The History Woman's Blog

The Holbein Stare and Other Works of Art

Posted in Art, Early Modern, News, Reviews, Sixteenth Century by thehistorywoman on November 3, 2012

Derich Born, 23-year-old merchant of Cologne, by Hans Holbein the Younger (1533).

Be prepared for the Holbein stare. His sitters will look right at you, or through you – like Derich Born. Serious beyond his years, wealthy and confident, the 23-year-old merchant of Cologne was the youngest member of the London Hanseatic League and seems remarkably lifelike as his dark brown eyes look out from underneath his black cap. Hans Holbein the Younger (c1497-1543) painted him in 1533, and as with most of Holbein’s portraits, it is the eyes that hold the viewer’s attention, be it in the sketch of Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor Thomas More (c 1526-27) or in the painting of ‘Hans of Antwerp’ (1532).

While most of the attention is usually on the paintings, I often prefer the chalk, pen and ink drawings. They are like shadows or ghosts of people who once lived and have all but faded out. I was particularly taken by the ethereal looks of a beautiful, young Lady Parker (c1540-3), possibly one of Jane Seymour’s attendants who gazes out from the white background with her big round eyes. There is also a drawing of a young ‘Lady’ Mary (c. 1536), demoted from her position as ‘Princess’ after the birth of her younger brother Edward, Prince of Wales, in a frame alongside hers, aged one (c 1538).

More often than not, these drawings were studies for paintings; and it is particularly interesting to see one next to the other, as in the case of the portrait of Sir Henry Guildford (1527), who was one of Henry VIII’s closest friends and Comptroller of the Royal Household. As a court painter, meanwhile, Holbein was not beyond the art of flattery. The exhibition blurb informs us that Guildford’s slightly chubby-drawn face was lengthened on the painting for ‘a more flattering expression’.

Sir Henry Guildford, Comptroller of the Royal Household, chubby (left) and with ‘a more flattering expression’ (right).

But it is not just these close encounters that give the Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein exhibition a more personal feel than the Holbein in England show that ran at the Tate in 2006-7. The exhibition space in the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace is more intimate too and feels more manageable in a spare hour, or hour and a half, between finishing work and catching the train home.

Yet, Holbein alone did not make a Northern Renaissance. The second great master celebrated here is his fellow German Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), who made his name across Europe through the wide distribution of his detailed woodcuts and engravings, not least a series on the Apocalypse, including The Four Horsemen (1498), reflecting the turn-of-the-century fear that the world would end in 1500.

Death seems to be everywhere. We find it by looking at the skull on the window sill in Dürer’s engraving of St Jerome in his study (1514) or in the Massacre of the Innocents (c1565-7) by the Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder (c. 1525-1569), engaging with the killings of children in Bethlehem ordered by King Herod after the birth of Jesus, while setting it in the scene of a contemporary Flemish atrocity. After the painting’s acquisition by the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II, however, the slaughtered babies were painted over, leaving only a ‘more general scene of plunder’, as the curator’s description explains. Ironically, the ‘shadow of the infants … underneath the over-painted areas’ appear to make it all much worse.

This scene reminds us that the sixteenth century was shaken by a number of religious wars in the aftermath of the Reformation, which had challenged the teachings of the Catholic Church and would change the face of Europe forever. In the art world it also meant a move away from biblical and ‘devotional scenes to non-religious subjects such as portraiture and mythology.’ Continuity and change are apparent in the striking similarities between Jan Gossaert’s depiction of Adam and Eve (c 1520) compared to a painting of Apollo and Diana (c 1526) by Lucas Cranach the Elder: semi-naked humans against the backdrop of a landscape. Only the attributes are different: apple and snake (Adam and Eve) versus bow and arrow (Apollo and Diana).

Adam and Eve with apple and snake by Jan Gossaert (c 1520) versus Apollo and Diana with bow and arrow by Lucas Cranach the Elder (c 1526).

With paintings by Jean and François Clouet, Quinten Massys, Hans Memling, Joos van Cleve and many others from across northern Europe, there is more to discover. I certainly felt I did not have enough time to look at all the works on display with the attention they deserve. But they are still around until April 2013.

The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein, Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, 2 November 2012-14 April 2013.

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