Capturing Character in the Renaissance
When Hans Holbein the Younger emerged on the competitive European artistic scene in 1515, portraiture had only recently become fashionable among wealthy patrons outside royal and aristocratic circles. A versatile artist with exceptional skills as a draftsman and painter, Holbein rendered the physical appearance of a variety of sitters with great precision, while his ingenious compositions conveyed their values and ideals. This exhibition features Holbein’s most sophisticated drawn and painted portraits, enlivened by inscriptions, letters, books, animals, and jewels chosen in collaboration with his sitters. These likenesses, along with his designs for emblems, ornaments, and woodcuts, illuminate Holbein’s visual and intellectual contributions to the practice of constructing an enduring personal identity—as essential in Renaissance Europe as it is today.
HANS HOLBEIN THE YOUNGER
Hans Holbein the Younger was born in the German city of Augsburg in late 1497 or early 1498, the second son of the respected painter Hans Holbein the Elder. He launched his career in Switzerland, working primarily in the vibrant and cultured city of Basel. He visited France briefly in 1524 before moving to London in 1526. After two productive years, he returned to Basel. Although local authorities hoped to retain him in an official role, the turmoil that accompanied the Protestant Reformation and a dearth of significant commissions led him to pursue his fortunes once again in England in 1532. He was appointed court painter to King Henry VIII by 1536, and he found patrons among prominent men and women at court as well as the community of German merchants then living in London. Holbein died in 1543, probably of the plague, at about forty-five.
HOLBEIN AND THE POWER OF PORTRAITURE
In his portraiture Holbein immortalized a vibrant Renaissance culture of self-definition, luxury, knowledge, and wit. He devised inventive pictorial solutions for a variety of clients: celebrity scholars, ambitious merchants, and officials at the English court. Holbein achieved the powerful impression of presence and specificity by means of a flexible working process and rapport with his sitters. Some patrons demanded not just accurate likenesses but celebrations of their values, aspirations, and professional identities. Holbein’s detailed interiors are splendid enclosed spaces particular to each sitter, very probably created in consultation with them. An array of carefully selected and realistically rendered objects—including books, documents, and letters inscribed with addresses—surround the patrons, indicating their interests as well as their rank and status. Holbein worked on different scales, from small portable portraits to large rectangular panels. Round formats were associated with both classical and Christian conceptions of eternity, and thus were especially appropriate to a portrait’s commemorative function. Many of his subjects participated in the exchange of ideas centered on the culture of ancient Greece and Rome or asserted their commitment to Christian values by including mottoes and quotations in their portraits. An expert letterer, Holbein deployed inscriptions throughout his portraits, and some give the likeness a voice that praises the painter’s skill.
ERASMUS AND HOLBEIN
Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536), also known as Erasmus of Rotterdam, was Europe’s first celebrity scholar, famous throughout Europe for his writings on theological and philosophical topics. His ideas were widely and rapidly disseminated through the recently invented printing press. His books, such as the satirical Praise of Folly (Encomium moriae, 1511), were best sellers, read avidly by men and women across the social spectrum. Although Erasmus believed that the written word was superior to the visual image, he used his portraits strategically to extend his influence and to satisfy the demand among admirers for his likeness. Holbein’s portraits helped ensure that Erasmus’s features—long nose, deep-set eyes, strong jaw—and scholarly persona were recognized throughout Europe. Holbein portrayed Erasmus in two formats: from the front, standing in his study, surrounded by books; and in profile, writing at his desk. Erasmus was Holbein’s most important early supporter, and he introduced the painter to prominent individuals in England who became his patrons.
CAPTURING CHARACTER AT COURT
Returning to England in 1532, Holbein became painter to King Henry VIII and found avid patrons among members of the royal court. During this period he portrayed these prominent men and women, some of them his friends, in a variety of modes. Hallmarks of these likenesses are scrupulous attention to materials, from versatile wool to highly regulated indicators of rank—notably furs, satin, and even certain hues—along with detailed renderings of personal jewels. Elegant Latin inscriptions in gold denote the sitter’s age and the year. Holbein’s pictorial strategies enabled cultivated patrons to declare their knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman culture as well as Italian literature. The artist incorporated classicizing architecture and decorations along with quotations from ancient authors, and his skillful compositions earned the praise of learned contemporary poets. Holbein’s preparatory studies for portraits, in colored chalks and ink on pink primed paper, detail the appearance of sitters with precision and encapsulate individual character with unmatched subtlety and verve.
HOLBEIN AND THE HANSEATIC LEAGUE
In the 1530s Holbein portrayed several members of the Hanseatic League, German merchants residing in an enclave known as the London Steelyard (Stalhof). Four of the seven surviving likenesses are presented here. Holbein may have painted his sitters directly from life—his studio was located near the Steelyard and there are no known preparatory drawings. Strikingly, most of the young merchants chose not to be portrayed with references to trade and commerce. Instead, Holbein emphasized their familial associations— through objects like signet rings with emblems—or conveyed the sitter’s appreciation of ancient Roman culture. In the inscriptions in these portraits, Holbein emulated both handwriting and chiseled stone. Exquisite Roman lettering in gold indicates the sitter’s age and the year. The paintings may have been sent home to family members, or they may have hung together in the Guildhall of the Steelyard as a statement of corporate identity.
IDENTITY THROUGH SYMBOLS: TERMINUS
Emblems, also known as devices, were potent vehicles for expressing identity during the Renaissance. Cultured individuals selected a unique motif to serve as a visual representation of their aspirations and values. The philosopher and theologian Erasmus chose an emblem derived from an ancient carved gem he received as a gift: Terminus, the Roman god of boundaries, known for fiercely resisting Jupiter, king of the gods. For Christians, Terminus was associated with the ultimate boundary, death. Erasmus identified with this ancient exemplar of heroic resistance and its Christian associations, combining it with the Latin motto Concedo Nulli (I yield to none). Artists, notably Holbein and Quentin Metsys, paired Terminus with Erasmus’s portrait, so that the god’s portrayal as a sculpted stone herm with a stern expression came to embody Erasmus’s formidable character. Erasmus’s admirers embraced the emblem as an exemplar of resolve and piety, but for his detractors, Terminus epitomized intellectual and moral arrogance.
In addition to painting portraits, Holbein designed decorative patterns and allegorical compositions on a minute scale for fabrication by accomplished goldsmiths. In an era when personal adornment was a means of communication, wealthy individuals commissioned jewels and wore them prominently as expressions of their taste and erudition. Holbein’s drawings in pen and wash presented designs for intricate pendants, emblems with mottoes, gold and enamel book covers, and decorative clasps. In his portraits, Holbein was attentive to hat badges and medallions as key means of conveying individual identity. He sometimes made preparatory studies of a sitter’s specific personal jewel, to be rendered vividly in paint and to be read in conjunction with the likeness itself.