Jim Sienkiewicz's Blog

Jim Sienkiewicz's thoughts on his own and others' photography

Hans Holbein the Younger and the Court of Henry VIII

Hans Holbein: “I would like to paint her.”

Thomas Cromwell: “I don’t know. She may not want to be studied…She has a great presence, espirit…You may not be able to put it in a painting.”

Holbein: “I see you think I am limited.” (1)

I just finished reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in this period of English history or just quality contemporary literature in general. Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) the famed Renaissance portraitist is featured as a minor character in the novel and the well-rounded studies of famous figures like Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More that Mantel provides in her writing piqued my interest in re-examing some of Holbein’s work while performing commissions for Henry’s court. The artist came to be renowned all over Europe for his subtle yet penetrating images of the era’s leading figures but I was particularly concerned with viewing some of these paintings again with respect to the individuals described in the book. Besides Holbein’s gift for depicting the essence of his sitter’s personalities through physiognomy, the flawless craftsmanship of his oils is remarkable still even today.

Anne Boleyn
Hans Holbein-Anne Boleyn-1532-35

Henry VIII
Hans Holbein-Henry VIII-1540

Here’s how editors H. W. Janson and Anthony F. Janson describe Holbein’s 1540 portrait of Henry in History of Art: Volume II:

“His portrait of Henry VIII has the rigid frontality of Durer’s self-portrait, but its purpose is to convey the almost divine authority of the absolute ruler. The monarch’s physical bulk creates an overpowering sensation of his ruthless, commanding presence.” (2)

Thomas More
Hans Holbein-Sir Thomas More-1527

Thomas Cromwell
Hans Holbein-Thomas Cromwell-1533

(1) Mantel, Hilary. Wolf Hall. Henry Holt & Co., New York, 2009. Pgs. 304-05
(2) Janson, H. W. & Anthony F. Janson, Eds. History of Art: Volume II (Revised Fifth Edition). Harry N. Abrams, New Work, 1997. Pg. 538

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