Henry VIII’s Painter Gets His Biggest Show Ever In The United States

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Attended the recent opening of a new exhibition, Holbein: Capturing the Character, dedicated to the German Renaissance master Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1497-1543), which had just opened at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York. While I was observing the visitor, I asked the guards, “Where are the pictures of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell?”

Holbein was born in Augsburg and was a citizen of Basel for many years, but this is fair because he was the most famous portrait he performed in London and eventually became the painter of the King of Henry VIII (1491-1547). It was a question. If you imagine Tudor England in your head, the chance is to imagine that they are born directly from the work of this artist.

When I started a conversation with a man with the proportions of the interrogator Henrician, I learned that he had driven all the way to see the show from southern New Jersey that morning and had lunch with his old school friends. rice field. Not only did he not have an image of Tudor at the exhibition, but Holbein’s famous 1527 portrait of St. Thomas More (1478-1535) was on the show, and a portrait of Thomas Cromwell, a rival of More in the 1530s. c. 1485-1540) wasn’t, but both paintings are in the Flick Collection, just a few blocks from Madison Avenue.

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/98 – 1543)
Sir Thomas More.
Oil painting on the panel in 1527. 29 1/2 x 23 3/4 inches (74.9 x 60.3 cm)
The Frick Collection, New York, 1912.1.77
Photo: Michael Bodycomb

These were perfectly valid observations, but this is not a show about creating artistic promotions for the ruling family, like the Medici portrait at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year. Rather, this exhibition seeks to give visitors an overview of the types of works Holbein has created throughout his career.

To that end, the show organizers have put together the largest collection of Holbein’s works ever mounted in the United States. However, it is clear from the catalog that this is not the show planned by the organizer.

Tudor we don’t see

Rarely, given Holbain, who sometimes survived in delicate conditions, his travel abilities are further influenced by the whims of those who are still obsessed with Covid, so this show is outside the UK and Europe. It was always difficult to put together. Only a few Holbein’s works exist in the United States.

For example, there are probably 100 Holbein paintings left, but only the Getty Museum, where the show took place before coming to New York, is in the United States. Meanwhile, the Queen owned about 80 Holbein paintings and generously lent some to the exhibition. As a result, the catalog is more than just a retrofit or a nice souvenir. It’s a kind of possibility. It’s also a convenient way to get to know the artist Holbein without being overly distracted by the Tudor scandal.

The closest to the Tudor members, though married, is a painting from 1538-42 by William Parr, Marquis of Northampton (1513-1571), the younger brother of Henry VIII’s sixth surviving wife. .. Catherine Parr (1512-1548). The Marquis was known as a snappy dresser, a fact backed by Holbein’s paintings.

Parr sat in a fancy jeweled feather hat and, in real life, a velvet and satin gown lined with purple and white striped fur for a session with Holbein. Here we know this, as Holbain, like many of his portraits, made a note to himself about the colors that need to be used to complete subsequent paintings of his subject.

For pure and shy dandyism, the star of the entire show is undoubtedly Holbein’s striking Roundel portrait of Simon George in Cornwall, painted around 1535-40. I was completely new to this work. One of the reasons is that no one currently knows much about babysitters. The photo is at the Staedel Museum in Frankfurt, Germany, which I have never visited.

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/98 – 1543)
Simon George, ca. 1535-40.
Mischtechnik on the panel. 12 3/16 inches (31 cm)
Staedel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, 1065.Photo: Staedel Museum

It is speculated that George may have been a poet, and the painting may have been executed as a gift of engagement. Fortunately, show visitors had grown the previously trimmed beard to the length of a hipster by the time Holbein’s portrait was drawn, so the change in Holbein’s theme between the drawing and painting stages. You can see.

Like Holbein’s Par’s painting, George wears a similarly rough feather hat covered in gold and jewels. He wears a white under tunic with black vines embroidered around his collar under a coral pink jerkin embroidered with gold. Above this, you can see a cream-colored tunic with fine blue stripes along his seams. On top of this, he wears what is best described as a black leather blowfish jacket.

For those who are neither royalty nor aristocrats to our knowledge, it has a bold and edgy look. If this was actually a gift for George’s future bride, to catch the eye of this peacock, one should assume she was as hipster as he was.

Survey of more normal life

Not all men in the show were flashy. For example, paintings depicting members of the German merchant community in London are of the kind expected and actually legally obligatory sober of the merchant class, who are not allowed to dress elaborately in public. Shows a serious bearded man dressed.

Mainly distinguished by their characteristics and expressions, they weren’t the kind of companions who picked up a lute and sang a love song written by the king, or cheered up at a hunting party. But without them and people like them, London would not have been the center of world trade.

