The Genius of Holbein

A literary description may give substance to the image one tries to make in one’s mind. For instance, when we are told that Charlemagne had a squeaky voice and was paunchy, though tall, it helps one to grasp him in some degree. But what a different thing it would be if we had the man himself on canvas or in stone as we should have if he had lived six hundred years later!—Hilaire Belloc, “On Portraits in History”

As I look through a book of portrait sketches by Hans Holbein (1497-1543), I am reminded how quickly the man’s genius impresses itself upon the viewer. We trust Holbein’s pictures as we would a photograph, so well does he capture both the detail and personality of his subject.

One of Holbein’s most reproduced portraits is that of Henry VIII, the corpulent, lecherous Renaissance monarch. But my favorite work is a pencil drawing of the family of Thomas More. His individual study of More was the basis of an excellent portrait of that scholar, statesman and martyr. Then there is highly expressive sketch of John Fisher, the saintly bishop who was the only member of the English hierarchy to oppose the religious tyranny of King Henry. Fisher presents a visage at once harsh in the lean and ascetic lines of the face, yet kindly in the compassionate, pious gaze of the eyes. Holbein is also known for his depiction of the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus, although this is one instance where I prefer the work of another artist—the magnificent woodcut by Albrecht Dürer.

Perhaps what is most convincing about Holbein’s portraiture is its individuality. No one looks like a copy of someone else. Another point is that the line establishes everything in Holbein’s work. It perfectly defines space and weight, even before any shading is applied. The artist did all his work in pencil first, before using ink and colored chalk. The drawings were later transformed into paintings, but these preliminary sketches remain extraordinary works in their own right.

Later artists, like Rembrandt or the French Impressionists, would emphasize the play of light and color more than line. And certainly one appreciates the variety of visual expression, from the abstract art of the Byzantines to the works of the early moderns. Nevertheless, the pictures of Holbein arrest one’s attention like few others. Gazing at this wonderful array of early 16th century men and women we see individuals who are beautiful, ugly, alert, lazy, loutish, benevolent, intelligent, dull, witty and serious—in a word, people much like us.

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