The reign of the English King Henry VIII remains one of the most fascinating eras in European history. Today, it is impossible for us to imagine that period without summoning up the images created by the extraordinarily talented artist of the time, Hans Holbein. His paintings of the powerful and famous characterize and embody the entire age, and his endlessly fascinating works continue to dazzle and captivate. The story of how Holbein, a German painter from a relatively modest background, whose success had as much to do with his politically adroitness as his technical brilliance, would go on to become England’s “most celebrated artist,” is well-told in Franny Moyle’s fascinating book, The King’s Painter.
Holbein was born in the city of Augsburg, in what is now Southern Germany. His father, Hans Holbein the Elder, was an accomplished artist whose surviving paintings in many ways prefigure the precision and appeal of his famous son’s works. However, while his father painted commissioned religious works in the techniques and styles of the late Gothic period, Holbein would make his fortune creating secular works reflecting the new methods, patterns, and preferences of the Renaissance.
While still only in his teens, Holbein made his way to Basel, where he formed a circle of friends and contacts who helped the young painter establish himself. Among those Holbein befriended was the Dutch humanist and religious thinker, Erasmus, whose European network of proteges and friends proved indispensable for Holbein. Holbein painted Erasmus’s portrait twice in the 1520s; the images became part of Erasmus’s record and legacy.
In the early 1520s, civil unrest related to religious controversies all but eliminated Holbein’s prospects in Basel. In 1526, in search of better opportunities, Holbein travelled to England, to seek his fortunes there. Crucially for Holbein’s success, when he travelled to England he took with him a letter of introduction from Erasmus to Thomas More, who at the time enjoyed great royal favor as Privy Counsellor and diplomat, as well as secretary and personal advisor to King Henry VIII. Holbein not only painted More and his family, but many of More’s contacts, colleagues, and friends. More’s sponsorship and patronage proved to be invaluable for Holbein and helped establish the painter as the preferred portraitist in London.
Holbein returned home to Basel 1528 to visit his long-suffering wife, but he returned to England again in 1532. While Holbein was away in Switzerland, everything had changed. As a result of his opposition to Henry VIII’s plan to divorce Catherine of Aragon and to marry Anne Boleyn, Thomas More had fallen out of favor (and indeed was soon to be imprisoned and then executed). As More’s fortunes declined, those of Thomas Cromwell rose. In a sequence of events that highlights his political dexterity, Holbein, formerly so closely associated with More, managed to ingratiate himself with Cromwell and his circle. Holbein’s success in making himself the preferred painter for the powerful and famous ensured that he would become the favored portraitist of the rich, as well.
Holbein’s success and the brilliance of his painting inevitably brought the painter to the attention of the King. Holbein took on a series of royal artistic and design projects, ultimately assuming a formal position as “the King’s Painter.” Holbein’s iconic paintings of Henry are the very embodiment of Henry’s position, power, and prestige. Holbein also painted several of Henry’s six wives, although only his paintings of Anne of Cleves and Jane Seymour survive; scholars now believe Holbein also painted portraits of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, but given that both of these women were beheaded at Henry’s order, it is hardly surprising that paintings of their pre-execution heads can no longer be found. Holbein’s portrait of Anne of Cleves may have been the painter’s most controversial work; Henry reportedly based his decision to marry Anne, in part, on Holbein’s painting (as well as on dynastic and political considerations), a fact that later weighed against Holbein when Henry found the physical reality of Anne far less attractive than her painted image.
It is difficult for us to appreciate now the extent to which personal portraiture was during Holbein’s time still a relative novelty. Holbein’s ability to capture his subjects with near photographic accuracy struck the viewers of his paintings, as Moyle points it in her book about Holbein, nothing short of “miraculous.” For a culture steeped in the practice of contemplating religious artwork as a means of feeling closer to holy figures, “there would be an instinct to contemplate a portrait with a similar sense of communion” (this consideration underscores and highlights the potential significance for Henry of Holbein’s portrait of Anne of Cleves.)
As Moyle notes, Holbein’s portraits, “so breathtaking in their closeness to life,” seek to portray “his contemporaries’ sense of their own position on the social ladder of the day.” This consideration was not only crucial for Holbein’s powerful patrons, but perhaps even more so for the other aristocrats and wealthy merchants who sought to have Holbein preserve their images. Above all, Holbein’s portraits “express the all too human desire to defy time and preserve an image for posterity.” To this day, Holbein’s portraits not only provide precise coordinates for a particular time and place, they provide us with a “connection and a point of identification with those faces from a long-lost past.”
As much as we value Holbein’s images of his most famous subjects, his paintings of lesser known figures arguably provide the most memorable perspectives. One work of Holbein’s that I have always particularly esteemed is the enormous painting now hanging in the National Gallery in London known as The Ambassadors. For many years, the identity of the two young men depicted in this life-size double portrait was unknown; we now know that the young man on the left of the painting is Jean de Vinteville, who was, in 1533, the French ambassador to England, chosen for the assignment at least in part because of his prior acquaintance with Anne Boleyn, who had spend many years in her youth in the French court, and who was in Spring 1533 to marry Henry and to be crowned queen. The young man on the right is believed to be George de Selve, Bishop of Lavaur, a French envoy who had been sent by the French king, Francis I, to deliver a message to confidential message to de Vinteville.
The painting is remarkable on many levels, not the least of which is the almost photorealistic quality of the images of the two young men. But there is so much more going on in this painting; a series of astronomical and time-keeping devices are arrayed on of the characteristic “Holbein carpet” on the top shelf behind the two figures, while a host of more earthly objects are arrayed on the bottom shelf. Each of the objects serve a purpose and provides a message, although the clues are not always obvious; the lute on the bottom shelf, impressively portrayed in perspective, has a broken string; the two books on the bottom shelf are opened to seemingly significant entries – the hymn book is open to two Lutheran hymns (an unusual detail for two diplomats from Catholic France), and the mathematics book is open to a page on division. These details are compelling but there is no doubt that the full significance of these details will never be fully known.
But as interesting as these details are, there is another feature of this painting that is truly unforgettable: the inscrutable, seemingly blurred image painted from left to right in the foreground between the two men. Seen from head on, there is no making anything out of this image. It is, as they say, all a matter of perspective. I will never forget the time several years ago when I took my then 16-year-old son, who had travelled with me on a business trip to London, to the National Gallery to see the Holbein painting. I showed him that if you viewed the painting from an oblique angle to the far-right side of the frame, the inscrutable image in the center of the painting snaps into focus as a human skull. My son literally gasped out loud when the image of the skull became clear. The skull image, one of the most impressive and most famous demonstrations of a perspective technique known as anamorphosis, is a both a feat of technical brilliance and an image of mortality that, once seen, is truly unforgettable. It is an eloquent and powerful gesture toward mortality — a memento mori — alongside the painting’s brilliant portrayal of his subjects’ wealth and prosperity.
Holbein delivered paintings that not only preserved his patrons’ images, but that have stood the test of time. His incorporation of “symbolic depth” creates, in Moyle’s words, “enough intellectual space to allow multiple interpretations,” a characteristic that has “allowed his paintings to continue to speak to viewers, across the ages.” But in the end, Holbein’s paintings most indelibly preserve a specific time and place; his work “serves up a series of coordinates that chart one of the most fascinating eras in the history of Europe.”