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.''

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.''

He didn't. But it was still better than Basel. He appears to have been an adaptable man, looking for patronage where he could find it. And although Henry VIII developed into a tyrant, he evidently recognized - after some years - the usefulness of Holbein's art. Holbein is sometimes cited as one of the positive features of Henry's reign. That Henry had More - the artist's initial English patron and one of the day's most rigorous intellects - beheaded for treason, does not seem to have meant any royal disfavor toward Holbein.

There is a kind of poignant irony in the fact that a number of the intelligent ``heads'' Holbein has recorded so sensitively were cruelly severed by the capricious royal axe. But Holbein brought equal descriptive facilities to bear on some of the truly unpleasant characters of Henry's court, like Sir Richard Southwell, loyal henchman of the unscrupulous Thomas Cromwell. Holbein's portrayal suggests Southwell's weak arrogance; a bland face this, with heartless eyes and a mean mouth. No surprise really that in 1532 Southwell had received a pardon for a charge of murder on payment of a large sum of money and that two years later he had been appointed Sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk. Holbein's calm factuality hides nothing of the nastiness of this corrupt character. His face betrays him.

HERE is a worldly wisdom in even the best faces Holbein drew, but also, when observable, a nobility. Some of the portraits of women stand out - More's intellectual daughters particularly, and Henry's Queen, Jane Seymour. One use Henry made of the artist was to make portraits of prospective brides; clearly he trusted Holbein's accuracy. Seymour was described by the imperial ambassador at about the time of her marriage as ``of middle stature and no great beauty, so fair that one would rather call her pale than otherwise.'' Holbein's drawing was just as frank.

Nothing from the Royal Collection of Holbein drawings has been shown publicly in Britain since 1979. A larger selection than the current 28 out of 80 was exhibited in the United States in the early 1980s, and a different selection, of about 50, in Hamburg, Basel, Houston, and Toronto in 1987-88. The British public (which has shown exceptional interest in the current small display) might justifiably complain that part of their national heritage has been so rarely allowed to be seen by them. In fact, an exhibition of the drawings was last planned in Britain during World War II, but then finally not held because it seemed ``unwise in the circumstances of modern war.''

These drawings have not even been displayed in the temporary exhibition gallery at Windsor Castle. Normally they are only accessible to serious scholars who have to apply in writing and promise to abide by certain conditions.

Precious works of art on paper as old as these should, of course, be preserved and conserved. But it could be argued that their royal owners have not been as generous toward their fellow countrymen with their Holbeins as they might have been.

* The exhibition of Holbein drawings continues at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, through Jan. 9. From Jan. 21 to April 17, they will be at London's National Portrait Gallery.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.