Thursday, January 20, 2011

Hans Holbein

The Virgin and Child with the family of Burgomaster Meyer
Altar-painting; oil on wood
146.5 x 102 cm (57 5/8 x 40 1/8 in.)
Schlossmuseum, Darmstadt

"The knowledge which Durer strove for so passionately throughout his life thus came more naturally to Holbein. Coming from a painter's family (his father was a respected master) and being exceedingly alert, he soon absorbed the achievements of both the northern and the Italian artists. He was hardly over thirty when he painted the wonderful altar-painting of the Virgin with the family of the burgomaster of Basle as donors. The form was traditional in all countries, but Holbein's painting is still one of the most perfect examples of its kind. The way in which the donors are arranged in seemingly effortless groups on both sides of the Virgin, whose calm and majestic figure is framed by a niche of classical forms, reminds us of the most harmonious compositions of the Italian Renaissance, of Giovanni Bellini and Raphael. The careful attention to detail, on the other hand, and a certain indifference to conventional beauty, show that Holbein had learned his trade in the North. He was on his way to becoming the leading master of the German-speaking countries when the turmoil of the Reformation put an end to all such hopes. In 1526 he left Switzerland for England with a letter of recommendation from the great scholar, Erasmus of Rotterdam. 'The arts here are freezing,' Erasmus wrote commending the painter to his friends, among whom was Sir Thomas More. One of Holbein's first jobs in England was to prepare a large portrait of that other great scholar's family, and some detailed studies for this work are still preserved at Windsor Castle. If Holbein had hoped to get away from the turmoil of the Reformation he must have been disappointed by later events, but when he finally settled in England for good and was given the official title of Court Painter by Henry VIII he had at least found a sphere of activity which allowed him to live and work. He could no longer paint Madonnas, but the tasks of a Court Painter were exceedingly manifold. He designed jewelry and furniture, costumes for pageantries and decorations for halls, weapons and goblets. His main job, however, was to paint portraits of the royal household, and it is due to Holbein's unfailing eye that we still have such a vivid picture of the men and women of Henry VIII's period. [An example is] his portrait of Sir Richard Southwell, a courtier and official who took part in the dissolution of the monasteries. There is nothing dramatic in these portraits of Holbein, nothing to catch the eye, but the longer we look at them the more they seem to reveal of the sitter's mind and personality. We do not doubt for a moment that they are in fact faithful records of what Holbein saw, drawn without fear or favor. The way in which Holbein has placed the figure in the picture shows the sure touch of the master. Nothing seems left to chance; the whole composition is so perfectly balanced that it may easily seem 'obvious' to us. But this was Holbein's intention. In his earlier portraits he had still sought to display his wonderful skill in the rendering of details, to characterize a sitter through his setting, through the things among which he spent his life. The older he grew and the more mature his art became, the less did he seem in need of any such tricks. He did not want to obtrude himself and to divert attention from the sitter. And it is precisely for this masterly restraint that we admire him most."

- From "The Story of Art", by E.H. Gombrich

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