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Hans Holbein the younger; a critical monograph online

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another character " Erasmus " : Erasmus set against
the figure of a drunken boon companion the name
of Holbein. I do not know that we need accept the
fact as registering authentically the painter's drunken
habits. In those days, when sages assailed each other
with epithets of the most vile during learned quarrels
of the most trivial dimensions, the mere hinting that
a man was not extravagantly ascetic was little more
than a friendly pat on the shoulder. We may indeed
regard it as gratifying to those of us who are interested
for Holbein that so immeasurably great a man as was
the Erasmus of those days should, in that familiar
vein of tu quoque, have acknowledged companionably
the existence of a boy of eighteen who had made rough
scrawls of genius in the margin of a book.

I have hardly room for a minute discussion upon


such subjects as to what degree did Holbein owe his
classical education to his friendship with the author
of the " Encomium JMoria;." Indeed we have no
very valid evidence that any close friendship existed
between the two men at this early date, and one* a
■priori ideas would seem to deny the probability.
Later, of course, Holbein made several portraits of
Erasmus — portraits of which that great man approved
to the extent of sending them to friends by whom he
wished to be remembered. But, for the rest, we must
imagine that, in early days at all events, Holbein picked
up merely such rule-of-thumb acquaintance with
classical legends as must have been easily attainable in
every alehouse and painters' guild of the Basle of that
day. And, as far as his personal character is concerned,
we may regard it as being satisfactory testimony that
his friends, whatever the degree of their intimacy,
remained friendly enough to patronize him — since the
Humanist Erasmus who gibed at him in 15 15 suffered
himself to be painted until 1529, and the earnest and
Catholic Burgomaster Jakob Meier who went to the
boy for a portrait, commissioned, a decade or so later,
the great Meier Madonna from a master whose ortho-
doxy must, by that time, have been rather less than



THE years from 15 19, when Holbein returned
to Basle, until 1526, when he first came to
this country, must have formed a period of
fairly steady and uninterrupted work. During that
time he produced the following works which, for the
sake of clearness of reference, I tabulate :


Portrait of Bonif actus Amerbach, 15 19.
The Last Supper.

The Freiburg Altarpiece (only wings remain).
Vi The Basle Museum Altarpiece (Passion series).
Designs for organ- case.
Diptych : Mater Dolorosa and Christ the Man

of Sorrows.
The Dead Man, 1521.
Two Saints (SS. George and Ursula), 1522.
The better Madonna of Solothurn, 1522.
Portrait of Erasmus, 1523.

V enus 1 K26

Lais Corinthiaca f ■*

The [putative] Portrait of himself . Coloured chalks.
{Circa 1520-21.)

Various studies and drawings in the Basle Museum,
many designs for stained glass, and the designs for
wood-engravings, like the Table of Cebes (1522), the



Dance of Death scries, an enormous number of initial
letters, and the Dance of Death alphabet. And, among
works of his which we know to have disappeared, there
was, to mention one alone, the decoration of the Basle
Rath-haus which occupied him fur a considerable
portion of the year 1521.

If Holbein had deliberately set himself to prove,
in some one piece of painting, that he returned to
Basle a master of portraiture, he could have offered to
the citizens no better a proof than the portrait of
Bonifacjus Amcrbach : and for its sweetness and
charm the little picture might say to Holbein himself,
Ne excedas ! It may well have been his first painting
on his return, for it is dated a.m.d.xix. prid. eid. oct.
— 14th October. His reception into the " Zunft zum
Himmel" had taken place on the 25th September.
It offers, in its painting, more than any other fact of
which we can get hold nowadays, an inducement to
believe that Holbein had travelled, during the interval
of his absence, in Italy, the land of friendly and brilliant

I know of no more just epithets to apply to the blues,
the reds, the whites, and the chestnuts of what is a
small gem. If it have not the cherry red and the green
of Botticelli, it has a gaiety in its scheme of contrast .
an, as it were, diaphanous effect of atmosphere, that
neither Mantegna nor Da Vinci could much have-
bettered in the direction of light- heartedness. Such a
sentence is perhaps gratuitous, but one is tempted
to the utterance. For, when you compare the Meier
portraits and this one, you arc at once sensible that t he-
Holbein who painted Amerbach has taken an immense
stride in the direction of confidence. The Meier
heads are still Qattish in effect : indeed the oil paint



are, as I have said, flatter even than the tinted sketches,
as if the painter were a little afraid of his medium and
were working within a convention, or a limit of
his powers that he had perhaps learned from his
father. But there is an end of that in the portrait of

