The Portraits Of Holbein
( Originally Published 1907 )
THE celebrated Hans Holbein was born in 1497 in Augsburg, and came to Basle while still in his teens, seeking employment as an illustrator. He had received his training from his father, who was a painter of some worth. One of the youth's first patrons in Basle was the great Erasmus, for whom he designed some pen and ink sketches for the author's private copy of the " Praise of Folly." The learned Dutchman was then in middle life, and had just taken up his residence in the German city, after ourneying all over Europe. He had spent some years in Paris, he had visited Venice and Turin, and in Rome he had declined flattering proposals from Pope Julius II. Twice he had been in England, the second time as the guest of Sir Thomas More, in whose house he wrote the " Praise of Folly." He now ;interested himself in the young artist, and the two men became warm friends. Holbein entered heartily into his author's meaning, and often showed a keen sense of humour in illustrating his text. At one place where Erasmus mentions his own name, the illustrator sketched a portrait in the margin, labelled " Erasmus." The author, highly tickled by the flattered likeness, exclaimed, " Oh, if Erasmus looked like this, he might yet truly take a wife." It was not till nearly ten years later, however, that Holbein made any ambitious portrait of the scholar.
In the meantime work of all sorts came to the painter's hand, and he seemed as ready for one thing as another. He was not quite twenty when he had an order from the newly elected burgomaster, Jacob Meyer, for portraits of himself and wife. Holbein proceeded like a trained expert, making first a preliminary sketch of each sitter, and then producing the finished oil portrait. The sketches, still preserved, are masterly works of art. There is nothing weak or tentative in the line — character and expression are fully indicated — it remained only to reproduce the head in colour. Thus, at the outset, Holbein showed that he had in him the making of a master draughtsman, and a portrait painter of the first rank.
It was five years later when he again made studies of the same heads, to use in the Meyer Madonna which the burgomaster had now ordered. There is again the same delicacy of touch, and the same care in studying the ex-pression. Meyer is posed in an attitude of devotion, raising his eyes to the Virgin. It is marvellous how the painter, while adhering faithfully to the likeness, gives nobility and dignity to the plebeian countenance.
It was in 1519, at the age of twenty-two, that Holbein was admitted to the Painter's Guild, of Basle, and the date was signalized by one of his best known and best loved portraits. Boniface Amerbach was the son of a publisher, a man of parts and learning. He was possessed of great personal charm and beauty. He was a discriminating connoisseur, and an enthusiastic admirer of Holbein's art.
A more poetic and picturesque subject could scarcely be found, and Holbein did the sitter justice. The beautiful sensitive face, with the short wavy beard, is turned almost in profile, the hair clustering about the ears, the forehead shaded by a large soft cap. On the trunk of a tree, at one side, hangs a sort of signboard, with a laudatory inscription, the date, and the names of painter and sitter. All this composes admirably with the rest of the picture, and makes the scheme extremely decorative. The decorative portrait was indeed a specialty of Holbein's, and whenever he could use lettering effectively, he was sure to put it in. In this case the inscription links pleasantly the painter and the man who in after years did so much to collect and preserve his works.
In the meantime Holbein's friendship with Erasmus bore fruit in a group of extraordinary portraits. The first in order was perhaps the little round woodcut drawn for the publisher Froben in 1523, showing us the keen inquisitive face in all the sharpness of profile, and without the more mellow qualities. These, however, were well presented in the painted portraits, of which at least three followed soon after. The best known of these is the picture of the Louvre. The scholar is at his desk, writing, the face in profile, the eyes fixed on his book. The cap is pulled far down over his forehead, and conceals all his hair but one stray white lock on the cheek. We see but little of his face, and yet we see the whole man, — the scholar and the man of the world, seeing and hating shams, yet with out the boldness of a reformer, claimed by Catholics and Protestants alike, gentle and amiable, appreciative of worth, with a keen sense of humour, often verging on the satirical, and sometimes even coarse. A dark green flower-spangled curtain hung as a back-ground is a part of an exceedingly decorative ensemble. The motive of representing the sitter in character, so to speak, came to be a very common one with Holbein. It was some-what new for this period, and anticipated the seventeenth-century Dutchmen.
Another interesting portrait of Erasmus is the woodcut design which Holbein made for the title page of the author's published works.
