 99.
Sonderausstellung des Historischen Museums der Stadt Wien in
der Hermesvilla 1986/87, Wien 1986
Mraz, Gerda / Fischer-Westhauser, Ulli: Elisabeth. Wunschbilder
oder Die Kunst der Retouche, Wien 1998
Reischauer, Manuela: Der Einfluß der Frauen auf Kaiser Franz
Joseph, Salzburg 1994
Schad, Martha / Schad, Horst (Hg.): Marie Valerie von Österreich.
Das Tagebuch der Lieblingstochter von Kaiserin Elisabeth,
Unterreiner, Katrin: Sisi. Mythos und Wahrheit, Wien 2005
Unterreiner, Katrin: Die Habsburger. Mythos & Wahrheit,