On February 7, 1497, the citizens of Florence witnessed, and participated in, an abominable event that was, ever after, regretted. At the instigation of the firebrand monk Savonarola, a huge mound of priceless books and manuscripts was assembled in the Piazza della Signoria, the municipal square, and thereupon set ablaze. The victims of this vandalism were the perceived “vanities” that had corrupted the purity of Christian faith: the texts of pagan antiquity to the poems of Petrarch, the sonnets of Boccaccio to the essays of Pico della Mirandola—in short, those ideas and concepts that had initiated the blossoming of Renaissance humanism. The artist Hans Holbein the Younger was born that same year—1497—in Augsburg. Here is the kind of paradox that history provides so generously: one of the era’s greatest humanist spirits was born just as humanism was being castigated in Florence. It was a tipping point as the new century was about to begin, ushering in events that transformed Europe forever. By far the most important of these occurred in 1517 when the former Augustinian friar Martin Luther sallied forth clutching hammer and nails to post his Ninety-five Theses to the doors of Wittenberg’s All Saints’ Church. Whereas the proto-reformer Savonarola perished at the stake for his sermons, Luther went on to fulfill the epic religious and social transformation for which his predecessor had preached and died in Florence.
Born the son of Hans the Elder, a successful and prolific artist, Holbein the Younger enjoyed all the benefits of a ready-made professional practice boasting a varied and international patronage. Fortunately, the young artist possessed a surfeit of talent and ambition to exploit this to his advantage. It was inevitable that the momentous events reverberating through Northern Europe in the wake of 1517 would provide a rich atmosphere of political, economic, and social change. Artists, no less than princes, clergymen, and scholars, were profoundly affected by the Reformation, and they adapted to it in various ways. These transformative stimuli were not lost on this young artist, who was soon pursuing his destiny far from home. Holbein was to become the first international and cosmopolitan artist of the Renaissance, a forerunner of the peripatetic Rubens and Tiepolo. In a dizzying flurry of travel throughout the 1520s and ’30s, Holbein commuted between Basel, Lucerne, Avignon, Bourges, Antwerp, and, finally, London. These were all prosperous, mercantile cities, open to the cultural crosscurrents swirling about northern Europe. Everything was open to question and debate. Just as Copernicus was about to remove the earth from the center of the known universe, so Luther was enabling man to be the sole arbiter of his destiny and, eventually, of his own salvation; any man could now speak directly to the heavens without intercession. The intensity and sincerity of this discourse was seen as the measure of a man’s character—character being that priceless identity decipherable in human features and expressions: the window into his soul. The artist’s task was to translate “character” into a visual image—something that had not been attempted since the era of the Roman Republic. Florentine artists as early as Masaccio (1401–28) had begun, and been partially successful in, reinventing the art of portraiture; it counts as one of the signal achievements of Renaissance humanism. But Hans Holbein has seldom been surpassed in this task. “Holbein: Capturing Character” is the apt title given by its curators to an epochal exhibition now at the Morgan Library & Museum, the first major Holbein show ever mounted in America, which appears thanks to the Morgan and the J. Paul Getty Museum, where the show was on from October 2021 to January 2022.1
In 1517 Holbein was in Basel, having moved there as a journeyman two years prior. It was in this decidedly reformed environment that we have the first evidence of the artist coming in contact with the humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam. The relationship came to span decades and proved decisive for the painter’s later career. Holbein had first portrayed Erasmus in 1523 in the large, sumptuously staged portrait now on long-term loan to The National Gallery, London, which is, unfortunately, absent in New York. The sitter’s interests and intellectual pursuits are illustrated by his being surrounded with lavishly bound volumes and flanked by a carved classical pilaster. The splendid book in Erasmus’s hands has Greek and Latin inscriptions extolling both the artist and his subject: self-promotion at its most sophisticated. An equally impressive, and nearly contemporaneous, likeness of the scholar, now in the Louvre, was sent to England. It shows Erasmus in profile pursuing his habitual activities, studying and writing. It may have been this later work that “introduced” the artist to Thomas More, who, at that moment, was very conspicuously at the center of London court life. Also, it was surely a prelude to More’s commissioning of his own portrait—the grand, somewhat ostentatious likeness now one of the Frick Collection’s supreme treasures. These paintings functioned as calling cards meant to advance the careers of both the artist and his sitters at a time when England had emerged as a promising new market. As a tactic, it turned out to be remarkably successful: Erasmus’s suggestion brought Holbein to England for two visits; the first from 1526 to 1528 and the second from 1532 to 1543. They proved to be long and artistically fruitful periods during which the Continent was beset with widespread and fierce religious strife.
