German artist Hans Holbein the Younger created his most famous portraits while working as a court painter for Henry VIII in 16th-century England. Holbein took great pains to decorate his subjects and their surroundings with clues to their identities: Fine silk clothes, gems, books, furry creatures and gilded inscriptions all hint at the family ties, class, occupations and ambitions of his sitters.
American museumgoers can now decode the desires of the Tudor elite themselves by taking a close look at Holbein’s portraits, on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles through January 9, 2022. As Jason Farago reports for the New York Times, “Hans Holbein: Capturing Character in the Renaissance” marks the first major solo show dedicated to the painter in the United States.
Co-organized with the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, where it will travel in February, the exhibition features 33 paintings and drawings by Holbein from the Getty’s collection and institutions around the globe. Those unable to visit the show in person can explore an online version through the Getty’s website.
Born in the German city of Augsburg around 1497, Holbein probably first learned his trade from his father, the religious painter Hans Holbein the Elder. After launching his career in Basel, Switzerland, Holbein the Younger fled the political turmoil of the Protestant Reformation for the relative refuge of England in 1526. (He briefly returned to Basel in 1528 but had settled in England permanently by 1532.)
Holbein’s big break came in the form of Desiderius Erasmus, a philosopher whose witty treatises made him “Europe’s first celebrity scholar,” per the Getty. The artist helped popularize Erasmus’ likeness across Europe; in return, the scholar introduced the painter to patrons in England’s royal court. Viewers at the Getty will see several Holbein representations of Erasmus, all of which feature his trademark profile: “long nose, deep-set eyes, strong jaw,” according to the exhibition website.
In addition to painting Henry VIII himself, Holbein created portraits of merchants, ambassadors, noblewomen, children and the hordes of ambitious patrons who cycled in and out of Tudor court. The artist often collaborated with his subjects to select items that projected their desired image. For instance, scientific imaging suggests that the artist added a small red squirrel to A Lady With a Squirrel and a Starling (1526–28) rather late in the painting process. The woman depicted is probably Anne Lovell: Her pet squirrel, which wears a thin silver chain and nibbles on a hazelnut, is likely featured as an allusion to the squirrel on the Lovell family crest, notes the Getty in a statement.
“[Holbein] devised inventive pictorial solutions for his patrons and achieved the powerful impression of presence and specificity through a flexible working process and rapport with his sitters,” says curator Anne Woollett in the statement. “[He] created not just accurate likenesses but splendid celebrations of his sitter’s values, aspirations and professional identities.”
As Tudor England’s leading court painter, Holbein was a key figure in the tumultuous political environment. His art even led to a wedding: Painted in 1539, Holbein’s portrait of Anne of Cleves in a red velvet gown so enthralled Henry that the English king famously agreed to marry her without meeting her in person. When Anne arrived in England, Henry was displeased with her appearance, declaring, “I like her not! I like her not!” (She was taller than he expected, with heavy eyelids and thick eyebrows.) The monarch accused adviser Thomas Cromwell, who’d arranged the union, of willfully deceiving him, and the royal couple’s marriage was annulled just six months later.
Other Holbein paintings became iconic political symbols. Though his original Portrait of Henry VIII (circa 1536) was destroyed in a fire, the artist’s depiction of the king lives on in reproductions. Holbein fashions Henry as a triumphant leader, with “legs planted like two English oaks, assert[ing] the doctrinal discipline and patriotic defiance of Tudor England and its national church,” writes Dominic Green in the Wall Street Journal’s review of The King’s Painter, a recently released book by historian Franny Moyle.
Another work included in the show, on loan from the Frick Collection in New York, depicts Cromwell. As a lawyer and arguably the most powerful statesman in Henry’s court, Cromwell engineered the king’s first divorce, the subsequent creation of the Church of England, the downfall of Anne Boleyn and the king’s later ill-fated marriage to Anne of Cleves—the latter of which led to the political adviser’s beheading in 1540. (Holbein, for his part, died of the plague in 1543.)
As the Times notes, Hilary Mantel’s 2009 novel Wolf Hall, which offers a fictionalized account of Cromwell’s rise to power, features a scene in which the statesman sees Holbein’s finished portrait for the first time.
“Hans has made [Cromwell’s] skin smooth as the skin of a courtesan,” Mantel writes, “but the motion he has captured, that folding of the fingers, is as sure as that of a slaughterman’s when he picks up the killing knife.”
“Hans Holbein: Capturing Character in the Renaissance” is on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles through January 9, 2022. The show will travel to the Morgan Library & Museum in New York in February 2022.