An artistic vision is not worth much if there is no one to pay for it. A little less than five centuries ago, in February 1529, Hans Holbein the Younger watched the citizens of Basel occupy the churches, bludgeon their statues, smash their crucifixes and throw their altarpieces on flaming pyres. It’s a picturesturm – a “storm of images”, one of the iconoclastic riots against religious images that swept through Switzerland and northern Europe during this decade – and among the many works of art destroyed is his own painting by Holbein of the Last Supper. Whatever the German artist thinks of the Reformation (the balance sheet is vague, but he seems to have adopted a soft Lutheranism), he can see that this militant evangelicalism will be bad news for the Swiss art market.
Things kept getting worse, and so in 1532 Holbein left Basel and went to London. He had lived there a decade before, apparently in Thomas More’s house. Now More has fallen, but Holbein is finding a new clientele among wealthy German merchants with their own special economic zone on the Thames. One of his first commissions was a portrait of a Cologne merchant named Wedigh, which he painted on a glassy blue ground. For Holbein, Wedigh wears a heavy black cape and a beret of the same fabric. Her left hand grasps a pair of tan leather gloves, and on that hand is a small signet ring with her family crest: three willow leaves segmented by a black chevron.
Holbein reduces the portrait to a minimum: no learned symbolism, no rich frame, no decorative flourishes. But look at Wedigh’s eyes. The right eye (on the left in the photo) is a little bigger and the right eyebrow arches slightly. To this new era of image politics, Holbein brought a new type of painting. The enlarged eye offers what no amount of ornament or gold leaf could offer: the uncanny feeling that this flat piece of wood represents an individual person, made in the image of God but of this world right here.
Portraits of Londoners in the time of Henry VIII remain the most famous achievements of Hans Holbein (1497 or 1498-1543), and they are the focus of ‘Holbein: Capturing the Character’, which opens Friday at the Morgan Library & Museum, and the first major museum exhibition for this cosmopolitan master. The show first opened at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, but it looks quite different here. These paintings are rare and precious and rather fragile; several major loans were pledged to New York or Los Angeles but not both, while other Holbeins could not travel due to pandemic restrictions. (And Holbein was aware of these: he lived through the deadly sweating disease of 1528-1529, and might have died of the plague in 1543.)
The Morgan has the portrait of Thomas More from the Frick Collection, while Los Angeles has the more severe portrait of Thomas Cromwell from the Frick; neither has been seen among other Holbeins for a century. The Kunstmuseum Basel sent a small roundel portrait of Erasmus, Holbein’s fellow immigrant to this Swiss city, but not his larger Erasmus or his still shocking “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Grave.” The Louvre in Paris, which owns the overly flattering portrait of Anne of Cleves that triggered Henri’s disastrous fourth marriage (from January 6 to July 9, 1540), ended up blocking everything. (A satisfying catalog, edited by Anne T. Woollett of the Getty, brings together checklists from both shows, along with canceled loans and major works too fragile to move.)
“Holbein: Capturing Character” makes the most of today’s limitations, I guess. Although the emphasis is on portraiture, it features Holbein’s images of individuals alongside woodcuts and medallion designs; paintings and engravings by Albrecht Dürer, Jan Gossaert and other contemporaries; but also signet rings, hat badges and other jewels that rhyme with the accoutrements of Holbein’s models. There’s even a printed sheet of capital initials, each of Holbein’s design, in which smiling skeletons dance around the ABC: a wonderfully morbid “alphabet of death” that the Morgan gift shop should be editing for cards. art-goth greeting cards.
Holbein was born in Bavaria at the end of the 15th century; his father, uncle and brother were all also painters. As a teenager, he moved to Basel, where humanists like Erasmus, the printer Johann Froben and the university rector Bonifacius Amerbach made it one of the most fertile intellectual centers in Europe.
The young Holbein would quickly become Basel’s leading painter and, with the relatively new medium of oil paint, he produced portraits whose persuasiveness came from a mixture of technical verisimilitude and humanistic allusions. For Erasmus, he designed an emblem based on Terminus, the Roman god of borders, and inscribed the Latin motto “Concedo nulli” on it: I don’t give in to anyone. A German merchant holds a mathematical diagram in one hand, and next to his elbow is a piece of corrugated paper with a line from the Aeneid.
Holbein brought this marriage of technical precision and intellectual distinction to London, where in 1536 he was appointed court painter to Henry VIII. This show only has a bit of official court art and no paintings of the king or any of his wives. And Holbein’s most famous work is far too precious to travel from the National Gallery in London: his double portrait “The Ambassadors”, in which two Frenchmen at Henry’s court pose amid globes, instruments of music and a mysterious anamorphic skull.
But a marvelous portrait of a certain Simon George, a little-known Cornish nobleman, shows Holbein’s incredible ability to forge individual likeness through both countenance and symbolism. The handsome young man stands out against the same rich blue background as the German merchants and appears in profile in a round frame, like an emperor on a Roman coin. (A preparatory drawing hanging nearby shows how Holbein first captured George’s concave nose and narrowed gaze, and only later added the symbols.)
On her hat is a gold badge representing the myth of Leda and the swan, and in her right hand is a bright red carnation: a mark of fidelity, perhaps, or an evocation of Mary’s tears on the Via Painful. This portrait, on loan from Frankfurt’s Städel, was recently cleaned, and you should step closer to examine the stunning details of a quilted black leather jacket that would draw glances on the Danceteria tiles.
To look here at English nobles and German merchants – not just in paintings but in the striking chalk drawings of Nicholas Carew and Henry Howard, two courtiers who would both lose their heads – is to see Holbein execute the balance the more delicate between the real and the real. ideal. To portray political power and economic influence, he needed a mastery of optics and color theory and classical history, but also a gaze that cuts through pretensions to give the greatest distinction of all: ipseity.
The result was a new kind of image, a truth in painting that no Englishman had ever seen before, and that even the participants themselves could find bewildering. Late in Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’, Thomas Cromwell looks at his own portrait, the one just returned from the Getty to Frick Madison, and wonders if it’s true that ‘I looked like a murderer’ . His son looks at the Holbein, looks at his father and asks, “Didn’t you know?
Holbein: capturing the character
Until May 15, Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, Manhattan; (212) 685-0008, themorgan.org.