I must leave it to the reader's preference to decide
what exactly was the " eye-opener " — to use a vulgar
word that is precisely just — Holbein had received
in the interval. I do not myself see any particular
evidence of the influences of Mantegna and Da Vinci :
but, all the same, the sight, say, of the Last Slipper may
have " given him furiously to think." It may, I mean,
have given him a shock that would prove a very definite
impulse towards working out his own salvation, if
not necessarily in terms of imitation of its painter.

Hard work, the sight of new skies, and a new
atmosphere, the influence of foreign masters, or the
mere desire to do his very best in a kind of " diploma "
work — whatever it was that made this little work so
luminous, made it also a touching record of a friendship
with a very charming man. Perhaps, indeed, it was
simply the glow of the friendship that communicated
itself to the painting. This is not mere rhapsody :
for the picture, if we did not know it to be the portrait
of an intimate friend, would self-reveal itself as such.
As a rule, Holbein cannot be called one of those painters
who can claim to have painted the " soul " of his
sitters. For there are some painters who make that
claim : there are many who have it made for them.
The claim is, on the face of it, rendered absurd by the
use of the word " soul." One may replace it by the
phrase " dramatic generalization," when it becomes
more comprehensible. What it means — to use a
literary generalization of some looseness — is that
the painter is one accustomed to live with his subject


for a time long enough to let him select a characteristic
expression ; one which, as far as his selection can be
justified, shall be the characteristic, the dominant

note, the "moral" of his sitter. The portrait thus
Incomes, in terms of the painter's abilities, an emblem
of sweetness, of regret, of ambition, of what you will.
The sitter is caught, as it were, in a moment of

Holbein hardly seems to have belonged to this class.
He appears to have said to his sitter as a rule : " Sit
still tor a moment : think of something that interests
you." I le marked the lines of the face, the colour of
the hair, a detail of the ornament — and the thing was
done. It was done, that is to say, as far as the observa-
tion went.

If he wished to " generalize " about his subject, he
did it with some material attribute, giving to Lais
Corinthiaca coins and an open palm, to George Gisze
the attributes of a merchant of the Steelyard. I am
not prepared to say whether the method of Holbein
or that of the painters of souls is the more to be com-
mended, but 1 am ready to lay it down that, in the
great range of his portraits, Holbein, as a painter of
what he could sec with the eye of the flesh, was
without any superior. Occasionally, as in the por-
traits of Erasmus in the Louvre, he passed over into
the other camp and, without sacrificing any of his
marvellous power of rendering what he saw, added a
touch of dramatic generalization, or of action. This was
generally a product of some intimacy with the sitter.

And it is perhaps this that makes the portrait of
Amerbach so charming. It is as if Holbein had had,
not the one sitting that was all so many of his later
subjects afforded him, but many days of observation
when his friend was unaware that he was under the
professional eye.



In the course of a summer walk along the flowery
meadows of the Rhine near Klein Basel — as the German
hypothetic biographers are so fond of writing — perhaps
Holbein glanced aside at his companion. Amerbach's
eye had, maybe, caught the up-springing of some lark,
and the sight suspended for a moment some wise,
witty, slightly sardonic, and pleasantly erudite remark.
Between the pause and the speech Holbein looked —
and the thing was done.

Hypothesis or not, that is the general suggestion
that the portrait makes, and its actuality, its accidental
dramatic effect, lifts it up, just a little, above much
work that he did after. That and the magnificent
power of rendering that he had, lifted him above any
level that he would have attained as a painter of
" subject " pictures. For in the best of his subject
pictures he showed a magnificent invention such as
is characteristic enough of his race : in his finest
portraits he showed an artistic insight — an imagination
such as I am tempted to say has been given to no
German before or since.

