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Holbein: What more could a portraitist do?

July 4, 1988



Basel, Switzerland

IT'S rather touching to see Sir Henry Guildford, the formidable-looking Master of the King's Horse, and Mary Wotton, his rather cheekily knowing wife, together again for the first time in centuries. The German-born painter Hans Holbein the Younger took their portraits in 1527. As was his practice, he first drew them both in colored chalks and then painted his oil portraits afterwards. All four works still exist. The painted portrait of Sir Henry belongs to the British Royal Family, that of his lady to the St. Louis Art Museum in St. Louis, Missouri. The drawings too are normally in different locations: his in the Royal Collection at Windsor, and hers in the Kupferstichkabinett der "Offentlichen Kunstsammlung in Basel.

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But now, for the first time ever, the astonishing collection of 50 Holbein portrait drawings from the Royal Collection is on exhibit together with the even more remarkable collection of Holbein works already in Basel, the city Holbein made his home before necessity or ambition led him to seek his fortune in England. Not that this joint display pretends to be a definitive exhibition of Holbein: there are major paintings elsewhere, like his ``Portrait of Erasmus Writing'' in the Louvre, and the ``Meyer Madonna'' in Darmstadt, as well as his masterpiece ``The Ambassadors'' in London's National Gallery. But just bringing these two collections together provides a highly potent tribute to the 16th-century painter that one of his great patrons, Sir Thomas More, called ``a wonderful artist.''

It was Holbein's capacity for lifelike realism that undoubtedly brought him contemporary fame, and made it possible for him to portray so many of the figures at Henry VIII's court. He is supposed to have portrayed more than a fifth of the English peerage. He indeliably fixed their images for posterity, just as he did with Erasmus. (This exhibition has Basel's little roundel portrait of the Renaissance humanist.)

It is also to Holbein that the world owes its most powerful image of Henry VIII, though no first-hand drawing of the king has survived, and the mural at Whitehall, in which he painted Henry standing with legs astride, was burnt in the 17th century. In this show, the nearest there is to a portrait of Henry is in a miniature of ``Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.'' Henry had just made himself head of the Church of England, and by casting him as Solomon, Holbein showed him as answerable only to God.

But the English collection's concentration on portraits tells only part of the story. Before he left Basel (finally in 1532), Holbein had also been variously employed - decorating the outside of houses, decorating the inside of the Council Chamber in the City Hall, and painting altarpieces and devotional pictures. His first work at Henry VIII's court had almost certainly, at Sir Henry Guildford's instigation, been as a ``decorator'' for the ``revels,'' which were Guildford's responsibility. Like Leonardo, whom this Northern painter so evidently admired, Holbein was truly a Renaissance artist. He also, as the exhibition bears witness, made illustrations and designs for books.

His career as a religious artist effectively ceased when he left Basel. By then ``the arts'' in Basel, as Erasmus wrote, were ``freezing.'' The city was caught up in the disturbances of the Reformation. Holbein's Catholic patrons were increasingly hard-pressed, and the iconoclasm that was already threatening existing religious art must have discouraged its further practice.

Amazingly, many of Holbein's sacred paintings have survived, carefully treasured in Basel, so this side of his talent is illustrated here. His narrative skill, and his use of effectively dramatic lighting effects, can be seen in such a mature religious work as his ``Passion Altarpiece.'' The influence of Leonardo is apparent in his ``Last Supper'' (though it is spoiled by having been cut down at some time). And his unremitting North European grimness in ``The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb'' (a grueling call to the faithful to acknowledge the divine marvel of Jesus' resurrection from the dead) shows the extremes to which he could take his realism for effect.

Basel also possesses the immeasurably sad portrait of Holbein's wife and their son and daughter, which he painted before he left them behind in Basel. Its sadness is a mystery, and has fed all kinds of speculation about Holbein's relationship with his family. But since virtually nothing is known about the personal life of this reticent artist, the causes of this deeply evoked emotion really can be understood only in terms of the expressiveness of art, rather than the actual human experience that inspired it.

Holbein was indeed a consummate artist. His style is precise, exact, linear, analytical. His portrait drawings are practical: part of the preparation process of his art. As a portraitist he was certainly objective, even with those sitters he must have known well. He gave them dignity and importance, but he convinces us that this instillation of poise was never at the expense of a true penetration to character. And the very spareness with which he delineates the line of a brow, the pursing of lips, the gaze or glance of eyes - instead of depersonalizing his subjects - seems to fix undeniably their actual presence. It's as if we'd met them. What more could portraiture do?

Through Sept. 4.