How futile are words before a work of art! Each art successfully resists translation into any other medium; it has its own inalienable quality, which must speak for itself or not at all. History can only record the masters and the masterpieces; it cannot convey them. To sit silently before Holbein’s picture of his wife and children is better than a biography. However ....
He was more fortunate in his parentage than in his time. His father was among the leading painters in Augsburg. From him Hans learned the elements of the art, and from Hans Burgkmair something of Italian grace and modeling. In 1512 he painted four altar panels now in the Augsburg Gallery—middling enough, but astonishingly good for a lad of fifteen. Two years later he and his brother Ambrose, also a painter, decamped to Basel. Perhaps the father had insisted too much on his own—still Gothic—style; perhaps there was not enough educated money in Augsburg to support more than a few artists; in any case youth and genius seldom love home. In Basel the lads discovered that freedom is a trial. Hans illustrated various volumes, including Erasmus’ Praise of Folly; he did some rough painter’s work, made a signboard for a schoolmaster, and decorated a table top with lively incidents from the story of St. Nobody—that handy nonentity who was charged with every anonymous mischief, and never said a word in his own defense. The skill shown in this work earned Hans a fruitful commission—to paint portraits of the burgomaster Jakob Meyer and his wife (1517). The fame of these portraits traveled; Jakob Hertenstein called Holbein to Lucerne, and there Hans frescoed the façade and walls of the patron’s home, and painted that portrait of Benedict Hertenstein which is now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. From Lucerne he may have passed into Italy; his work henceforth revealed Italian influence in anatomical accuracy, architectural backgrounds, and the management of light. When he returned to Basel, aged twenty-two, he set up his own studio, and married a widow (1519). In that year his brother died and in 1524 their father.
German realism mingled with Romanesque architecture and classic ornament in the religious pictures that Holbein now produced. Startling is the realism—echoing Mantegna—of Christ in the Tomb: the body all bone and skin, the eyes ghastly open, the hair disheveled, the mouth agape in a last effort to breathe; this seems irrevocable death, and no wonder Dostoievski said the picture could destroy a man’s religious faith.26 About this time Holbein painted murals for the hall of the Grand Council in Basel. The councilors were pleased, and one of them commissioned him to provide an altarpiece for a Carthusian monastery. This Passion of Christ suffered in the iconoclastic riots of 1529, but two shutters were saved, and were presented to the cathedral at Freiburg-im-Breisgau. They borrow much from Baldung Grien, but they have their own power in the remarkable play of the light that emanates from the Child. In 1522 the town clerk of Basel ordered another altarpiece; for this placidly beautiful Madonna, now preserved in the Kunstmuseum of Solothurn, Holbein used his wife and son as models—the wife then a woman of modest comeliness, not yet touched by tragedy. Probably near this time27 he produced his religious masterpiece, The Virgin and Child with the Family of Burgomaster Meyer—splendid in composition, line, and color, and intense in feeling; we understand more sympathetically the Burgomaster’s prayer to the Madonna when we learn that at the time of this painting the two sons pictured at his feet, and one of the two wives kneeling at the right, were dead.
