Hans Holbein: Tricks of the Trade

By LIZ HAGER

Oh Stranger, would you like to see pictures that appear to be alive? Then look at these, made by the hands of Holbein. Nicolas Bourbon

Hans Holbein (the Younger), Henry VIII, 1540
Oil on wood, approximately 35 x 29 1/3 inches
(Galeria Nationale d’Arte Antica, Rome)

Three European countries claim Hans Holbein (the Younger) as their own—Germany, where he was born (in the Bavarian town of Augsburg circa 1497 or 98); Switzerland, where he received his artistic training; and England, where many of his most celebrated works were produced under the patronage of Henry VIII.

Hans Holbein (the Younger), Jane Seymour, ca. 1536
Oil on panel, approximately 35 x 26 inches
(Künsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Henry was notoriously passionate about splendor and Holbein had the artistic ingenuity that allowed him to fulfill any of the King’s many and varied whims. By 1537 Holbein was not only the most fashionable painter at Henry’s court, he was functioning as the King’s “designer,” creating interiors, jewelry, place settings and other precious objects.

It is safe to say that the more than 100 miniature and full-sized portraits completed by Holbein during his time at court have informed all subsequent generations’ sense of the Tutor era.

Hans Holbein, Thomas More, 1527,
oil on oak panel, 29 1/2 in. x 23 3/4 inches
(Frick Collection; Henry Clay Frick Bequest)

Holbein is judged today as a virtuoso portraitist, in part because much of his other work—monumental and religious paintings—survives only through preparatory drawings. Through the portraits one immediately grasps the ways in which Holbein differentiated himself—a brilliant mastery of the paint medium; obsessive attention to visual detail; and access to the important personages of his day whose own reputations would endure through history.

Holbein’s style was driven by reason, rather than emotion. He was obsessed with the richness of details, compelled to precision in rendering the myriad of visual “facts” that lay before him. According to expert Paul Ganz Holbein “was an artist who attained his mastership by long and hard struggle; under every conceivable circumstance he trained himself to keep his eyes open to see and learn. . . ”

Hans Holbein (the Younger), Anne of Cleves, 1523,
Watercolor on parchment, approximately 25 1/2 x 19 inches
(Louvre, Paris)

Contemporaries have left records marveling at his ability to capture the exact likeness of sitters and the elegance of their garments. Indeed, his figures are so real as to seem as if they could walk off their picture planes plastically intact.

Hans Holbein (the Younger), Erasmus, 1523
Oil on limewood, approximately 17 x 23 inches.
(Louvre, Paris)

Yet, Holbein’s true genius may have lain in his ability to effectively edit the details. He grasped the notion that a sitter is defined by his/her salient physical features.  In the portrait of Erasmus above, for example, he perfectly captures the essence of a scholar absorbed in concentration. We know, because he’s pursing his lips in profile.

Hans Holbein (the Younger), Merchant George Grisze, 1532
Oil on wood, 96.3 x 85.7 cm
(Gemaldegalerie, Berlin)

In his 1923 The Mastery of Drawing, art historian Joseph Meder advanced the theory that Holbein had utilized the tracing (perspective) apparatus first described by Albrecht Dürer in his The Painter’s Manual (1525). Or perhaps, like the artist below, he painted on glass to get contours and spatial relationships just right.
Albrecht Dürer—Woodcut illustration from his Underweysung der Messung. . . (Instruction in Measurement. . . ), 1538.

Albrecht Dürer—see above.

It’s not so far-fetched an idea. In his fascinating book book Secret Knowledge , David Hockney posits a similar theory about Ingres, Velázquez, and Caravaggio (among others) use of optics and lenses to “improve” their draftsmanship, and with it portraits that were far and away more naturalistic than those of their contemporaries.

Hans Holbein (the Younger), Margaret More (daughter of Thomas More), 1535
Vellum laid on playing card, approximately 1 3/4 inches in diameter
(Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY)

It is widely acknowledged that Holbein started with chalk drawings of his sitters, which he (or others) transferred (in puzzle assembly mode) to larger wood panels using the pouncing method or metal stylist.

Some contemporary scholars, however, are not at all persuaded by Meder’s argument. Through infrared investigation they conclude that Holbein’s drawings were not meant to be complete finished likenesses of his sitters, but simply records of their essential features. Further, their studies confirm that many of Holbein’s drawings were in fact used as patterns for other paintings, both by him and by others after his death. In some cases the drawing and “corresponding” painting are not as closely related as had been supposed. All of which would argue against “tracing.”

The jury is still out. Whatever the case may be, let’s remember that in most hands a tool is just a tool.

Hans Holbein (the Younger), Nicolas Bourbon, ca. 1535
Colored chalks, pen and ink on paper, 38.4 × 28.3 cm
(Royal Collection, Windsor Castle)

Wider Connections

Holbein and England (Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art)
The Rare Book Room
Holbein Portrait Drawings (Dover Art Library)
SUNY-Oneonta—“Albrecht Dürer: Artist Drawing a Nude with Perspective Device

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One Response to “Hans Holbein: Tricks of the Trade”

  1. Gabrielle Bakker Says:

    I believe it is plausible that Holbein used a glass- draughting device. His has two very distinct styles- Basel/ decorative , and the realistic portraits. I do think he would only have gotten accurate but crude information in this manner.
    One correction: When you discuss the transfer method- he used a stylus, not a styist. The former is a tool, the latter is a person.

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