Ford Madox Ford.

Hans Holbein the younger; a critical monograph online

. (page 2 of 6)
Online LibraryFord Madox FordHans Holbein the younger; a critical monograph → online text (page 2 of 6)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

meaning roughly " This is one of H. H.'s first works."
A precisely similar note is appended to the entry
regarding the picture of the scourging of Christ.


These two works both belonged to Amerbach. The

■ authorities have since added to them three other

works, obviously by the same painter, and obviously

of the same series — Christ on the Mount of Olives, The

Betrayal of Christ, and Pilate Washing his Hands.

These large, ugly, but very forcible and \
dramatic paintings on linen do not fit in very easily
into the sequence of Holbein's other paintings. I
mean that supposing we take the first Virgin and Child
(1514) and the portrait of Amerbach (15 19) as definite
and assured landmarks in the progress of Holbein's
technique, the painter must have made a very serious
deviation to arrive at the peculiar region of coarse
painting, harsh colour, and abrupt and violent atti-
tudes in which there could have existed these concep-
tions of a Passion. It is as if he must have been drawn
out of his straight course by some peculiar attraction.
Dramatic as some of his later designs may have been,
not one of them is so violent, or so brutal, as the
Scourging, not one of them so vividly represents
arms in the actual swing of their descent. Thus both
in conception and in execution Holbein would appear
to have been under an influence that was not his
father's, that was not a product of his own evolution.

On the strength of Amerbach's notes, then, we may
accept the Passion series as Holbein's work ; on the
strength of the works themselves we may well believe
that in these years he did actually work in the studio
of some Basle artist of a considerable personality of
his own. As far as the paintings themselves arc
concerned, we may also actually believe that Holbein
merely completed the designs of a master who reached
considerably further back into the regions of style.

For the Scourging at the Pillar has no exuberant
Renaissance decorations of any kind : there arc a bare
brick wall, a bare pillar, a bare tiled floor, a naked



figure. The scourgers are dressed in contemporary
costume ; their breeches are slashed, their shoes
enormous, their hair cut after the fashion of Holbein's
own time. There does not in fact appear to have been
any room in this design for the peculiar personality
of Holbein. It is, as it were, a rather barbaric concep-
tion that draws its being from an older generation.
This Scourging is the first of this series. In the
subsequent pictures Holbein seems gradually to assert
himself. In the Last Supper the figures of the Saviour
and the Apostles may well have been indicated by
another master. But the decorations at the back of
the table are already once more Renaissance improvisa-
tions. There are the bases of marble columns, and
an arched door decorated with the inevitable cherubs.
It is as if the master had left at the back of his design
a blank space which the pupil filled up with fancies
after his own heart.

The fact that these pictures are painted on linen
indicates that they were not intended for permanent
preservation. They were probably ordered for some
Church feast in the neighbourhood, and this may
account for their slapdash painting.

They were in fact journey-work, and it was to
journey-work that Holbein devoted himself during
these years of his first stay in Basle. He designed
title-pages, such as that to the " Breve ad Erasmum,"
and that to the Basle edition of Sir Thomas More's
" Utopia." He painted the tops of tables and the
small heads of saints to fill in niches in houses. Two
of these last are also in the Amerbach Collection
at Basle. In Amerbach's catalogue they are described
as being next to the Passion pictures " die frilhesten
Werke des jungern Holbein" and these indeed would
seem to show us the young Holbein getting back into
what was later so very much his own country. The

■ * UJ*.&



IfflHF! llraun.


one, a Head of a Virgin, crowned, naive, and not very
skilfully painted from some model, is much more
actual in conception than any of the Passion pictures,
and it is much more within the limits of its painter's
capacity. It is a more personal work. And if the
Head of a Saint commonly called St. John the Evan-
gelist is somewhat sentimentalized, there is no reason
why a boy, painting in piously Catholic times, should
not sentimentalize the most mystical of the evangelists.