It shows itself next, most strongly, in the Dead Man
of two years later (1521). As painting and drawing,
this must remain one of Holbein's most masterly
works. It is practically his sole important rendering
of the nude, which otherwise seems little to have
attracted him. But, carefully drawn and observed,
dramatically lighted and rendered, it remains a per-
manent testimony to the fact that Holbein could
observe and render anything. If he only very occa-
sionally rendered the nude figure, it was because only
very occasionally he had the opportunity — just as,
though he seldom rendered animals, his little drawings
of bats and lambs in the Basle Museum prove what
masterly renderings of animals he was capable of ;
and just as the drawing of Lanzknechts fighting —


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which assuredly is one of Holbein's most wonderful
conceptions — or the design for the decoration in the
Basle Town Hall, Samuel declaring the anger of the Lord
to Saul, proves that he could observe what to-day we
call " men of action " and render them realistically or

The Dead Man is a frank piece of realism. The
agonized, open mouth and the opened eyes add some-
thing to the horror of the visual conception, but they
are all that Holbein added for the purpose of drama-
tization, and one may doubt to what extent they serve
that purpose. Otherwise it is just a dead man. Its
k< literary " genesis and what it " means " remain
mysteries. No doubt Holbein meant that each
beholder should interpret it for himself ; each beholder
must, at least, so interpret it. The inscription on the
rock and the pierced side rudimentarily convert this
dead man into a counterfeit presentment of the Man
who died that death might cease. Nevertheless it
remains open to us to doubt whether these attribu-
tions were more than an afterthought.

The subject of Death was one that very much pre-
occupied Holbein and his world. There were then,
as it were, so many fewer half-way houses to the grave :
prolonged illnesses, states of suspended animation,
precarious existences in draught-proof environment
or what one will, were then unknown. You were alive :
or you were dead ; you were very instinct with life :
the arrow struck you, the scythe mowed you down.
Thus Death and Life became abstractions that were
omnipresent, and, the attributes of Death being the
more palpable, Death rather than Lite was the
preoccupation of the living.

In his most widely known designs Holbein, choosing
the line of least resistance, shows us this abstraction
with its attributes. Employing little imagination of



his own, he has lavished a felicitous and facile invention
along with a splendid power of draughtsmanship
upon an idea that could be picked up from the walls
of almost every ale-house of his time. In the Dead
Man, however, he takes a higher flight, showing us,
not a comparatively commonplace abstraction, but
nothing less than man, dead. It is the picture of the
human entity at its last stage as an individual : the
next step must inevitably be its resolution into
those elements which can only again be brought
together at the beginning of the next stage. It is
the one step further — the painting of the inscription
upon the rock and of the wound in the side — that
identifies this man, dead, and trembling on the verge
of dissolution, with that Man, dead, who died that
mankind might go its one stage further towards an
eternity of joy and praise. And, by thus turning
a dead man into the Dead Man, Holbein performs, in
the realm of literary ideas, a very tremendous fact
with a very small exertion — for it is impossible to
imagine a human being who will not be brought to
a standstill and made to think some sort of thoughts
before what is, after all, a masterpiece of pure art. It
was that, perhaps, that Holbein had in his mind.

It may well be that he had nothing of the sort, and
that having, as it were, exhausted, in the search for
dramatic and melodramatic renderings of episodes
in the life of Christ, every kind of violence that he
could conceive of, he here comes out at the other end
of the wood and — just as the Greeks ended their
tragedies, not in a catastrophe, but upon a calm tone
of one kind or another — so Holbein crowns his version
of the earthly career of the Saviour with an unelaborated
keystone. Or it may have been merely a product of
his spirit of revolt. He may have been tired of sup-
plying series after series of Passion pictures meant

ii\ pnrniitiam <>' Mi ■' Dram, <

J ,,/■ ' ' ■> m '* '"■■ ' ''■' '


to satisfy the hunger of his time for strong meat in
religious portrayals.