But the fees for such religious pictures were small in proportion to the care and labor they required. Portraits were more lucrative, and there was a growing family to support. In 1519 Holbein painted the young scholar Bonifacius Amerbach—a noble face, in which idealism survives a penetrating view of the world. About 1522 he painted the great printer Froben—a man dedicated, disturbed, creatively worn out by life. Through Froben, Holbein came to know Erasmus; and in 1523 he painted two of his many portraits of the saddened humanist. In the three-quarters portrait (in the Earl of Radnor’s Collection at Salisbury) the artist, now in the fullness of his powers, caught the soul of a man who had lived too long; illness and Luther had deepened the lines in the face, the melancholy in the eyes. The profile in the Basel Kunstsammlung shows him calmer and more alive; the nose advancing to battle like a gladiator’s sword; perhaps the manuscript under the pen is a draft of the De libero arbitrio (1524) with which he was entering the lists against Luther. Probably in 1524 Holbein painted Erasmus again, in the best portrait of all, which hangs in the Louvre; seeing that profound and chastened face one thinks of Nisard’s perceptive comment—that Erasmus was one of those dont la gloire a été de comprendre beaucoup et d’affirmer peu—“whose glory it has been to understand much and to affirm little.” 28
About 1523 Holbein painted himself, now twenty-six, and seemingly prosperous; but the cold glance suggests some fighting resentment of life’s bufferings. Tradition discredits him with a moderate addiction to drink and women, and represents him as unhappy with his wife. Apparently he shared some Lutheran views; his woodcuts of The Dance of Death (c . 1525) satirized the clergy—but even the clergy did that in those days. The series showed Death dogging the steps of every man, woman, or class—Adam, Eve, the Emperor, a noble, a physician, a monk, a priest, a pope, a millionaire, an astrologer, a duchess, a jester, a gambler, a thief—all en route to the Last Judgment; it is as powerful a work as any of Dürer’s in this medium. Aside from this masterpiece of drawing, and theMeyer Madonna, Holbein is without visible piety. Perhaps he imbibed some skepticism from Erasmus and the Basel humanists.29 He was more interested in anatomy than in religion.
The Reformation, though he presumably favored it, ruined his market in Basel. No more religious pictures were asked of him. Payments on the paintings for the council hall were suspended. Rich men, frightened by the Peasants’ War, retreated into privacy and parsimony, and thought the time unpropitious for portraits. “Here the arts are freezing,” wrote Erasmus from Basel in 1526.30 He gave Holbein letters of introduction to friends in Antwerp and London, and Holbein, leaving his family at home, sought fortune in the north. He visited Quentin Massys, and doubtless they exchanged notes about Erasmus. From Antwerp he crossed to England. Erasmus’ letter assured him a cordial welcome from Thomas More, who gave him a place in his Chelsea home; and there he painted (1526) the portrait of More that is now in the Frick Gallery in New York. To the hindsight of the historian the tense and half-somber eyes foreshadow the devotion and tenacity of the martyr; to the insight of an artist the wonder will be in the fur and folds of the sleeve. In 1527 Holbein painted Thomas More and His Family—the oldest known group picture in transalpine secular art.
Late in 1528 Holbein, having made some pounds and shillings, returned to Basel, gave Erasmus a copy of More and His Family, and rejoined his wife. Now he painted one of his greatest, most honest pictures, showing his own family with a realism unsparing to himself. Each of the three faces is sad: the girl resigned, almost hopeless; the boy gazing up plaintively at his mother; she looking upon them with grief and affection profoundly mirrored in her eyes—the grief of a wife who has lost the love of her husband, the affection of a mother whose children are her only tie to life. Three years after painting this masterly self-indictment, Holbein left his family again.
During this stay in Basel he painted another portrait of Froben, and made six more of Erasmus, not as searchingly profound as those of 1523–24. The town council renewed his commission to fresco its chambers, but, yielding to the triumphant iconoclasts, it condemned all religious pictures, and ruled that “God has cursed all those who make them.” 31 Commissions fell, and in 1532 Holbein returned to England.
There he painted portraits so plentifully that most of the figures dominating the English scene in those turbulent years are still alive by the magic of Holbein’s hand. In the Queen’s Library at Windsor are eighty-seven sketches in charcoal or chalk, some for cartoons, most of them for portraits; apparently the artist required only one or two sittings from his subjects, and then painted their likeness from such sketches. The Hanseatic merchants in London solicited his art, but did not inspire his best. For the Guildhall of the Hanse he painted two murals preserved only in copies or drawings: one represented The Triumph of Poverty, the other The Triumph of Riches; both are marvels of individualized character, living movement, and coherent design, and illustrate the motto of the Guild—“Gold is the father of joy and the son of care; he who lacks it is sad, he who has it is uneasy.” 32
Thomas Cromwell, who was to exemplify this adage, submitted his hard face and soft frame to Holbein’s brush in 1534. Through him the artist found access to the highest figures at the court. He painted The French Ambassadors, and one of them, Charles de Saulier, he portrayed with especial success, revealing the man beneath the vestments and insignia of office. Four others—Sir Henry Guilford (controller of the royal household), Sir Nicholas Carew (royal equerry to the King), Robert Cheseman (royal falconer to the King), and Dr. John Chambers (physician to the King)—suggest the thick skins that alone could safely live near the parboiled King, Holbein became one of them about 1537 as official court painter. He received a workshop of his own in Whitehall Palace, dwelt in comfort, had mistresses and bastards like anybody else, and dressed in color and silk.33 He was called upon to decorate rooms, design ceremonial garments, bookbindings, weapons, tableware, seals, royal buttons and buckles, and the gems that Henry presented to his wives. In 1538 the King sent him to Brussels to paint Princess Christine of Denmark; she proved quite charming, and Henry would gladly have had her, but she took Duke Francis of Lorraine instead; perhaps she preferred to hang in a gallery rather than die on the block. Holbein took the opportunity to visit Basel briefly; he arranged an annuity of forty guilders ($1,000?) for his wife, and hurried back to London. Soon thereafter came the commission to paint Anne of Cleves; Holbein almost foreshadowed the result in the sad eyes of the portrait now in the Louvre.
