Holbein: Capturing Character
On ViewMorgan Library and Museum
February 11 – May 15, 2022
In the Morgan Library hangs a picture by Frank Owen Salisbury, the British painter of society and historical subjects. Jack Morgan Jr., heir to his father's business empire and founder of the museum, peers out from under heavy brows; the light in his eyes is caught also in the gold of his tie pin, cufflinks, pinky ring, and watch chain. He is draped in the scarlet red robe of a Cambridge Doctor of Laws, an honorary degree he received for having financed a large part of the First World War. The painting’s broad, drowsy strokes and shallow pictorial space are far removed from the works by Hans Holbein the Younger on view down the hall, but the 16th-century German painter would have at least recognized the commission's inventory of its patron's status, the way his large frame pushes against the edges of the canvas, and perhaps the delicacy necessary to render such a likeness to the satisfaction of its subject.
In the painting that dominates the first room of the Holbein exhibition, Sir Thomas More, then a close advisor to King Henry VIII, is seated in three-quarter view. Holbein reproduces the fur trim of More's coat, his red velvet sleeves, and especially the thick golden chain of office hanging around his neck with a radiance that fades dramatically in reproductions. Enclosed in such material splendor, More's face appears wan and sunken. In this he is not alone among Holbein’s sitters.
As a young man in Basel, Holbein found work in the city’s thriving publishing industry, and books frequently made their way into his portraits: devotional books, account ledgers, and, in the case of Erasmus, an early patron, books of the subject's own writing. Holbein became proficient in Gothic miniscule, Roman capitals, and secretarial cursive, embedding various kinds of written language in his pictures. Texts hang from trees or are fixed to the walls with sealing wax. They are translated to English on the exhibition’s wall labels, revealing the full scope of the “speaking image” in which inscriptions appear almost as dialogue. Many are a direct address to the viewer, often assuring us of the image's fidelity to its subject’s actual appearance. Another layer of textuality emerges in Holbein's later portraits, in the form of jewelry: hat badges (enseignes), brooches, and signet rings depicting scenes from the Bible or antiquity. In some cases they may have been the invention of Holbein himself (one section of the show devotes itself to his sideline as a jewelry designer).
Holbein also collaborated with the blockcutter Hans Lützelburger on a series of woodcuts included here that illustrate the “Dance of Death,” a medieval subject that took on new resonance in the time of Reformation. In their prints, Death intrudes on humans from every station, from kings to beggars. Holbein thought nothing of borrowing an image, and lifted a few of these from a “Labor of the Month” calendar book produced by a workshop in Tours, displayed in a nearby vitrine (one of several key selections from the Morgan’s collection of rare manuscripts). For his illustration of a plowman, Holbein has taken the curvature of the crop rows, the bent back of the laborer, the church steeple in the distance, and added Death, gleefully caning the horses faster through the field.
After traveling to London with a letter of introduction from Erasmus, Holbein stayed at More’s home in Chelsea and painted portraits of him, his family, and others in his elite circle, as well as temporary decorations for diplomatic functions. Obliged to return to Basel in August of 1528 in order to renew his citizenship, Holbein found the city in the throes of Protestant Reformation and iconoclasm. Mobs looted the churches, defacing and destroying artwork, some of it his own; children played “papists and beggars” in the streets. Meanwhile, Holbein took work from both the Reformers and the traditionalists, adjusting himself to the prevailing winds.
In 1532, he returned to London for good. By then, More had fallen out of favor, and Holbein found the new power center of the Tudor court among his former patron’s rivals. More’s portrait now hangs very near to one of Sir Richard Southwell, who was instrumental in More’s arrest and execution on charges of treason. Holbein simplified his style in these years, purging many of his compositions of both scenery and property. Where his earlier paintings of humanist intellectuals were dense image-text works, rife with allusions and inscriptions, his portraits of the Hanseatic League of German merchants, for example, mostly incorporate standardized gold lettering briefly indicating the year and the age of the sitter.
Certain loans planned for this show were derailed by our own calamitous moment, and absent here are any of Holbein's portraits of scholars, poets, and scientists at work. In these, the typically vacant expressions of his sitters are motivated by the focused distraction their professions entail. With hands occupied by their instruments—whether pens and paper or astronomical devices—the dazed look of Holbein’s intellectuals might be taken for wonder, and not only the product of a long afternoon in a hot room. A semblance of this effect can be seen in Portrait of Simon George of Cornwall (ca. 1535-40), a recently restored circular panel whose subject holds a red carnation just under his chin and gazes into the distance. It’s not hard to imagine the clove-like scent of the flower entering his nostrils and inspiring some verse, though the flower may have only been a symbol of the young man’s impending marriage.
There is a tension throughout the exhibition between Holbein's capacity for the “truthful likeness” and an obligation to enhance his patrons’ appearance; curator Anne T. Woollett refers to “his judicious idealization of physical traits” in her catalogue essay. The portrait-maker risks his own status with every commission. Even if Holbein was increasingly sought after and eventually put on the royal payroll, the caprices of the court’s favor—which repeatedly cost his sitters their heads—must have played on his nerves. In any case, Holbein often tempered his talent for honest, Gothic realism with a courtier’s impulse to flattery. By contrast, the preparatory drawings on view are perhaps the more candid accounts of those Holbein saw seated before him. Their finely detailed faces—each whisker individually rendered—are sometimes surrounded by sketches of their jewels and shorthand notes for the color of their clothing. In this denuded state, Holbein’s figures take their place among thousands of others one might see in the course of a day in New York.