There’s a new old painter in town: Hans Holbein the Younger, the dazzling Renaissance German specialist in portraiture, with his first major American show of paintings, “Holbein: Capturing Character,” at the Morgan Library & Museum. It has been a long wait since 1543, when the artist died, at about the age of forty-five (his birth year is uncertain), probably of the plague, while in service to England’s Henry VIII. Why? Holbein is an awkward fit in art history—overqualified, in a way, for the sixteenth century’s march of eclectic Mannerist styles toward the aesthetic revolution of the Baroque. He is familiar hereabouts mainly from two portraits in the Frick Collection: “Sir Thomas More” (1527), a hands-down masterpiece of the great humanist whom Henry had recently appointed the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and would soon elevate to Lord High Chancellor of England, and “Thomas Cromwell” (1532-33), a rather sullen depiction of the King’s chief power broker. (The More is in the Morgan show; the Cromwell isn’t.) That both men would have their heads lopped off to Henry’s satisfaction—More’s in 1535, for objecting to Henry’s religious policies, and Cromwell’s in 1540, on rumored suspicions that he was plotting to usurp the throne—is an incidental piquancy. Those were treacherous times, fomented by Martin Luther’s theological revolt, beginning in 1517, against the universal sway of Roman Catholicism in Europe and racked by sporadic, bloody warfare.
You can’t deduce much about the period’s upheavals, except obliquely, from Holbein’s career as a hired-gun celebrant of whoever employed him, most decisively Henry. Holbein can appear ideological only by glancing association with Christian humanists in the circle of Erasmus of Rotterdam, the illegitimate son of a priest and a towering intellectual who strove to refine rather than to upend Catholic doctrine and bitterly contested the more radical Luther. Testifying to flexible convictions, the Morgan show includes a rondel painting by Holbein, circa 1532, of Erasmus’s thin-faced, pointy-nosed mien, and also a small portrayal, circa 1535, of Luther’s most efficacious disciple, Philipp Melanchthon. Holbein left no telltale writings and evinced no view of Henry VIII’s rupture with Rome and his founding of the Church of England, with himself as its “Supreme Head,” in the aftermath of Pope Clement VII’s refusal to annul his first marriage, to Catherine of Aragon. (It was never a smart move to exasperate Henry.)
“A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling (Anne Lovell?),” circa 1526-28.Art work © The National Gallery, London
Holbein’s relation to contemporaneous religious and political trends might have developed in any number of ways after his early years of precocious and remunerative celebrity in the Swiss city of Basel, a thriving center of artistic patronage and publishing. A son of a late-Gothic painter, he had arrived from his native Bavaria while a teen-ager. Tantalizing hints of unfulfilled potential attend much of his tyro work, notably one of the most indelibly shocking images of all time, “The Dead Christ in the Tomb” (1521-22). The painting, measuring a foot high and six and a half feet wide, depicts a gruesomely putrefying corpse that, if unearthed, could present only a sanitation problem. Famously, Dostoyevsky’s encounter with the picture, in 1867, shook his Christian faith and obsessed him thereafter, figuring as a philosophical provocation a year or so later in his novel “The Idiot.” (The work is not in the Morgan show, but I will not forget, no matter how hard I try, my own first look, in the Kuntsmuseum Basel, at that . . . what? That thing.) Of related fascination are “Images of Death,” gleeful woodcuts that Holbein worked on in the fifteen-twenties, which illustrate all manner of personages being interrupted by skeletons: surprise, surprise.
Holbein left Basel for London in 1532, likely impelled by a terror of rampaging iconoclasm—the wholesale destruction of religious imagery and artifacts by overenthusiastic Protestants in the Swiss city. Might Holbein have continued to evolve as, temperamentally, a visual bard of mortality had he stayed? Perhaps. But Basel’s formerly open mind had snapped shut. A sepulchral penchant resurfaced, briefly, in “The Ambassadors” (1533), a double full-length portrait of French agents with a horizontal smear across it in white and gray which, when viewed at angles from the sides of the work, resolves into the apparition of a skull. (That marvel hasn’t travelled to the Morgan from its home, in Britain’s National Gallery.) Such audacities were otherwise quashed in Holbein’s supervening duties to phlegmatic patrons. He had already spent two productive years in London between 1526 and 1528, lodging with Thomas More. Among his first commissions on his return were portraits of Hanseatic merchants—contented but hard men (you would dread having one as your father) thrust forward from flattish grounds, often blankly green or blue. Then he became effectively—and soon officially—the premier artist in Henry VIII’s court.
Holbein proved very, very good at modernizing the kicked-up realism of Northern Renaissance styles, routinely executed in oils on wood panels, that dated from Jan van Eyck, a century earlier. Consider, and be wowed by, Holbein’s renderings of skin, reminiscent of Hans Memling: aglow with light that can appear, ambiguously, either to fall upon or to radiate from within a subject, if not somehow both at once. His virtuosity with fabrics and heraldic ornament stuns, preternaturally. Holbein abridged Netherlandish portraiture’s typically fancy compositions by centering his sitters, either more or less head on or in closeup profile. The Morgan show’s proposition that Holbein “captured character” seems a bit of a stretch. The subjects register more in terms of assigned or attained public distinction than of interior lives. They project secular prestige. But their singular physiognomies go bang at a glance.
“Simon George,” circa 1535-40.Art work courtesy the Städel Museum
The charming subject of the earliest really striking portrait in the show, “A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling” (circa 1526-28), may have been Anne Lovell, the wealthy wife of a functionary in Henry VIII’s court. Holbein was sensitive but cautiously unerotic in picturing women, who are usually sombre. (You get a sense that female vivacity was rarely countenanced.) Forensic analysis has revealed that the pictured animal and bird were added later, probably as requested symbols of the woman’s family traditions. Holbein was not averse to pandering. Eventually, he ran into trouble with Henry by overdoing it. Ordered, in 1539, to scout the German Anne of Cleves as a possible next bride for the King, he produced a ravishing likeness. Thereby initially excited, Henry had the consequent marriage annulled in short order. Still, Holbein retained his official position at court.
Are you game for further grisly data? Two other men, subjects of excellent Holbein drawings in the show, would keep appointments with the headsman. We can only wonder about the artist’s own fortunes had he survived the three or so years between his demise and Henry’s, in 1547. There had been about their situation a strange symbiosis, I feel, of royal tyranny and artistic discipline. A formulaic fealty, enforced by reasonable jitters, seems to me part of what isolates Holbein in comparison with rangier, more historically mainstream peers such as Pontormo and Bronzino, in Medici Florence. Could Holbein have been a greater artist if he’d been granted imaginative license? Maybe and maybe not. He would be different, and we would both know a lot more about him as a man and miss the monumentality of his definitive achievement.
Enriching “Holbein: Capturing Character” are somewhat less strong though rather livelier works by his Netherlandish near-predecessors Jan Gossaert and Quentin Matsys. Those artists demonstrate complexities of busy settings and picture-window deep space that Holbein eliminated from their shared genre. In addition, examples of illustration and decorative design by Holbein and others illumine the varied functions of a sixteenth-century court vocation. The show, despite not being large, immerses us in the creative climate of the time, in this case at its icy English extreme. I came away at once thrilled and frustrated by the legacy of a flabbergasting talent. ♦