It was this appetite that caused the existence of the
number of works in the Basle Museum — works which
must make one a little regret that the Holbein who
painted the portrait of Amerbach and the Dead Man
had not a greater leisure, since, vigorous and splendid
as so many of these conceptions are, they arc yet
upon a plane appreciably lower, whether we regard
them as products of art or as " readings of Life," to
use a cant phrase. In its present disastrously restored
state it is difficult to regard, say, the early Last Supper
as other than a rather uninspired piece of journey-
work. Without the early Passion scries on linen one
would feel inclined to say that it was of doubtful
ascription. It is interesting because it is one more of
Holbein's designs that has been "lifted" from an
Italian master, and because it shows Holbein pursuing
a sort of pictorial realism to supply the craving for
strong meat that 1 have mentioned. But in the
demand for designs for coloured glass he found a
refuge which tided him over dangerous years. It
called forth, too, qualities which, if they were not
amongst his very greatest, were yet sufficient to place
him among the rare band of very great decorative
art ins. It is impossible to stand, in Basle Museum,
before the scries of designs — of 'Madonnas ; of St.
Anne with the Virgin and the infant Jesus ; of the
charming little, short-legged St. Katharine with the
immense sword ; of scenes from the life of Christ :
of armorial bearings for a family or for a city; or oi
drawings that, apparently, were made in speculation
to form part of the glass-worker's " stock " designs —
it is impossible to consider this immense outpouring
of facile and wonderful work without saying that here
was a great and vivid personality, carrving on, side by



side, within himself two opposed but overpowering
strains of artistic tendency — and carrying them to-
gether to ends so high that at the last they seem hardly
to conflict.

In his later portrait work he attained to a region
more serene and more valuable : but then he trod
upon ground less dangerous. Speaking from the
outside and in the language of such abstract principles
as we have, we might say that to introduce realistic
parts into decorative designs was to commit the
unspeakable sin against first principles. Yet almost
every drawing of the Passion Series has a decorative
" look " of its own. It is, firstly, a thing pleasant for
the eye to rest on — which is the final end of decoration,
however attained. It is only secondarily that one
becomes aware that each drawing is an even violent
portrayal of scenes in the life of a man, despised,
rejected, and given up to the brutalities of a mob
whose vilenesses Holbein no doubt had ample means
of observing in the streets around. But, as I have
said, the men brandishing whips, the men shaking
fists, shouting, and pulling their faces into grimaces
of vomiting disgust — even the naked figure at the pillar,
the blindfold figure with its bound hands, and the
thorn-crowned man staggering beneath the heavy
cross — a ll these observed and rendered actualities are
the secondary matter : the design in its entirety is
the thing.

How, exactly, it is done is easy enough to say ; the
Renaissance architecture dwarfs the figures, sub-
ordinates them, brings them into place and gives " the
look " to the design. But how the conception could
have come into the master's head is not so easy to
discover — nor yet to say how great a master it was that
could subordinate so magnificent a power of actual
observation and realistic rendering — a thing that

4 6


weaker men of the one sort would have ridden to death
— to a power so great of conceiving decorative sur-
rounding?, a power that weaker men of the other sort
would have ridden to a death even worse. Yot 1 [olbein
kept his teams wonderfully in hand, and the grotesque
peasants of the Holdermeier Arms or the men in the
boat of the Arms of the City of Basle are no less parts
of an harmonious and beautiful design than are, say,
the intrinsically " pretty " Virgin and child of the
woodcut Patron Saints of the City of Freiburg. It is
only very occasionally, as in the Nailing on the Cross,
that a figure — in this case that of the Christ — ever
seems to " stick out " of the design. It docs this
probably because of a certain crudeness of realization,
just as, in the direction of prcttiness, the charming
little figure of St. Katharine or the charming little
group of St. Anne and the Virgin " stick out " of
their respective designs. Nevertheless, none of these
drawings are " realistic " in the sense that the drawings
of the bat, or the Lanzknerhts, are actual. They have,
very admirably, an effect of being drawn, as it were,
from highly " realistic " bas-reliefs ; the wash-drawings
giving robes and even faces a sort of general look of
being carved in marble. And this, also, gives them a
touch of aloofness ; it renders them convincingly

How admirably these designs were suited to their
purpose anyone may sec who will take the trouble
to visit the church of St. Theodore in Klein Basel,
where the Kniender Ritter design — oddly enough
without the Ritter — is carried out in coloured glas .
This absence of the design's particular Hamlet, the
dedicator, gives one a certain amount of matter for
thought. For, admirable as the designs are, they show
how once more, in the realm of decorative art, Holbein
stood at the parting of the ways and initiated practices



that, if they were saved from viciousness by his own
transcendant genius, yet pointed the way downwards
towards a slough of despond that we have not yet come
to the other side of.