It is a full-length figure in ornamental frame. The scholar is now a much older man, and the face shows that he has grown disappointed and weary of life. It was in fact at about this time that the fanatic zeal of religious reform-ers reached such a pitch in Basle, that Erasmus and Amerbach retired in disgust to Frei-burg. The attitude of Erasmus towards the Reformation may be gathered from one of his letters: " I wish some god would interfere to bring to a sudden and happy termination this drama which Luther has so inauspiciously commenced. Discord is so hateful to me, that truth itself would displease me, if coupled with sedition; and though there are many practices in the church which could be re-moved with great advantage to the Christian religion, yet no change will have my approbation which is conducted with tumult." Holbein must have followed his two friends to Freiburg for we have still another portrait of Erasmus in the Parma gallery. There are several copies of this head, including the miniature in the Basle Museum.
To go back now three years, the friendship of Erasmus was the occasion of Holbein's first visit to England in 1526. Carrying an introduction from the scholar to Sir Thomas More, he was hospitably received and entertained by the distinguished prelate. " Thy painter, dearest Erasmus, is a wonderful artist," wrote back More to his friend in Basle. Holbein now undertook for his new patron a splendid family group of ten figures. What has be-come of this work we cannot conjecture, but we know from the preparatory drawing what the plan was. Holbein it is said took this sketch to Basle, to show to Erasmus, who was delighted with it. Fortunately we have still the chalk drawings of Sir Thomas, and his father Sir John. Of the former Horace Walpole wrote " I do not know a single countenance in which any master has poured greater energy of expression than in the drawing of Sir Thomas More. It has a freedom, a boldness of thought, and an acuteness of penetration that attest the sincerity of the resemblance."
Other portraits of Holbein's first English visit were the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of Rochester, and the Bishop of London. Sir Henry Guilford, the king's Master of the Horse, and Nicholas Kratzer, the royal astronomer, were also in the list. For these, as was his custom, he made preparatory drawings, which vie with the finished portraits in interest, so strong and subtle is the art which in a few lines can set before us the man himself. A valuable collection of these sketches is to be seen at Windsor, having come thither after changing hands several times. Among- the striking personalities rep-resented in the number is the venerable William Warham, of Canterbury, a trifle life-weary, but still calm, phlegmatic, impregnable, while the aged Bishop of Rochester is more sensitive, more intense and more troubled, just the stuff which martyrs are made of. It is evident at a glance that these are Englishmen. Holbein did not look at his subjects through German glasses; he was a universal genius, and painted life as it was, English or German. You pick out at once the astronomer Kratzer as an alien in the company : he is thoroughly German. This is a portrait " in character," such as has been mentioned. The astronomer is seated at a table strewn with instruments and holds one in his hand. On the wall behind him hang other implements of his profession, all adding to a picturesque and effective composition.
Holbein's English visit lasted two years, but upon his return to Basle he found the professional outlook quite hopeless. An order for the decoration of the Council Hall occupied him for a time, but the Reformation seemed to have paralyzed the popular interest in art. There was nothing for it but to re-turn to England, but before going the painter made a portrait of his wife and two children. This is the picture in the Basle Museum so well known through reproduction. The simplicity and beauty of the grouping reminds one of Raphael's Madonna groups, so natural, so apparently unstudied, yet so consummately artistic. The fair-haired boy at his mother's knee gazes upward at his baby sister with the ardour of a child Baptist adoring the infant Christ. The matron Elsbeth, with her well moulded features, and ample bosom, would be a fine-looking woman but for her weak eyes, which give a tired, almost cross expression to the face. In flow of line, harmony of colour, and perfect lifelikeness, the group is one of the painter's greatest successes.
Holbein's first work in England was among his own people. There was a company of German merchants in London making a little colony in the Steelyard, with a guild hall, a garden and a wineshop. From this quarter came one after another a series of portrait orders, making a most interesting group of pictures. Many of these are in business character, showing the merchant seated at his table busy with papers. Most elaborate of all such is the George Gisze of the Berlin gallery. The detail work would satisfy the most realistic fifteenth-century Fleming or seventeenth-century Hollander. The table is covered with a rich oriental rug and ornamented with an exquisite crystal vase of pinks. All sorts of fascinating writing implements are strewn about, and are attached to the walls and shelves behind. These accessories are admirably subordinated to the merchant himself, who makes a charming and picturesque figure in the midst. Nevertheless the man is neither interesting nor clever. Dirk Tybis, of the Vienna gallery, who looks us squarely in the face, and takes himself so seriously, is rather more likable ; and the bearded and gentlemanly merchant of the Windsor Castle collection is of quite a romantic type.