For the King himself he painted several large pictures, nearly all lost. One survives in the Barber Surgeons’ Hall in London: Henry VIII Granting a Charter of Incorporation to the Barber Surgeons’ Company; Henry dominates the scene in his robes of state. The artist made appealing portraits of Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, and the fifth wife, Catherine Howard. When Henry himself sat or stood for Holbein the painter rose to the challenge, and produced portraits surpassed in his own work only by the Louvre and Basel pictures of Erasmus. The portrait of 1536 shows the monarch Teutonically pompous and stout. Henry liked it despite himself, and commissioned Holbein to paint the royal family as a fresco in Whitehall Palace; this mural was destroyed by fire in 1698, but a copy made in 1667 for Charles II reveals a masterly design: at the upper left Henry VII, pious and modest; lower, his son, brandishing the symbols of power and spreading his legs like a colossus; at the right his mother and his third wife; and in the center a marble monument retailing in Latin the virtues of the kings. The figure of Henry VIII was elaborated with such realism that a legend arose about persons entering the room and mistaking the portrait for the living King. In 1540 Holbein painted a still more imposing Henry VIII in Wedding Dress. Finally (1542) he displayed Henry in the deterioration of mind and body. Nemesis here worked leisurely, lengthening the revenge of the gods from clean or sudden death to prolonged and ignominious decay.
Two lovely pictures redeem the royal gallery: one of Prince Edward at the age of two, all innocence; the other of Edward aged six (in the Metropolitan Museum of Art). This second portrait is a delight to behold. We may judge the art of Holbein when we see him, within a year or two, portray unflinchingly the obese pride of the father, and then catch with such mysterious skill the guileless kindliness of the son.
At forty-five (1542) the artist pictured himself again, and with the same objectivity with which he had depicted the King: a suspicious, pugnacious fellow with carelessly kept graying hair and beard; and once more (1543) in a roundel showing him in a gentler mood. In that year plague came to London, and chose him as one of its victims.
Technically he was one of the supreme painters. He saw meticulously, and so portrayed; every line, color, or attitude, every incidence or variation of light, that could reveal significance was caught and pinned down upon the paper, linen, wood, or wall. What accuracy in the line, what depth and smoothness and warmth in the color, what skill in ordering details into a unified composition! But in many of the portraits, where the object was not the subject but the fee, we miss the sympathy that could see, and feel with, a man’s secret soul; we find it in the Louvre and Basel Erasmus, and in the picture of his family. We miss, except in the Meyer Madonna, the idealism that ennobled the realism in the Van Eycks’ Adoration of the Lamb. His indifference to religion kept him short of the grandeur of Grünewald, and marked him off from Dürer, who always had one foot in the Middle Ages. Holbein was neither Renaissance like Titian nor Reformation like Cranach; he was German-Dutch-Flemish-English matter-of-fact and practical sense. Perhaps his success prevented the effective entry of Italian pictorial principles and finesse into England. After him Puritanism triumphed over the Elizabethan passion, and English painting languished till Hogarth came. At the same time the glory departed from German painting. A flood of barbarism would have to pass over Central Europe before the sense of beauty would find voice there again.