Overall, women in exhibitions don’t do as well as men. Indeed, some of them look pretty moody. The completed 1527 portrait of Mary, Lady Guildford, of the St. Louis Art Museum shows many of the elaborateness and symbolism of the Renaissance.

Still, it’s not as visually appealing as the original, more naughty, flirty Lady Guildford image of Holbein at the Basel Museum, where Holbein brought her out of life. It was a great opportunity to compare two images of the same woman in the same outfit but with different poses and moods side by side, so it’s a shame that this drawing couldn’t travel to New York for an exhibition.

However, I was very happy to be able to come to New York from London and see the familiar females who are usually called “squirrel and sterling females” (c. 1526-28). I haven’t seen this photo in person for years.

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/98 – 1543)
Squirrel and Starling Female (Ann
Lovell? )
About 1526 –28.Oil on the panel
293/4 × 23 1/6 × 4 1/16 inch (75.5 × 58.5 10.3 cm)
National Gallery, London, NG6540
© National Gallery, London.

I’ve always been fascinated by the pet red squirrel that the sitter holds on his lap, as I think it applies to most viewers. Increasingly scholars persuade her, as both it and Sterling are probably references to the sitter’s coat of arms and her residence, Mrs. Anne Ravel, who was a close companion and quasi-bodyguard of Henry VIII. It may be.

In this appreciation, for the first time I was impressed with the wonderful details that Holbein is working on his portrayal of a female hat that appears to be made of warm and luxurious white fur. Notice how Holbein captures the effect of the channeling stitches that extend from the front to the back of the hat in a subtle variation of shading. Mastering Holbein’s two-dimensional tactile expression, of course, makes it easy to imagine how Anne would feel if she moved his finger along those indentations, not while wearing it. It’s like you can.

Portraits and jewels

Perhaps another exception should be made for the lovely portrait of an unidentified young woman, circa 1535-40, who is believed to be part of the Cromwell family, lent by the Toledo Museum of Art. The lady is elegantly dressed and charmingly calm, but this work is particularly interesting in the context of the exhibition, as it is adorned next to Holbein-designed jewelery.

One of these designs is for a large gold medallion on the front of the sitter’s gown. The jewel depicts the biblical story of an angel that keeps Lot and his family away from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, with a rectangular jewel in the center. This stone symbolizes Lot’s wife, who turned into a pillar of salt, as explained at Genesis 19:26. To decipher the symbolism of why you want to wear such cheap jewelry, you need to read and think a little.

More importantly, Holbein was not only a painter, but also a very talented designer, as the portraits and jewelery juxtaposition in this exhibition show. From gold-studded hat badges and solid silver fountains to illuminated capital letters, illustrations and temporary party decorations, Holbain wasn’t limited to working in one or two creative genres. ..

The ultimate fate of a man

The show presents a wide range of examples of Holbein’s work of art, from one-off valuables requested by courtiers as gifts to the king to mass-produced woodblock prints that show the charm of medieval death. doing.

The “Danse Macabre” section is unique to the Morgan version of the show and sets a tone that is very different from the humanism, court life and fashion quests that otherwise dominate the exhibition. The artistic quest for the ultimate fate of human beings from an era when the acceptance of death was not intentionally absent from public squares as it is today may impress modern viewers as eerie. Still, Holbein was well aware of how to use the printing press to take full advantage of the popular and popular images on this subject.

From the early so-called “death alphabet” printed after Holbein’s design in 1523, how Holbein would die for everyone, from the Pope to the Nun, from the Duchess to the cultivator, regardless of the station. Until the woodblock prints shown after 1538, Holbein never escaped artistically dead. Europe in the 16th century was in a state of near-constant war, infectious diseases that were poorly understood spread throughout the urban environment, Holbain had to work under the rule of a confused giant, and the possibility of unexpected death was possible. It was always close at hand. , At all levels of society. In the end, Holbein himself died too early. He was about 45 years old in London and probably died in the plague.

Hans Lutzellberger (1495? – 1526), ​​after design
Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/98 – 1543)
Death and plowman
About 1526. Woodblock prints. 2 9/16 x 1 15/16 inches (6.5 x 4.9 cm)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 19.57.37
© Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image Source: Art Resource, NY

At the height of his career and fame in England, Holbein was somehow able to survive and prosper under Henry VIII’s tyranny. Unlike Moa, Cromwell, and others who were also his artistic patrons, Holbein remained in demand until his death.

This first major American exhibition to explore the breadth of Holbein’s artistic achievements may not have been held before 2020, but these artists lacking ingenuity, observation and technical skills. It’s a long-standing reputation on the coast of the world, just defining how we all imagine the Tudor era, but the work continues to be pleasing and dazzling.

Holbein: Character Capture will be held at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York until May 15, 2022.


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