What one would wish to emphasize is the fact
that there were three or more definite strains of
influence at work in the pictures of this date. There
was the extreme violence of The Scourging. This
we shall find later again in the series of designs for
stained glass, also a Passion series. This violence may
have been part of Holbein's exuberant youth, or it
may have been part of the inheritance of his age —
an age which desired to see violent scenes rendered
violently. We see the same sort of brutality of con-
ception, tempered, however, by a decorative quality
that Holbein's early pictures had not, in the works of
the Augsburg master, Jorg Brcu the elder. The
common people demanded violent renderings of sacred
narratives : the priests were ready to supply the
demand by commissioning such paintings.

Holbein himself, as we shall see later, was never
above doing his best to supply a demand. He was
much more a craftsman in our modern sense of the
term than a self-denying " artist " such as we now
clamour for. His business was to obtain work first,
and for this reason he strove to please his customers.
That he had any more mystical ideals of the functions
of an artist we have no means of telling.

\\ e know, too, that what delighted him was Renais-
sance decoration, and this was a plastic delight, a per-
sonal taste, rather than an influence from without.



And, deeper down in the boy, at the very heart of
the rose as it were, there was slumbering the deep,
human, untroubled, and tranquil delight in the outward
aspect of humanity, in eyes, in lips, in the form of
hair, in the outlines of the face from ear to chin.
This delight in rendering produced the matchless
series of portraits of his later years which for us to-day
are " Holbein."

Personally I seem to see these strains very clearly
in the work of that date. Thus at the one extreme
we may put the Passion pictures of 15 15, and at the
other the portraits of Jakob Meier and his bride
Dorothea Kannegiesser — and in between them an
Adam and Eve, of 15 17. The Passion pictures are
violent ; the heads of saints are timidly idealized, but
painted direct from models. The portraits of the
Burgermeister and wife are simply portraits. But the
Adam and Eve is, as it were, dramatic portraiture ;
it forms the stepping-stone between the Passion series
and the portraits. The look upon the face of the
Eve, as if, having tasted the fruit, she had found
it very bitter, the contorted attitude of the Adam, his
eyes gazing upwards as if cringing before omnipotent
wrath — these are at once dramatic in the sense of
having been invented, and real in the sense of
having been observed. One cannot ask more of a
subject-picture — except that it should be well drawn
and painted.

In this sense, too, the Adam and Eve lies between
the Meier portraits and the Passion pictures. It is
not so coarsely painted as the big pictures, it is not so
flatly " washed in " as the portraits, which latter are
painted as if Holbein were trying to develop for
himself a method of painting portraits in oil which
was simply the same as that of his first sketches for the
portraits themselves.


This method he had certainly learned from his
father, and it is as if he had preserved his precious
secret beneath all the noise and display of his B
master's teaching, or of the demands made upon him
by the Basle crowds.

In his portraits his method was the same throughout
his life. He made a silverpoint outline of his sitter —
put in light washes of colour on the face ; just indi-
cated the nature of ornaments ; made pencil notes
of furs, orders, or the colour of eyebrows ; and then
took his delicate sketch home with him to work out the
oil picture probably from memory.

The Meier portraits we may thus regard as being
the first of the great Holbeins. The sketches and the
paintings themselves may both be seen in the Basle
Museum, and it is interesting to see how Holbein
elaborated the costume of Dorothea, whilst he
simplified the painting of her face. And in these
portraits once more the Renaissance decorations fill in
the picture and complete the composition.

In his latest and greatest portraits Holbein dispensed
almost entirely with these decorations. The figure
was there, and nothing else. And it is a matter for
speculation whether the young Holbein painted
them to satisfy himself or his customer. He had, as
I have said, his customer always very clearly before
his mind's eye, and even so late in life as on his second
visit to England he painted the celebrated " display "
portrait of George Giszc to show the German mer-
chant of the Steelyard what he could do. Thus, no
doubt, we may regard the elaborated painting of Frau
Meier's jewelled smock as being in the nature of an
attempt to get further orders.

Outside the realm of pure painting, Holbein
certainly did do his best to get further orders. Thus
we may account for the celebrated production called



Hans BaYs 'Table. Here not only are all manner of
painted quips and cranks, such as a depiction of that
" nobody " who does all the mischief, but various
objects are supposed to lie on top of the pictures
themselves, so that the beholder may be tricked into
picking them up. The work is not of any particular
importance, but the Schoolmaster' 's Signboards of 15 15
are naive and rather charming serious attempts at
painting. If they are not as good in their way as the
Meier portraits, they are — these two little designs —
quaint and actual in a high degree : a proof, if any
were needed, that Holbein observed very closely the
life of the people around him. They are like little
Hogarths in their bareness, their selection of towels,
handwashing fountains, and — if one cares to read in
these pictures a story — in their portrayal of the Indus-
trious and the Idle Scholar.

