Hyears Holbein was one of the greatest portrait painters of the Northern European Renaissance and one of the greatest German-born painters in the history of art. Holbein maintained rewarding personal and professional friendships with some of the boldest names of the 16th century: Desiderius Erasmus, Sir Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell and, most famously, King Henry VIII. For an artist of such renown and immense artistic gifts, it is hard to believe that there has never been an exhibition devoted solely to Holbein’s work in the United States until now, with the “Holbein: Capturing Character” exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum. in New York, on view until May 15.
Hans Holbein the Younger was born into a family of artists in Augsburg, Germany in 1497. His father, Hans Holbein the Elder, was an established local artist, as were young Hans’ uncle and grandfather. Although there are conflicting reports regarding his early years, it is generally believed that Holbein the Younger trained in his father’s studio in Augsburg before moving to Basel, Switzerland, where he began to obtain the genre of recognition which would have brought him much more fame and success. which his father had never reached.
Holbein the Elder was an artist of the late Gothic period and style, focusing primarily on altarpieces and religious works. He did, however, begin to move towards a more Renaissance-inspired humanism in his portraiture, color choices, and depiction of human faces. Holbein the Younger took his father’s artistic innovations a giant leap forward, bringing German and northern European art fully into the Renaissance, the artistic renaissance that had already begun to revive painting, sculpture and architecture. in Italy and Southern Europe.
Indeed, it is also believed that after Holbein the Younger left Augsburg, he traveled to northern Italy and probably France as well, exploring the art of early Renaissance Europe, before settling in Basel in 1517. Basel was an exciting artistic city at that time and is still an important center of world art to this day, with exhibition A of its artistic prominence being the growth and global spread of the fair of Art Basel in the modern era. It is therefore no coincidence that it was in Basel that Holbein’s career towards the top of the art world took off, even if Holbein owes much of his success less to the importance of Basle in the art world of the 16th century than to his luck in having met the Dutch humanist philosopher and Catholic theologian Erasmus of Rotterdam, who was then living in Basel. It is here in Basel that “Holbein: Capturing Character” begins.
Erasmus was one of modern Europe’s first truly public intellectuals, renowned for his pioneering religious tolerance and anti-war stances at a time when such views were new. It is estimated that up to 20% of the books circulating in Europe at that time were written by Erasmus. Erasmus was not only concerned with the distribution and opinion of his books and ideas, but also with the distribution and opinion of his physical image. Erasmus commissioned the young Holbein to illustrate what was to become his greatest book, In praise of madness, and also commissioned Holbein to paint his portrait. It was this surprisingly small three-quarter portrait that would become the enduring image we still have of Erasmus to this day. In this small roundel, or rounded frame, completed in 1532, we see the famous Dutch humanist seated at ease, wearing the hallmarks of a wealthy scholar’s attire – elegant robes trimmed in light brown and dark black sable furs. Holbein, however, does not give Erasmus the traits of an erudite superhero, but rather those of a very real aging middle-aged man – gray hair on his head and beard, wrinkles on his cheeks and forehead , saggy skin around his chin, and lines under his eyes. Holbein probably chose the plain blue background on which to place his portrait of Erasmus rather than a more complex landscape or interior domestic background to make it easier for apprentice artists in his Basel studio to copy the portrait. It’s hard to know how Erasmus would have reacted to such an unadorned image of himself, but given his humanism and comfort with irony and satire, we have to imagine his first inclination probably wasn’t to destroy the portrait of the way Winston Churchill infamously destroys the portrait that John Sutherland painted of him in 1954.
Erasmus seems to have appreciated Holbein’s work, giving Holbein a letter of recommendation when the painter visited London. It was through Erasmus that Holbein met his next great patron and the next outstanding humanist scholar of 16th-century northern European culture: Sir Thomas More. At the time Holbein met More, More had not yet reached the peak of his political career, but he was well on his way to getting there. More at the time was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and about to be appointed Lord Chancellor of England. Holbein’s 1527 oil portrait of More, on display at the Morgan on loan from the nearby Frick Collection, depicts More at the height of his political greatness. Holbein depicts More as a politician who is rising to an almost aristocratic, almost regal status – dressed in rich, vibrant black and red velvet robes and a badge hanging from the golden chain draped around his neck. The badge More wears is a gilded representation of the Tudor rose, the symbol of King Henry VIII’s Tudor dynasty, which More would soon occupy as Chancellor, the King’s closest adviser.
More would prove very loyal to the King, but he was even more loyal to the Catholic Church – a loyalty that precipitated his historic split with the King and eventual execution when he refused to recognize Henry as the leader of the new, no – Anglican Catholic Church. In contrast to the more relaxed and liberal demeanor of Erasmus, Holbein aptly portrays More as austere, with a stern, serious expression on his concentrated face – a man of high principles, sometimes overreaching, with no room for tolerance in his politics. In addition to the highly detailed features of More’s resolute face, such as his pursed lips and his five o’clock salt and pepper shadow, what is most notable in this portrait are More’s sleeves, perhaps the sleeves spurts in history. of Western art. Holbein highlights every crease and crease of the rich red velvet sleeves like the petals of a rose. Those justly celebrated sleeves, the soft brown fur around his shoulders, the cascading green drapery behind him, and the natural, lifelike quality Holbein endows More with combine to make Holbein’s portrayal of the great man one of the most iconic works ever made, rivaling those of Rembrandt and Velazquez.
While Holbein received commissions from More and other powerful patrons in London, he supported his wife and two children in Basel. He returned to Basel at least once, spending enough time on the continent to father two more children, but ultimately chose to return to England, turning down several lucrative commission offers in Switzerland. He seems to have chosen wisely because, on his return, he was appointed official painter to the king’s court. Holbein now moved from painting humanists to painting aristocrats, wealthy Hanseatic League merchants, a group of German merchants who had settled in London, four of Henry’s six wives, and Henry himself .
Holbein’s famous portrait of Henry VIII cannot be seen here because it cannot be seen anywhere – in one of art history’s great tragedies it was destroyed in a fire about a hundred years after Holbein completed it and survives today only by virtue of the many copies that were made of it at the time. Neither of Holbein’s other most distinguished paintings, French ambassadors (1533), exhibited at the Morgan, as the National Gallery in London does not lend it. What is on display here, however, are many more less recognized but still eminently intriguing portraits of Holbein, such as A lady with a squirrel and a starling (1526), which the National Gallery has agreed to loan for this exhibition, and the meticulously restored Portrait of Simon George of Cornwall (1535), which shows a young man dressed in dandy fashion in profile, as opposed to the more conventional three-quarter form of most portraits, against an azure blue background wearing a feathered hat and holding a red carnation, symbol of love. Little is known about the sitter, but the visual evidence Holbein provides us in the portrait indicates that Simon George was probably a young man from a wealthy merchant family who wished to paint a picture of himself that it could use to send to future marriage partners. – a 16th century version of a dating profile photo. After spending so much time and effort painting royals and aristocrats, we can only imagine how relieved Holbein must have been to have had the chance to paint someone who didn’t. had no power to cut off his head if he was not satisfied with the portrait.
Daniel Ross Goodman is a Washington Examiner contributing writer and author, most recently, of Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Wonder and Religion in American Cinema.