Hans Holbein the Younger is arguably one of the most influential artists of 16th-century Europe. On the surface, his work as a portraitist for nobles and royalty may seem lackluster. However, as an artist who traveled to some of the most lavish courts of Europe and specialized in multiple mediums and genres, Holbein is more than a painter of royal personalities. His ingenuity expands well beyond the royal portraits he is most known for, branching into satire, Reformation propaganda, and mysterious artworks that are continuously up for debate.
Born in 1497 or 1498, Hans Holbein the Younger was taught the art of portraiture by his father, Hans Holbein the Elder. Hans Holbein the Younger became a member of the Basel artist guild in 1519. He traveled to northern Italy and France, creating woodcuts, frescoes, and panel paintings. As the protestant reformation spread throughout Europe, there was less demand for religious art, allowing Holbein to create more expressive and accessible forms of art. Under the patronage of scholar and theologian Erasmus, Holbein traveled to England in 1526 during the reign of Henry VIII. He was appointed to the position of English King’s Painter in 1536. It was during this period of his career that Holbein began creating portraits for the Tudor Court, some of his most famous paintings and the most renowned portraits in history.
Perhaps one of Holbein’s most famous portraits is his portrait of Henry VIII. Although the original painting was destroyed in a Whitehall Palace fire in 1698, it lives on as one of the most iconic paintings of any monarch. The piece was created as part of a mural of the Tudor dynasty during the brief marriage between Henry and Jane Seymour in 1536-37. After finally obtaining a long-awaited male heir, historians speculate that Henry desired a new mural in Whitehall Palace to exhibit the majesty of his new heir, Edward VI, along with his daughters, the future queens Mary I and Elizabeth I. Although the middle-aged Henry had been injured in a jousting match, riddled with health issues, and occupied an overweight frame, the portrait portrays the king in a more imposing and handsome stance. Henry, delighted with the propagandist portrait, encouraged other artists to replicate the painting, distributing the copies throughout Europe to ambassadors and friends. Nearly thirty copies of the painting exist today, demonstrating the power of a flattering portrait.
Portraits in the 16th century did more than demonstrate a monarch’s grandeur. Often, smaller portraits were used in marriage negotiations. The court of Henry VIII, having witnessed six queen consorts within almost 40 years, was quite familiar with marriage negotiations and the power of a beautiful portrait. On the other hand, an unflattering portrait could break marriage contracts and result in courtly turmoil. After the unexpected death of Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, Henry began seeking a new queen. Holbein was dispatched to Cleves, a kingdom in northwestern Germany to paint the sisters of Duke William, Anne and Amelia of Cleves. It is important to note that artists in 16th-century royal courts walked a delicate line of portraying equal parts realism and propaganda. To depict a noble in excruciating accuracy may lead to charges of treason and disloyalty to the king. On the other hand, to depict a noblewoman on the marriage market with too much flattery may lead to a disappointed king once he brings his bride to his palace. Holbein strategically walked this line as he painted Anne and Amelia of Cleves. The portrait of Anne depicts a young and dignified woman. She wears a slight smile and poses in the traditional form of a noblewoman. She is draped with the finest garments and jewels. The red and gold colors of the portrait have become iconic in Tudor history. When Henry was presented with the portraits in a sort of 16th-century Tinder swiping session, he immediately was pleased with Anne’s portrait, requesting a marriage contract. However, as Anne arrived in England, her new husband was repulsed. It is said that Anne did not look like her portrait and that Holbein painted her with a much kinder hand than she actually appeared. Henry began crying out “I like her not!” to his advisors, refusing to consummate the marriage. Interestingly, Holbein, the artist behind the failed marriage, was never punished for his inaccurate portrait of Anne. Rather, Henry’s primary advisor Thomas Cromwell’s responsibility for the arranged marriage ultimately led him to be imprisoned and beheaded in July of 1540, the same day that Henry would marry his sixth wife Katherine Howard. Therefore, it is unlikely that Anne’s portrait was as inaccurate as the court would make it seem. Rather, Henry had already set his sights on another woman and no longer needed a political alliance with the House of Cleves. Anne’s supposed unattractiveness became a scapegoat for the king to annul the marriage and evidence of Anne’s mistreatment lives on in tales of songs and rhymes that circulated the court and disparaged her physical appearance, hygiene, and manners. Anne’s portrait is evidence of the cruelty of the Tudor court, the importance of portraiture in marriages, and the role of art in building political alliances.
Another instance of mystery and controversy in Holbein’s artistic career surrounds his 1533 painting The Ambassadors. The Ambassadors is a double portrait and a still-life that portrays two men, French diplomats Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve, on each side of a grand shelf adorned with meticulously-placed objects. The objects themselves seem to overshadow the men and their hidden meanings reveal something much deeper than their portraits. The shelves are filled with various items, including a lute with a broken string and a hymn book with pieces written and translated by Martin Luther, the seminal figure of the Reformation who was an accomplished lute player. The broken lute represents the disharmony established by Luther’s Reformation. Additionally, viewers’ eyes are drawn to the undecipherable object in the middle of the rug: a memento mori or “memory of death.” At first glance, the mysterious object appears to be a stain. However, when the object is viewed from an oblique angle, a skull appears. Because the skull is rendered an amorphic perspective, it is only visible from this angle. Several theories have been formulated as to why Holbein chose to surround the ambassadors with these objects, such as the theory suggesting that the layers of objects in the painting represent the heavens on the upper shelf, the living world within the books on the lower shelf, and death in the skull. An additional theory suggests that Holbein created the skull in order for it to be visible to those passing by the painting in a stairway. All in all, this painting exemplifies Holbein’s talent beyond royal portraiture and his immersion in complex symbolism within his artwork.
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