Thus at the end of his first visit to Basle we may
regard Holbein as having done a certain amount of
journey- work ; as having come in the capacity of a
printer's workman into connexion with the great
Humanists ; and as remaining most probably a follower
of the Old Faith along with the greater portion of
the population of this city of Basle. He appears to
have returned to Lucerne in 15 16-17, and there, as
I have said, either he or his father entered the Guild
of Painters, and either he or his father had to pay a
fine for brawling.



HE reappears only intermittently until the year
15 19, when he is once again to be found at
Basle, and has by that time become a real
master. Of what happened in the meantime the great
historians can do little more than conjecture. \\ e
know that in Lucerne in 15 17 he decorated both the
inside and outside of Jakob von Hertenstein's house.
It is conjectured that he settled in Altdorf, because
in the background of one of his designs there appear
buildings somewhat resembling those of Altdorf.
It is conjectured also that he travelled in Italy, because
the facade of the Hertenstein house is copied ^direct
from Mantegna's Triumph, whilst his Last Suffer of
a certainly later but uncertain date is copied almost
as directly from Leonardo's. None of these three
theories can be supported by evidence that would be
in the least good in a court of law, for Mantegna
engravings were extremely common in Switzerland at
that time ; Leonardo's works were frequently copied,
and the copies distributed about the world, whilst
Altdorf is near enough to Lucerne for Holbein to have
made a sketching journey so far. On the other hand,
the intercourse between Switzerland and Italy was
extremely close ; the Swiss poured down from their
mountains in considerable numbers and very frequently,
and Holbein's own patron, Meier, had led Swiss troops
down into the Lombard plain. Thus Holbein may
without the least stretch of probability have gone into



Italy either on his own account or at the desire of some

The extent to which the Swiss preoccupied the minds
of the Italians is proved by the fact that Machiavelli,
in writing of the ancient Roman military genius,
modelled his accounts of their evolutions on the
exploits of the Swiss invaders. On the other hand,
the influence of the Italian painters on the Swiss
and German masters is extremely easy to trace and
frequent of occurrence at this date. The earlier
Basle masters, such as that great man Conrad Vitz,
were more directly under the influence of the Van
Eycks, of the Meister von Flemalle, and of the Flemish
masters generally. But such painters as Hans Fries
and Jorg Breu the elder in the Samson series to which
I have already referred were very obviously inspired
by Italians.

Thus in the Samson series whole motives, figures,
and incidents are " lifted " directly from Italian
engravings and nielli. In this they followed the fashion
of their age, just as our own Elizabethan sonneteers
translated directly from Petrarch. And Holbein, in
copying Mantegna, was no doubt perfectly justified in
his own mind.

He was no doubt perfectly justified too by the custom
of his age in decorating, as he did, the houses of his
time. He painted sham porticoes, sham steps, sham
garden walls, and an innumerable quantity of sham
architectural devices, both internal and external,
filling up the interstices with pictures of the Seasons,
of the Greek divinities, or of dogs and peasants. We
may nowadays accept Sapor the King of the Persians,
ot Leaia biting out a tongue : we may accept in fact the
pictures. But the sham architecture we must needs
call bastard, holding that a wall must look like a wall
of honest brick if it be made of brick ; or stone, not



marble, if it be made of stone ; or wood if it be wood.
The artist in faet has to respect his materials and must
consider that a painted pillar, however much it may
look like a pillar, is an unspeakable sin.

Holbein took the world as he found it, did what he
was a-ked to do, and did it a great deal better than
anyone else, and to condemn him would be as unprofit-
able and as unjust as to abuse Sir Thomas More for
making it his proudest boast, for having it inscribed on
his tomb, to flaunt in the face of all posterity, that he
was kareticis molestus.

