‘I could make seven earls from seven peasants if it pleased me, but I could not make one Hans Holbein, or so excellent an artist, out of seven earls’ (Henry VIII)
By the time this portrait was painted in the early 1540s Holbein had been in the service of the English crown for around fifteen years and a court painter for around six. For all the vicissitudes of the reign of Henry VIII, Holbein's position as the King’s painter was never undermined or challenged, and he adopted English citizenship in June 1541. Though Holbein left no real pupils or worthy imitators, his influence upon portraiture at the English Court was profound, for it was in his time that the concept of the royal portrait as a symbol of the monarch and as a visual legitimization of rule was first truly developed (this became especially important for the Tudor dynasty whose own ascent to power was still viewed by some with scepticism). In Strong’s words ‘the reign of Henry VIII witnesses the birth of modern royal portraiture and sets the pace for the next 300 years’, and for this Holbein was largely responsible.1
The King was in his early 50s by the time this painting was made. He was increasingly beset by poor health and was recovering from the end of his fifth marriage to Catherine Howard (c. 1523–42), whom he had had executed in the winter of 1542. Despite this, the King’s presence remains formidable and he is unflinching in his gaze. He is shown here at half-length in a full-frontal pose, clad in a velvet surcoat over a doublet of cloth of gold worked with silver that Holbein has cleverly adopted as a means of disguising the King’s greatly increased weight, which had been brought on by his illness. In his left hand he holds a staff. There is no evidence that the King sat specifically to Holbein for this portrait type, but, as was usual with Holbein’s working methods, his likeness was undoubtedly evolved from an earlier drawing taken from life, which no longer survives.
Despite Holbein's privileged position in the service of the Crown, his portraits of Henry VIII are extremely rare, and those issuing from his studio in his lifetime are also uncommon. Many of these versions were made to be sent to the influential noble families in the land. The first and most noteworthy surviving portrait of the King is the one painted in 1536 when he was forty-five, today in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, which is the only one of the versions entirely secured to the hand of Holbein.2 Holbein’s original ad vivum drawing is lost, but a copy closely resembling it inscribed with the name Hans Swarttung, who may have been one of the artist’s assistants, is in the collection of the Staatliche Graphische Samlung, in Munich.3
The present likeness of the King was to be the last royal image to issue from Holbein’s studio, for Holbein died in the fall of 1543 and Henry a few years later in 1547. Some examples of this type have likely unbroken provenance to the Tudor period including a painting formerly in the collection of the Howard family at Castle Howard until recently sold,4 a high-quality version formerly at Warwick Castle,5 and an example at Rothesay in the collection of the Marquess of Bute. Additional examples of this type dating to a period closer to or after the King's death, are to be found at Knole; Melbury House; The National Portrait Gallery; the University of Cambridge; the Bethlem Royal Hospital in London; the Moores Foundation at Compton Verney; and at Seaton Delaval. A version on canvas, dated 1544 though probably of later date, is at St. Bartholomew's Hospital. A reduced head-and-shoulders version is at Chatsworth.
In all, just over a dozen extant versions of the present likeness survive, but most may have been painted during or very shortly after the King’s lifetime. In the present state of research only a few can be shown to have been painted while Holbein was still alive. Recent dendrochronological study of the present panel shows a likely usage date for the panel from 1535 onwards, securing it, along with the ex-Howard and ex-Warwick portraits, as one of the only examples likely painted before Holbein’s death in 1543.
1 R. Strong, Tudor & Jacobean Portraits, London 1969, vol. 1, p. 157.
2 Inv. no. 191 (1934.39), oil on panel, 28 by 20 cm.
3 Workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger, Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich, inv. no. 12875 Z.
4 London, Sotheby's, 8 July 2015, lot 7, as Workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger. Oil with gold and silver on oak panel, 93 by 68 cm.
5 London, Sotheby's, 9 December 2015, lot 8, as Workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger. Oil on oak panel, 91 by 64 cm.
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