Gathered in the annex gallery of the opulent library in the “old” Morgan building are over seventy paintings, drawings, prints, and artifacts by the master or intimately related to his work. Not pretending to be an all-encompassing monographic display, the exhibition clearly indicates through its title that portraiture is the show’s principal focus. Even within that limitation, a number of significant masterworks are missing: the sensitive and affecting Portrait of the Artist’s Wife (Elsbeth) and Two Children (1528) and Magdalena Offenburg as Venus (ca. 1526–28), both in the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel. The two works clearly show, even if documentary evidence is scant, that Holbein must have traveled to Italy in the early 1520s: the influence of Raphael is palpable. Their absence is significant but does not diminish the coherence of the theme; it follows the artist from the splendid and historically consequential Portrait of Bonifacius Amerbach, painted in Basel in 1519, to the unforgettable Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling of ca. 1526 and the nearly contemporaneous Portrait of Mary, Lady Guildford. The latter two are among the earliest, and arguably finest, of Holbein’s English portraits. At all events, that distinction must unequivocally go to the one picture whose absence at this gathering is most acutely felt: it is the great—if physically tiny—Portrait of Henry VIII, now in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. On visiting Baron Thyssen in Lugano in the 1970s, Kenneth Clark, the British art oracle, commented poignantly that the Henry VIII was the one picture that should never have left England. Formerly in the Spencer Collection at Althorp, it shows the king as a young man sumptuously dressed in a richly embroidered gray doublet. The subject’s foursquare pose and expression positively radiate energy and intelligence and speak clearly of direct, from-life observation. None of the dozens of versions of the portrait that survive come close in terms of quality and verisimilitude.
Then there are the later portraits of Erasmus: a veritable thicket of attribution uncertainty. There are at least five published versions, all nearly identical in pose, but not in format. Only one of these, a small roundel in the Kunstmuseum Basel, is documented and unquestionably autograph. As in the others, the scholar is depicted in three-quarter profile on a dark-green background wearing a cap covering his ears and a thick, fur-lined cape with its collar turned up for further comfort and warmth; Erasmus famously abhorred the cold. One of these versions is in the Lehman Collection at the Metropolitan and is exhibited but has, only recently, been demoted to “. . . and workshop.” What is almost certainly the original prototype of the image was discovered in France about twenty-five years ago. Interestingly, research has shown that its early provenance corresponds with Holbein’s supreme masterpiece, The Ambassadors (1533), in London’s National Gallery. The prototype Erasmus portrait is in a Canadian private collection and currently on long-term loan to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Its presence at the Morgan might have afforded a rare opportunity for direct comparison with the Lehman version.
It’s fair to say that most visitors to the Holbein exhibition will have a relatively clear idea of what they are seeing. The artist and his works are well enough known; there will be no shock of discovery as might have occurred at exhibitions such as the Metropolitan’s Jusepe Ribera show of 1992; also, there are no formerly unknown paintings coming out of the woodwork. The value of the Morgan display is the opportunity to visit with old friends and, perhaps, get a first glimpse of famous but far-flung masterworks. Among the former is the More portrait from the nearby Frick, while the arresting Simon George of Cornwall (ca. 1535–40) traveled from Frankfurt and Anton the Good, Duke of Lorraine (1543) from Berlin. The true revelations are to be found among the drawings, of which, not surprisingly, the finest come from the Royal Collection in London. One of these, in particular, will stop viewers in their tracks: in Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (ca. 1532–33), a soft-featured, almost effeminate, twenty-something engages head-on with a stare that is somewhere between blank and all-knowing. Like all Holbein drawings, this sheet is a combination of minutely and delicately modeled facial features and rapidly and boldly suggested subsidiary details.
Although the corpus of Holbein’s portraiture has not been expanded by the present exhibition, the endeavor has resulted in a compilation of the best current scholarship on the subject. The exhibition’s curatorial team, headed by Anne T. Woollett, the curator of paintings at the Getty, has contributed insightful and important essays to the handsomely produced catalogue. These include studies on the artist’s iconography, literary pursuits, draftsmanship, and painting techniques. The volume is destined to remain a valuable future reference on Holbein and his school. Only one quibble should be quietly raised: as with so many exhibition catalogues in recent years, this one also lacks all provenance and critical history information—very valuable for any future research.
The exhibition’s curators have also greatly enriched the principal theme by having thoughtfully included a number of capital works by artists related stylistically and chronologically to Holbein. The most accomplished and innovative of these is surely from Jan Gossaert, known as Mabuse (ca. 1478–1532). His Hendrik III, Count of Nassau-Breda (ca. 1516–17), now in the Kimbell, Fort Worth, depicts the sitter in a relaxed three-quarter pose that exudes aristocratic hauteur, accentuated by the Golden Fleece decoration discreetly shimmering on his breast. Another near contemporary of Holbein’s was Quentin Metsys (1465/66–1530), a prolific Antwerp artist who invented two of perhaps the best-known images of the Northern Renaissance: The Money Changer and His Wife (1514), now in the Louvre, and The Tax Collectors (1525–28) in the Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna; the latter is fortunately present in New York. The paintings are fierce and astringent caricatures of an emerging mercantile class with its worship of worldly possessions, meticulously depicted and generously scattered around the protagonists.
Besides being amply skilled as a painter, draftsman, and engraver, Holbein was, above all, a learned and urbane man of the world. Like so many of his peers, he enjoyed clever anagrams, riddles, and visual legerdemains such as the famous anamorphosis of the skull in The Ambassadors. In 1531, Andrea Alciati, the Italian jurist and scholar, published his Emblemata, a compendium of symbols and esoterica that enjoyed huge success all over Europe; its influence can be seen not only in Holbein’s imagery but in that of his High Renaissance contemporaries such as Lorenzo Lotto. They were artists intimately in touch with the intellectual elites of their time, no less than in the celebrated liaison between Titian and Pietro Aretino. The Morgan Library exhibition prompts a further, more general, consideration: how—in the space of a scant two generations—a painter’s locus operandi progressed from the artisan’s workshop to the princely court.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 8, on page 63
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