Eye Candy for Today: Holbein’s portrait of Thomas More

Portrait of Sir Thomas More (painting); Sir Thomas More (drawing), Hans Holbein the Younger
Portrait of Sir Thomas More (painting); Sir Thomas More (drawing), Hans Holbein the Younger

Links are to zoomable versions on the Google Art Project. The painting is in the Frick Collection, which also has a zoomable version, downloadable image on Wikimedia Commons; the drawing is in the Royal Collection Trust, downloadable version on Wikimedia Commons.

This portrait of the English writer, philosopher and statesman Thomas More was commissioned of German painter Hans Holbein the Younger in 1527 — five years before More was tried and beheaded for refusing to swear an oath accepting Henry VIII’s separation of the Church of England from the Catholic Church, basically over Henry’s desire to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marry his flame Anne Boleyn. (Somehow, politics and soap operas never seem to change.)

Holbein’s reputation as a portraitist is well deserved; this one I think, being one of his finest. I come away with a sense that I know without question what this man looked like. No flattery, no embellishment except in the rendering of the velvet sleeves and medallion of the Tudor rose and livery chain.

I’ve had the opportunity to see the original at the Frick in New York, and the painting has a striking, palpable presence.

The drawing is related to a series likely done in preparation for this portrait; but, even though it’s punctured for transfer, it doesn’t seem to be the final drawing from which the portrait was started.

For more on Holbein, and this portrait, see my previous post on Hans Holbein the Younger.

 
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3 Replies to “Eye Candy for Today: Holbein’s portrait of Thomas More”

  1. The Frick Collection also has a Holbein portrait of Thomas Cromwell. The PBS series “Wolf Hall” which is about the rise and fall of Cromwell has a brief scene in which Holbein is shown painting the very portrait that hangs in the Frick. The scene is perfect even down to the wall decoration behind him. Although the actor looks nothing like the portrait.
    I have often wondered if Holbein used some sort of mechanical aid to do his work, as Vermeer did. His work is very clear almost no “style” and the pictures seen to have a photographic flatness to them.
    I would assume he need some aid as I am sure most of his subjects were in a rush with no time for long poses. He had to be quick and efficient to capture a likeness as most of his sitters where going to have their heads separated from their body.

  2. Thanks, Richard. A very interesting thought. I have noticed that Holbein’s portrait drawings, in particular, are almost bereft of the characteristics one might call “style”. There is little variation in line width, or emphasis on juncture points as is common in drawings of the time.

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