Saturday, 24 January 2015


     The trouble with Holbein is that he was such a damn good portratist. As has been said ad nauseam, this artist was the first to show us what an English king and his courtiers really looked like. That is true. We are also told that he was a superb delineator of character. That also is true. But we have to bear in mind certain other truths about Renaissance portraiture which oblige us to be cautious about how we read Holbein's paintings.
     For example, what are we to make of the Cromwell painted by Holbein? Commentators have drawn attention to the 'tight lips', 'piggy eyes', 'grasping hand' and 'impassive features'. When we look at this image across almost 500 years during which the art of portraiture has developed in many ways, we judge it by our own criteria, and may conclude that this man is singularly unprepossessing - even sinister. What we should be doing is trying to view the painting through 16th century eyes. There were social and artistic conventions which had to be observed. Important sitters were almost always shown half-face or three-quarter face. In fact, it was considered vulgar to be depicted staring straight out of the canvas. 'But what of Henry VIII's famous full-face image,' I hear you cry. I'll come to that presently. Cromwell's pose is, therefore, that of a dignified man of substance and his stature and learning are made clear by the book on the table and the letter from the king beside it. Since the eyes are turned away from us it is difficult for us to deduce much about the sitter's character. By contrast, look at Holbein's portrait of the courtier, John Godsalve. His gaze is directed towards us. What do we, from our modern standpoint, make of it? Well, I always feel like captioning it, 'Would you buy a used car from this man?'
     Yet, in both cases, we must assume that the sitters were happy with the job Holbein had done. Because - and this is the most important point of all - Tudor grandees who commissioned portraits paid to be represented as they wanted to be represented. Godsalve certainly didn't think his portrait made him look 'shifty' and Holbein, if he valued his career, would not have deliberately presented him in an unsympathetic manner. The same is true of the Cromwell portrait.
     When we consider Holbein's royal portraits everything we have said about giving the sitter what he wanted has to be multiplied by a factor of at least ten. The famous image of Henry VIII shows the king as he wished to be seenIt is, in fact, a piece of royal propaganda. Henry's full frontal stance indicated his contempt for convention. It originated in a group painting (the Whitehall Cartoon) which showed Henry with his parents and his current wife. It was painted in 1537 when the king had several things he wanted to announce about himself. I cannot enlarge on them all but can only recommend anyone wanting to understand Holbein's ever-famous image to read my book, Hans Holbein - Portrait of an Unknown Man (1996, 1997, 2006). I'll just point out a couple of features. The observer cannot miss the king's thrusting codpiece - nor is he meant to miss it. Henry, who was having no end of a difficulty in begetting a son, wanted to assert his virility. Now look at the slender legs. By this time Henry was already suffering from severe ulcers but there is no sign here of the bandages he had to wear permanently.
     So are these and other portraits 'true' likenesses? The answer has to be 'Yes and No'. But that is always the case when we look at painted representations of anyone, past or present. Evaluating a portrait is a three-way transaction between sitter, artist and viewer and we always need to augment our knowledge of the sitter with whatever other evidence we can gather.

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