by Edited by Anne T. Woollett, with contributions by Austėja Mackelaitė, John T. McQuillen, and others
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Pub Date 02 Nov 2021 | Archive Date 21 Jan 2022
Getty Publications, J. Paul Getty Museum
Nobles, ladies, scholars, and merchants were the subjects of Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/98–1543), an inventive German artist best known for his dazzling portraits. Holbein developed his signature style in Basel and London amid a rich culture of erudition, self-definition, and love of luxury and wit before becoming court painter to Henry VIII. Accompanying the first major Holbein exhibition in the United States, this catalogue explores his vibrant visual and intellectual approach to personal identity. In addition to reproducing many of the artist’s painted and drawn portraits, this volume delves into his relationship with leading intellectuals, such as Erasmus of Rotterdam and Thomas More, as well as his contributions to publishing and book culture, meticulous inscriptions, and ingenious designs for jewels, hat badges, and other exquisite objects.
This volume is published to accompany an exhibition on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center from October 19, 2021, to January 9, 2022 and at the Morgan Library & Museum from February 11 to May 15, 2022.
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What comes into your mind when you think of Henry VIII? (After the connubial beheadings, of course.) Probably, it’s the iconic image of that broad-chested, spraddle-legged king, arms akimbo, dripping in furs, velvets, gold braid and chains, and jewels, piggy eyes and fleshy face beneath a spangled cap. A swaggering monarch with pretensions of grace and regality, and a predilection for raw power and personal convenience. And we know much of this from a glance, thanks to one of the great painters of the Renaissance, Hans Holbein the Younger.
And thanks to the J. Paul Getty Museum and New York’s Morgan Library, we have been blessed with the first major exhibition of Holbein’s work in the U.S., and this beautiful, erudite catalog. Six intelligent essays address Holbein’s “pictorial eloquence”; his formative relationship with the Dutch humanist Erasmus (and his English friend Sir Thomas More); his meticulous and breathtaking draftsmanship; his additional expertise in book design and calligraphy; and a fascinating look at how technical analysis (including dendrochronology!) helped the Getty attribute a strange little painting of a sharp-eyed man on a galloping horse to the master.
Though the electronic review copy examined here limited the ability to assess the quality of the plates in the hardcover volume, the color illustrations are plentiful, rich, and gorgeous.
Holbein was German by birth, son to the successful painter of religious works Hans Holbein the Elder. By age seventeen, he and his older brother were providing illustrations for a scholar’s copy of Dutch humanist Erasmus’s best-seller Praise of Folly. Erasmus, who knew a thing or two about self-promotion, permitted only the very best northern European artists to paint his portrait: Quentin Matsys, Lucas Cranach, Albrecht Durer… and Holbein, who at 26 painted what is still the most famous image of the old Dutchman. Erasmus had a lot of friends, and one of them was Sir Thomas More. After a few years of meandering, Holbein headed for England (where high-end portrait painters were few), and was welcomed into More’s household. The doors were then easily opened into the royal establishment, and Holbein quickly became the portraitist of choice for lords and ladies, merchants and courtiers, dukes and bishops, and – of course – the king himself and his wives, potential and actual.
There are no surviving documents from Holbein himself, so we know virtually nothing about his views, personality, or opinions. But, oh, the pictures! Sitters young and old, coy and solemn, bold and distant… not only did he render their physical appearance, but layered the chosen settings with objects, mottoes, and captions that illuminated the person’s thoughts, interests, and philosophies. Even Erasmus, a defender of the superiority of the written word over pictorial representation, came to admit that Holbein’s pictures allowed him to “see” his friends in ways words never could. As editor Woollett explains, he achieved this by “judicious idealization of physical traits, combined with a sense of spectacle and confident manipulation of space.” Case in point: the sheer magnificence of the portrait of the French ambassador Charles de Solier: he faces us down with burning eyes and patriarchal beard starting out from a background of a gleaming deep green velvet curtain, his imposing bulk in fur and slashed sleeves, one powerful veined and sinewy hand bare… is he reaching for the hilt of his dagger? This is a man to be reckoned with. Or the dandyish Simon George of Cornwall, slender, in profile like a delicate miniature or medallion, mincingly holding a pink flower to his silky beard, his hat bedizened with flowers and feathers and a badge depicting Leda and the Swan. Artsy, a bit fey, elegant, flirtatious perhaps?
Austéja Mackelaité’s chapter on Holbein’s drawings is outstanding – a close appreciation of the miracle of his work in chalk, ink, and watercolor. These are not dashed-off sketches – though even one that might be, a study for the Erasmus portrait, includes a scribbled hand that seems to write as we watch. Holbein often used a pinkish-toned paper to underlie the sitter’s complexion, then detail it with chalks and inks. But compare the drawing of William Warham, with a ruinous face and solemn hooded eyes, with the more stolid archbishop in the painting – portrayed without his mitre and crozier, just the man himself. Compare the sly, sidelong glance of Mary, Lady Guildford’s chalk persona, with what might be a smile curling at the corner of her mouth, with the knitted brow and pursed mouth that looks about to scold from the painting. Look at a slender line of white that makes a young man’s eyes shine, the watercolor gloss on a fall of hair, and a young woman’s cheek blushes with a dusting of red chalk. And then see how Holbein adjusts an angle of gaze, or tilts a brow, to change the expression in the finished painting. He knew, every minute, exactly what he was doing.
And so I wondered sometimes about some other contrasts: look at the fierce power and life force in Charles de Solier, on the page opposite a bust-length painting of Henry VIII, compared to that flatly stylized, almost mask-like monarchical head. Or – the most famous pairing, perhaps – the breathing, thinking countenance of Thomas More before a silk drapery, with his tired, creased eyes and stubbled face and gorgeous red velvet sleeves, facing a flatly painted, almost cartoonishly brutish Cromwell looking resentful in a sparse paneled room. Painting the king came with its own conventions and requirements – the court’s denizens were often portrayed with plain blue backgrounds in order to highlight the noble physiognomies and rich apparel. But is there a possibility that Holbein lavished more care and regard on his friend More and not so much on More’s rival and opponent Cromwell? Did Holbein like and admire de Solier and was just being careful not to offend his temperamental king, and stick to the old rules of royal imagery?
With an astute text written to benefit scholars and academics, this book belongs in any library with a focus on art and art history. But it is also a lovely and absorbing piece of work for anyone to leaf through, study, and admire the truly marvelous work of this not-so-famous-but-should-be portraitist, designer, calligrapher, and draftsman par excellence.
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