Holbein's portraits bring an era to vivid and immediate life

Holbein: The Paintings of Hans Holbein the Younger, edited by John Rowlands. Boston: David R. Godine. 288 pp. $75. With his profound ability to capture the timeless truths of his famous -- and infamous -- subjects' personalities, Hans Holbein the Younger (1498-1543) is surely one of the greatest portrait artists of all time. His art and his life reflect Europe's own evolution from a religion-dominated medieval culture to a Renaissance society propelled by new learning and a rising bourgeoisie, to the turmoil of the Protestant Reformation. Holbein's portraits never freeze his subjects in their own era, for their revealed character traits -- good and bad -- are as current now as 450 years ago.

``Holbein: The Paintings of Hans Holbein the Younger'' admirably presents his approach to painting, his art itself, his life, and his world in a glorious, annotated collection of 37 bold full-page, full-color plates, 263 black-and-white plates, and an accompanying biography prepared by John Rowlands of the British Museum.

Born in Germany, Holbein began by painting religious themes, as was still the custom during his youth. He then traveled around Europe's burgeoning cities, shifting his focus to the newly prominent urban middle class of merchants, lawyers, and their families. As his success grew, he found the most business painting England's aristocracy at the elegant court of Henry VIII. Simply posed yet penetrating, the pictures show much about his era's leading figures. He gives us Henry Tudor himself -- grotesquely overweight, vicious-looking, and ostentatious in his jewels. We also see several of the wives Henry wedded and the court officials he beheaded.

Following the death in childbirth of Henry's third and favorite wife, Jane Seymour (a double-chinned plain Jane indeed, to judge by Holbein's portrayal of her), Henry sent Holbein throughout the courts of Europe to paint royal ladies he might wish to marry. Holbein's modest portrait of Christina of Denmark appealed to Henry most, but Christina -- no one's fool -- declined his offer. Unduly attracted by Holbein's hardly flattering picture of Anne of Cleves, the ``Flanders mare,'' Henry married dull-looking Anne instead, but was immediately repulsed by her.

Henry stopped giving Holbein business and divorced Anne. But court official Sir Thomas Cromwell -- whom Holbein had portrayed as common, cold, and calculating -- lost his head for arranging the match.

Holbein often identified his sitters simply by placing papers containing their names in their hands. Sometimes, however, identities are uncertain. Most intriguing is Rowlands's examination of small items scattered throughout Holbein's unusually large and complex ``The Ambassadors.'' By interpreting the items in their historic context, Rowlands discerns much about the two men, the current political situation, and the precise time of the painting. He also reveals the artist's thoughtful modifications of his own pictures and assesses the authenticity of a number of works attributed to Holbein.

Clearly, Rowlands admires Holbein, but he makes no effort to idealize him. He tells us of illegitimate children and heavy fines for brawling. The author shows the artist's strengths and weaknesses just as the artist showed them in his sitters. Beautifully and carefully prepared, ``Holbein: The Paintings of Hans Holbein the Younger'' stands worthy of its subject.

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