In the course of a few years, by precisely what steps we do not know, Holbein obtained the appointment as court painter to the King Henry VIII, holding the position till his death in 1543. His duties were as multifarious as were those of court painters in Italy. He might have to design a drinking cup, a sword hilt, or a gateway, or even go abroad on a royal errand. More than all else he painted portraits, and by the magic of his pencil and brush we are introduced to the royal entourage of these years : The bluff king himself, square faced, choleric, self willed, resplendent in finery; Jane Seymour, the inoffensive queen who was allowed a natural death; Christina of Denmark, the unsuccessful candidate for the succession; Anne of Cleves, the unfortunate German princess who was made queen only to be divorced; the chubby little Edward, Prince of Wales; John Chambers, court physician, at the venerable age of eighty-eight ; Hubert Morett, the king's goldsmith, scarcely less regal than his master in bearing and attire ; Robert Cheseman, the king's falconer, carrying a splendid hawk on his wrist; Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, the king's chamberlain, bearing the mace of his office, and many other ladies and gentlemen of high degree. One of the most interesting pictures of this period is the double portrait called the Ambassadors, in the National Gallery. Beautiful accessories and rich costume give splendid decorative quality to the composition, but do not overshadow the personal appeal of the men themselves.
Strangely enough, Holbein's portrait of King Henry is lost to us. It was a monumental work in fresco, in the palace of White-hall, showing the monarch with his family. The palace was destroyed by fire in the following century, but fortunately Holbein's cartoon is preserved, as well as various copies by other artists of the king's figure. Thus the personality of Henry VIII has come down to us from the hand of Holbein. The portrait of Jane Seymour is in Vienna and is unsurpassed for delicate colour and decorative splendour. The lady, we can see, has the serenity of temper which stood her in good stead with her royal husband. It fell to Holbein in no small degree to choose the next queen. He was despatched to Brussels for the Princess Christina's portrait, and was granted a three hours' sitting — three hours in which to penetrate and perpetuate a personality. Certainly he never did a subtler or more charming picture than this full-length figure of the vivacious little Italian widow, caught just as she entered the room, in her widow's weeds. It is said that the king was so charmed with the picture that he promptly sent a proposal of marriage, but complications with Christina's uncle, Charles V, broke off the match. Holbein was again sent abroad for the portrait of Anne of Cleves, and this time he resorted to all the devices of good clothes to add to the charm of the subject.
Perhaps he overshot the mark. The lady's doll-like prettiness pleased the king mightily, but the pleasure was of short duration. The lady proved herself less agreeable than her portrait promised, but there seems to have been no blame for Holbein.
Few particulars are known of the English life of " Master Haunce," as the painter was called at court. They were perilous times for royal favourites, and the painter did well to steer his way safely in the fickle current of King Henry's pleasure. Changes were on every hand. Sir Thomas More, once the be-loved and intimate friend of the king, was sent with the Bishop of Rochester, and other saintly men, to the executioner's block. Holbein could hardly have been insensible to the tragic fate of his former patron, but in that same year his own salary was doubled. It is said that when some courtier who had a quarrel with the painter brought complaint to the king, Henry replied, " I tell you, of seven peasants I can make as many lords, but not one Holbein." In spite of many preferments, however, Holbein longed for his native land, and was planning to return to Basle. Before such hopes were realized, a plague broke out in London, in 1543, and to this dread disease he fell a victim.
Holbein brought the art of portrait painting a long way forward. His temper was purely dispassionate; he delineated the face before him with exact precision, neither adding to nor taking from the original in any measure. Sincerity was his strongest trait : he anticipated Velasquez in absolute truthfulness to life and character. A consummate draughtsman, his paintings show a better quality of line than of colour. A certain hardness characterizes him as a German rather than an Italian. A fine decorative sense shaped his compositions and produced some delightful effects. His love of detail and delicate craftsmanship served such ends admirably. His work is in striking contrast to that of Darer, who was as subjective as Holbein was objective. The two supplement each other in representing the most valuable phases of the German art spirit of the sixteenth century.