Taking it, then, for granted that Holbein, with the
innocence of a child doing what it sees others do, took
part in a movement that was to lead architecture
eventually down into the unsoundable Avernus that
it has at present reached, we may concede to the
cartoons for these fresco-designs merits which on the
strength of their achievements alone would place
Holbein among the great masters. Their composition
is forcible, the line is flowing, the drawing of figure-
nearly always exactly observed and vigorously rendered,
whilst they are still conventional enough to be very
largely decorative. It is while he was in the full flood
of producing these and similar designs for coloured glass
that we take him up once more in the city of Basle.

Going back there he must have found the state of
affairs in externals very similar to that of the Basle
he had left. Only the shadows of the approaching
changes were deepening. He found his brother
Ambrosius still at work designing initials and title-
pages for the printers, or designing dagger-sheaths
and gold bands for goldsmiths. One of these gold-
smiths, George Schwciger, himself, like the young
Holbein, from Augsburg, had been Ambrosius' sponsor
into the Guild which included painters, surgeons, and
barbers, " Zum Himmel"



His portrait by Ambrosius has in its way merits
as great as those in any of the earlier portraits of
Holbein himself ; that is to say, that what it lacks
in depth of painting it makes up in a sort of flat
decorative look and in a poetic rendering that suggests
the influence of Durer. But on the whole we know
very little of either the career or the talents of Holbein's
elder brother. There is another small painting in
the Basle Museum which suggests the influence of
Durer. This is called Christus als Filrbitter — Christ
interceding before God the Father. In this not very
well composed design the figure of the Saviour is
copied directly from the title-page of Durer's Greater
Passion, whilst the ring of angels above the head of
the Christ appears to have been suggested by the little
Durer drawing called A Dance of Monkeys which
formed part of the Amerbach Collection, and is now
in the Basle Museum. If this be the case Ambrosius
must have lived till 1523.

Ambrosius, and no doubt Holbein himself, belonged
to a little group of Suabians of whom there were then
a considerable number in Basle itself. They were
mostly artists who were attracted thither by the work
offered. The books decorated with woodcuts and
initials, for which Basle was so celebrated, were
exposed for sale in great quantities in the yearly markets.
And it should be remembered that Amerbach the
printer was himself a Suabian. If we take into account
the fact that the most intimate Basle friend of Holbein
was Bonifacius Amerbach, the son of the printer, we
may conjecture that it was to Amerbach the Suabian,
rather than to Frobenius, that the two Holbeins first
applied in coming to Basle. At any rate, through one
or the other printer, Holbein came under the notice
of the great Erasmus and under the influence of the
Humanists. He was admitted to the " Zunft zum

by permission of Affisn liraun


Himmel" in September 1519, and in July 1520 he
became a citizen of Basle in order to qualify himself
for practising there as a master. And probably at
about the same date and for the same reasons he
married a widow with two children.

He was then aged twenty-three. Some doubts
have been thrown upon the portrait of himself, a
chalk drawing of about this date, which is at present
No. 66 in the catalogue of the Basle Museum. It
descends from the Amcrbach Collection. The inscrip-
tion at present underneath it runs : " Imago Pict.
celebert. Johann Holbein, ejusdemque opus." But this
inscription is of later date. The objection taken to
the picture is that the note in Amerbach's catalogue
may be taken to mean " a likeness " cither " of " or
" by " Holbein, the German word von having both
meanings. Tradition, however, translates the von " of,"
and tradition is frequently of enough weight to send
down an equal balance.

The likeness, which is a masterly piece of pastel
work, is so like the mental image of the man that one
forms from his works, that one may accept it as a
portrait and retain it privately in one's mind as an
image. It is the head of a reliable and good-humoured
youth, heavy-shouldered, with a massive neck and an
erected round head — the head of a man ready to do
any work that might come in his way with a calm self-
reliance. The expression is entirely different from
that in, say, Diirer's portrait of himself ; from the
nervous, intent glare and the somewhat self-conscious
strained gaze. Holbein neither wrote about his art
nor about his religion — nor, alas ! did he sign and date
every piece of paper that left his hand. He was not
a man with a mission, but a man ready to do a day's
work. And the intent expression of his eyes, which
calmly survey the world, suggests nothing so much as

c 33


that of a thoroughly efficient fieldsman in a game of
cricket who misses no motion of the game that passes
beneath his eyes, because at any moment the ball may
come in his direction.

