Sunday, April 23, 2006

Hans Holbein The Younger

Hans Holbein The Younger
Some artists can be an integral part of, and simultaneously transcend, their times. Hans Holbein The Younger, a Bavarian artist who made his career as a court painter for Henry VIII of England, was one of the foremost portrait painters of the Northern Renaissance and was very much a part of, and in some ways beyond, his times.

I first encountered Holbein through reproductions of his wonderful portrait drawings in an inexpensive Dover book. I was struck by how immediate and precise they seemed, with just exactly the lines necessary, in precisely the position and proportion needed, to absolutely nail the likeness. Bam! No question in your mind that this is what this person looked like. Even though his drawings feel a little formal, they seem remarkably modern in some ways.

Not long after discovering his drawings, I found that his paintings were no less impressive, painted with a precision and technical mastery that also seems suprisingly modern, and can still wow you even after being exposed to centuries of subsequent painters.

Holbein’s remarkable portrait of Sir Thomas More (above), Henry VIII’s diplomatic envoy and Privy Councillor and later Lord Chancellor of England, had impressed me in reproductions for years before I had the opportunity to see it in person at the Frick Collection in New York. I was still stunned by it.

The painting is large, 29 x 24″ (75 x 60 cm), and the life-size visage of the subject is imposing, with an almost physical presence. Closer examination of the painting just adds to the impressiveness of Holbein’s mastery. The velvet sleeves look as though they must be actual velvet that you could reach out and touch, and the texture of the other cloth is remarkable as well. The face and hands are rendered with a confident virtuosity that is just astonishing.

The Frick’s online collection provides a larger image here, and a nicely done zoomable image here.

Holbein has many other notable paintings and one stands out in particular. The Ambassadors is remarkable for a number of reasons. Enough so, in fact, that I think I’ll make it the topic of a separate post.

Holbein, conveniently enough, apprenticed to his father, Hans Holbein the Elder, who was also a painter of note, straddling the transition from Gothic to Renaissance styles. Holbein the Younger was firmly in the Northern Renaissance and clearly influenced by the masters of the Italian Renaissance. There is some debate as to whether he actually traveled to Italy to acquire that influence first hand, but his mastery seems to suggest more than a second hand exposure.

You can still buy the very inexpensive Dover book that got me going on Holbein: Holbein Portrait Drawings, as well as more expensive volumes on his paintings, like Hans Holbein the Younger: Painter at the Court of Henry VIII by Stephanie Buck, Jochen Sander, Thames, Hudson.

If you’re tempted to think of Holbein’s painting of Moore as looking “photographic”, keep in mind that it predates Niépce and Daguerre’s first attempts to capture a photographic image with silver iodide by more than 300 years.

14 thoughts on “Hans Holbein The Younger

  1. Charley Parker Post author

    Yeah. What a great gem of a collection and a great way to view it. Instead of the huge public spaces of the Met, you feel like you’re in the house of a rich friend with this amazing collection.

  2. Doug

    We had the pleasure of visiting The Frick Collection in early April. It was our third visit, and as usual it was thoroughly enjoyable. We were thrilled to record a podcast at The Frick, inverviewing Xavier Salomon, the curator of the current Veronese exhibition.

  3. W D

    This is a work of utter brilliance. The man’s resolute, shrewd yet warm and human character is communicated. There is an air of intelligence and awareness about him, in his eyes, in the hint of a smile in his lips, as one destined to make his mark in history, yet in a way so tragic. Look at the face closely, woven into its structure there is keenness of glance, perceptiveness, and yet sadness – perhaps a prescience to the unfairness of his fate. Few have so honorably stood up to and transcended both public and personal adversity. No wonder he was sainted. Such a subject could have only brought out the highest in an already genius artist such as Holbein. Excellent reproduction. Thanks. W.D.

  4. George Gay

    I also have admired the portraits of Holbein in the Dover Art Library Collection, but I am greatly puzzled by one thing I find there, and I hope someone can enlighten me. Many of the portraits show an error common among beginning drawing students, of lopping off the top of the head of the subject. As a pretty fixed rule, when viewed straight on, as those portraits were drawn, the distance from the chin of the subject to the middle of the eyes, is the same distance as that from the middle of the eyes to the top of the head. Many of the Holbein portraits of the men distort this significantly, (see John Poyntz), but all the women are drawn in proper proportion. I agree that the detail of the facial features in these drawings is superb, and I am convinced that this is exactly what these people looked like….except for this distortion. Can anyone tell me why Holbein drew these with this distortion? I have some theories, but I would like to know if there is already an accepted answer to this puzzling question.

  5. George Gay

    I have been looking at a number of Hans Holbein portraits and find that he exhibits a common mistake of beginning art students in that he lops off much of the upper part of his sitters heads. He does this mostly with the men sitters as I have not yet found this error in any of the women’s portraits. Can anyone tell me why this is? I can see that he was a consummate draftsman in reproducing the facial details of his sitters, but the disproportionate reproductions of the head, with the distance from the chin to the centerline of the eyes not being equal to the distance from the top of the head to the centerline of the eyes makes me wonder if perhaps he had assistants finish the portraits after he painted in the facial features. did he do this on purpose? Can anyone answer this puzzle for me?

  6. Mark 2000

    Too much detail, too perfect. I bet you it was done with a camera obscura. Northern Europeans were using the technique a lot. He probably brought it over to England with him. I mean, the glint on his stubble. The fact that he has stubble. Its too much detail for a human being to capture on their own.

  7. Greig Aitken

    Help direct me, if possible. I was given (down through generations of my family – now deceased,) a picture of Hans Holbein (1543) which they have claimed to be an original and they said that they had been offerred thousands just for the frame alone. My Dad, Hugh Guthrie Aitken was first generation English and there was Scottish/German and many other mixtures from Maxwell Aitken from his side of the family. I told them that I would do nothing with the picture as long as they were alive, however now I need to find out where to go to find out if there is authenticity. Thanks
    Greig

  8. David

    Mark says it was done with a camera obscura, possibly, but it does not make the painting any less amazing! To reproduce such fine detail from a fuzzy image that a camera obscura would produce requires the skill of a great artist.Consider how still the subject and the artist would have to be compared with a motionless photographic image.I believe Holbein was capable of exact observational drawing without recourse to mirrors and lenses. If it was so easy to cheat we would have many more examples and records of this practice.Much of Holbein’s preparatory drawings and methods are inevitably lost and we are left with the finished products which are amazing and were meant to be so!

  9. A. D.

    If you are interested in Holbein and enjoy historical fiction, you may enjoy the novel “Portrait of an Unknown Woman” by Vanora Bennett. This and other portraits of Holbein are featured in this well researched historical tale.

  10. J.R.

    Agreed, A.D.! I just finished Bennett’s fabulous novel and it was so compelling and so clearly based on extensive research that it brought me here to this site (and others) to learn more about Holbein and his subjects. Amazing artist.

  11. Leah

    Hoi, I think More was an ugly guy but the technique used in this painting is amazing! And Mark, I don’t think it was camera obscura either. You couldn’t have gotten that kind of detail back then. Artist can achieve that much detail, it’s just a bitch to do. There’s a lot we don’t know. Maybe while working on More’s face he had the easel up closer. There are tricks of the trade to achieve such detail but many artist would rather not spend that sort of time on a painting. I know I don’t!

  12. D. R.

    I have some sketches in chalk that say “Hans Holbein” that I purchased at a garage sale. Anyone have an idea of how I might find out more information on these?

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