For, just as in frescoing houses Holbein placed
himself above the architect, so, in the matter of
stained glass, he divorced himself from the glass-
maker. The earlier designers had been the actual
makers of the glass, and, later, they had at least
worked in the shadow of the church that they intended
to decorate. Their designs w T ere made for that
church and for a definite window in that church.
Holbein made merely " stock " designs that any glass-
maker might buy and set up in any building. Thus
his shields on designs for armorial windows were left
bare — and thus the Stifter of the Ritter design was just
a dummy figure that might be put in or left out.

It is no doubt the case that the mediaeval guild
system, which in the time of Holbein had reached
its sternest developments, was largely responsible for
this. No one, save members of the glaziers' guild,
might meddle with stained glass, and thus the designer
became of necessity alienated. The same was true of
wood-engraving in an almost more lamentable degree,
and we have bitter reasons to regret that the Holbein
who made many and excellent designs for wood-
engravings did not himself cut the blocks, so that it
is only occasionally, as when an engraver of genius
like the mysterious Liitzelberger was set to cut
part of the designs for the Dance of Death — it is only
thus occasionally that we can see what wood-engravings
after Holbein's designs might have been. Except
accidentally we cannot, of course, see the designs
themselves — but from the results we can judge that
Holbein the designer, either by study or by native
genius, had mastered the essentials of such design and

4 8


knew just what a good wood-engraver could do, and
just what his limitations must be. And, of course, we
may shudder to think what we should have lost had
Liitzelberger never existed.

I will return to the subject of wood-engravings
when, later, I treat of the Dance of Death series, the
publication of which was by accident deferred for a
decade or so. I have found it convenient to mention
the designs for coloured glass, which must have
occupied at least the odd moments of many years.
And it is not very easy to place them with any chrono-
logical exactness or to let them fall into place in between
the oil paintings as if they were the palings of a fence
between the heavier uprights. Indeed chronology is
a thing of no great avail to anyone dealing with the
work of Holbein in these particular years of his career.
It is far easier to divide his works up into compart-
ments according to their " look." In that way we get
the portrait of Amerbach (15 19) and the Dead Man
(1521) as the supporting parts of the fence. Without
troubling too much as to their relative sizes or values
we may class the Freiburg Altarpiece and the Basle
Altarpiece, the Diptych, Mater Dolorosa, and Man of
Sorrows, and the designs for the organ-case of Basle
Minster as being, along with the designs for coloured
glass, the rails that make up the fence. Further
along the road to 1526 the fence is supported by the
7.etter Madonna, the portrait of Erasmus of 1 523,
and the Dorothea Offenburgs of 1526.

The Basle Altarpiece (No. 14 in the Basle Collection)
consists of eight separate representations of incidents
in the Passion of Christ. By means of extraneous scroll
work and the shape of the whole they are linked
together so as to form an architectural rather than a
decorative unity. The entire work has, however, been
so harshly and glaringly restored that, except in the

u 49


form of a good reproduction, it is difficult to get any-
real pleasure from it. In such a reproduction there
stand out at once the remarkable vividness of the
realization and the skilful way in which, composition
blending into composition, unity and balance are
secured for the whole work. The figure of the Christ
on the Mount of Olives seems to lead the eye naturally
to the Judas, who delivers his kiss in the centre of a
crowd, beneath the shadow of lances and pikes ; the
armed crowd passes again, as if it were part of the same
procession, into the crowd, still armed and topped
with pikes and lances, before Pilate's seat ; and this
once more melts into the comparative solitude of the
scourging. Almost precisely the same effect is carried
out in the designs of the lower panels.

No doubt the exigencies of shape in the altarpiece
account considerably for the line of these designs.

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Online LibraryFord Madox FordHans Holbein the younger; a critical monograph → online text (page 3 of 6)