Diirer signed each of his works, because a friend in
early life suggested that in that way he should follow
the example of Apelles. He added to his drawings
inscriptions such as : " This is the way knights were
armed at this time," or " This is the dress ladies wore
in Nuremberg in going to a ball in 1510," as if he were
anxious to add another personal note to that which
the drawings themselves should carry down to posterity :
as if he were anxious to make his voice heard as well as
the work of his hands seen. Holbein once in painting
a portrait of one of his supposed mistresses implies
that he himself was Apelles. He calls her Lais
Corintbiaca, and Lai's of Corinth was the mistress of
the great Greek painter. But he scarcely ever added
notes to his designs, and he never seems to have troubled
about his personality at all.

The eyes of his own portrait are those of a good-
humoured sceptic, the eyes of Diirer those of a fanatic.
Diirer attempted to amend by his drawings the life
of his day ; Holbein was contented with rendering
life as he saw it. Diirer, after having plunged into
the waters of the Renaissance, abandoned them self-
consciously — because it was not right for a Christian
man to portray heathen gods and goddesses. Holbein,
if he gradually dropped Renaissance decorations out
of his portraits, did it on purely aesthetic grounds.
He continued to the end of his life to make Renaissance
designs for goldsmiths, for printers, for architects, or
for furniture makers. Diirer identified himself pas-
sionately with Luther, in whom he found an emotional
teacher after his own heart. Holbein, in one and the
same year, painted the Meier Madonna and designed



headpieces for Lutheran pamphlets so violent and
scurrilous that the Basle Town Council, itself more
than half-Lutheran, forbade their sale.

Holbein probably was endowed with the saving
grace of humour. It is suggestive to find these two
great artists as it were entangling their arts, meeting
for a moment, and parting. Holbein, to while away
some winter evenings in 15 15, made a number of
rough pen-drawings commenting upon rather than
illustrating Erasmus' " Praise of Folly." These
drawings were made in the margin of the book itself.
J Hirer had made a number of similar drawings in the
margin of a copy of the New Testament. These
drawings of Diirer's present striking resemblances to
the others of Holbein's. Thus Diirer's Folly in cap
and bells might well have formed the model for
1 Iolbein's Folly leaves her -pulpit. And one of Holbein's
sketches of a stag bounding through a wood appears
to have been actually copied from Diirer's New
Testament. Now Diircr was in Basle in 15 15. Thus
these two great men appear to touch hands for a second
and, significantly enough, the one under the banner
of the Lutherans, the other of the Humanists. These
little drawings make Holbein, in 151 5, touch hands
too with the third very great man of his time.

The figure of Erasmus dominates of course those
of all other associates of Holbein in the Swiss city of
early days. His doctrine of gentleness and his humour,
that extremists reasonably enough found trying, ulti-
mately caused him to leave Basle. That city indeed
resembled a hornet's nest by the year 1529, and his
sharp and sardonic tongue had rendered him unpopular,
as all observers must be unpopular amongst men of
action. He hit off salient points too sharply ; a
quiet man, he resented the violent outcries of the
Lutherans who ultimately became dominant in Basle.



He called, indeed, these outcries " tragedies," using
the word in no complimentary sense, and, upon the
occasion of the marriage of CEcolampadius the
Reformer, he let fall the remark that " Lutheran
tragedy always ends happily in weddings." Neverthe-
less it must have been an age that we may well envy —
an age in which gentle irony, or irony of any kind,
could make a man world-famous. For that was the
fate of Erasmus. And, if Basle ultimately became too
hot to hold him, it speaks nevertheless for the tolera-
tion of the Reformers that he should have been able
to remain for so long amongst them, just as it speaks
for the toleration of the upholders of the old faith
that he should have been able with impunity to refuse
at the end of his life a cardinal's hat.

His tongue appears to have spared no man — and,
indeed, the earliest trace that we find of his association
with Holbein is his little note against the drawing of a
gross and fleshly character portrayed in the margin
of the " Praise of Folly." Holbein had " labelled "

2 4 5 6

Online LibraryFord Madox FordHans Holbein the younger; a critical monograph → online text (page 2 of 6)