An Honest Portraitist In a Treacherous Era
Hans Holbein's drawings capture England's rogues and royals
`O STRANGER, if you desire to see pictures with all the appearance of life, Look on these which Holbein's hand has created.''Skip to next paragraph
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These were the admiring words of one of Hans Holbein's sitters, the humanist, Protestant, and poet Nicholas Bourbon.
By a twist of history, the German-born painter is best known 450 years after his death not for his religious paintings but for his likenesses of the great, the good, and the bad of his time, particularly those connected with the court of England's King Henry VIII.
The current queen still owns a collection of 80 portrait drawings by Holbein. They are normally kept in captivity at Windsor Castle. But courtesy of Her Majesty and of Capital House Investment Management (the sponsors), 28 of these matchless pieces of draftsmanship are on parole in the United Kingdom for a traveling exhibition.
Even this small selection is enough to suggest the measure of this portraitist's lucid visual intelligence. Included are Holbein's drawings of such notables as Sir Thomas More (remember ``A Man for All Seasons''), William Warham (archbishop), Sir Thomas Wyatt (poet) and Jane Seymour (queen) - but not, incidentally, the above-mentioned Bourbon. These drawings, both careful and confident, carry all the authenticity of immediate observation. Unlike oil-painted portraits, which in Holbein's case were made from such drawings and not with the sitter present, the drawings are doubtless from life.
But what makes them so convincing is not simply that facial features appear to have been recorded in them with scrupulously controlled accuracy of line and highly sensitive subtlety of tone.
It is also that Holbein seems to have had an extremely rare capacity to convey the character and mentality of his subjects. His own personality does not interfere. His style is not one that draws attention to itself. One never feels that Holbein's portraits (as one does with Lely, or even with the great Van Dyck) are halfway to being self-portraits. Nor are suspicions of flattery apparent. His style may quietly idealize, but his eye is instilled with the Renaissance interest in individuality.
Though it is clear that Holbein had a marked respect for the fact that he was in the employ of politically powerful people, he also knew that honesty was the best policy. He has been described as a portraitist who worked ``without fear or favor,'' and that phrase rings true.
The twist of history involved in Holbein's concentration on portraiture rather than altarpieces and stained-glass window design was the Reformation. Holbein was in sympathy with those who were endeavoring to reform the Catholic Church, but his actual livelihood was, by the late 1520s, threatened by the extremists of Protestantism. Iconoclasts were destroying the religious art they believed indicated the corruption of Rome. Basel, Switzerland, where Holbein had settled, suffered this violence acutely. Few of the artist's works for churches have survived.
Holbein had already made a name for his portraits, in particular of Erasmus, the Dutch humanist. So when Erasmus provided him with a letter of recommendation to his friend Sir Thomas More in England, Holbein's reputation had to some extent preceded him. More wrote back to Erasmus: ``Your painter is a wonderful artist, but I fear he will not find England such fruitful and fertile ground as he had hoped.''