An exhibition at the Getty unleashes the dynamic character of Holbein’s portraits in ways I’ve never seen before.
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LOS ANGELES — Hans Holbein the Younger is well known for his portraits of Henry VIII and some of his wives and potential wives, such as Catherine of Denmark, whose haunting likeness hangs near “The Ambassadors” (1533) in the National Gallery in London. One of the king’s advisors, Thomas Cromwell, can be seen in a seated portrait from the Frick Collection at the Holbein exhibition at the Getty Center. (Cromwell may be familiar to visitors from the BBC series Wolf Hall, based on Hillary Mantel’s historical novels.) Official portraits by the German-born, Swiss artist-turned-painter to the English king have shaped how we imagine the silhouettes, poses, and textures of life at the Tudor court.
In this superb exhibition, Holbein: Capturing Character in the Renaissance, the artist’s craft is presented in a more intimate light, with portraits and designs intended to be seen close-up. Co-organized by the Getty Museum and the Morgan Library & Museum, the curators Anne T. Woollett, Austėja Mackelaitė, and John T. McQuillen have assembled a varied and fascinating collection of artifacts that highlights connections between the arts of writing and painting. Although the exhibition narrates familiar Renaissance themes — the artist’s network of influential humanist friends, the use of epigraphs in paintings, and strategies to convey character — the selection of objects generates unexpected and thus exciting connections across diverse material forms and media. Round formats abound (medals, rondels, pendants, medallions, devices), and circular things proliferate in pictures (coins, caps, badges, seals). Lettering appears on cartellini and plaques beside sitters, on documents arranged before them, and sometimes inscribed boldly alongside faces, as if competing for attention with the physiognomies they embellish. Formal associations, and the intersection of lettering and picturing, unleash the dynamic character of Holbein’s portraits in ways I’ve never seen before.
Holbein’s calligraphic lines activate portraits, sustaining and directing our attention. His sitters include noblewomen, sundry officials, collaborators, such as printers and artists, and humanist friends. Desiderius Erasmus is represented in numerous artistic mediums and guises, and Philipp Melanchthon in the rondel from the Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum Hannover. There are politicians and merchants, notably members of the Hanseatic League, a powerful trading organization of German cities. Seen together, the painted portraits highlight similarities among the individuals, and also differences, captured, for example, in the graphic silhouette created by the distinctive brim of a hat. This dynamic is particularly evident in the drawings. Sweeping lines of ink describe collars and the rake and tilt of berets worn by William Parr and Henry Howard, two examples from the Queen’s Collection.
The emphasis on Holbein’s ornamental designs in the exhibition yields important insights about his approach to portraits. Consider the round format of “Simon George of Cornwall” (1535–1540) from the Städel Museum in Frankfurt. The sitter faces left in this bust-length portrait, holding a carnation as an expression of his romantic intentions. However, the painting is not so simple. The circular format incites notice of the round hat badge that glitters on his beret. Sinuous contours of a female nude curve around the left side while a swan, Jupiter’s disguise for his encounter with Leda, opens his wings to the right. Jupiter’s miniature plumage in the hat badge transforms how we interpret the provocative feather that swoops around the beret of Simon George, its downy texture emulating the hair around his ear and the curls of his beard against his neck. The graphic arc of the plume also directs us to the layers of fabric that open up at his neck, perhaps conjuring feathers ruffling.
A display of pendants, hat badges, and rings illuminates the jewels, textures, and materials visitors have explored in the portraits. The cabinet of small objects showcases the historical fascination with allegories and myths, like the Leda and the Swan broach, when crafted in miniature from precious metals, gemstones, enamel, and chalcedony. Consider the example from “Mary, Lady Guildford” (1527), from the Saint Louis Art Museum. Objects like the pendant embellishing her neck are signs of status, and ornament refers, etymologically, to the ordering of social ranks.
Holbein’s portraits attest to how ornament focuses attention on social and political meanings. But his designs for miniatures — an aspect of many objects in the exhibition — also play with how we read a painted panel or page. Serpentine lines, geometric patterns, meanders, edges, and folds move us around objects and open up new routes to wander. Gold chains and filigree borders decorate the neck of Lady Guilford and ensure notice of the chains that loop around her bodice and shoulders. Spiraling volutes and vines behind her vie for attention with the remarkable geometry of her armor-like dress. The ivy may be an emblem of steadfastness, but it is the lines of the tendrils, as they curve fondly toward her that hold our attention. While the emphasis of the show is on capturing identity in words and images, the calligraphic character of Holbein’s portraits is what shines.
Holbein: Capturing Character in the Renaissance continues at the Getty Center (1200 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood, Los Angeles) through January 9. The exhibition is co-organized by the Getty Museum and the Morgan Library & Museum and curated by Anne T. Woollett, Austėja Mackelaitė, and John T. McQuillen. It will travel to the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Midtown East, Manhattan) February 11–May 15.
Bronwen Wilson is the Edward W. Carter Chair in European Art and the director of the Center for 17th- and 18th-Century Studies and William Andrews Memorial Clark Library at UCLA. Her research and teaching… More by Bronwen Wilson