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Hans Holbein the younger; a critical monograph online

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The central picture of the Freiburg Altarpiece is
missing, so that we have no means of judging whether
in this work too Holbein followed out the same plan,
but the tilted moon of the Nativity and its lighting,
that proceeds apparently from the new-born child,
prove how inveterately and how skilfully Holbein
tempered the realism of his designs for the sake of
decorative effect : the broken arches of the palace
prove, in their case, how he modified his decorative
conventions to some extent in order to suit his
" literary " subject.

Paintings of such subjects must inevitably have
been very much what musicians would call variations
upon a given theme. The essential point — the theme
— was the mother and child ; the rest was free fantasia,
and it was hardly practicable for any artist to attempt
to drive out of the spectator's mind all other renderings.
That, in a " subject picture," is what the painter as
a rule seeks to do. But there are too many Nativities,


so that the artist was driven to desire that the beholder
should exclaim, not "How true ! " but " How beauti-
ful ! " We have ample reason to believe that Holbein's
idea of the beautiful was, at that date, a pricclcssly
ornamented Renaissance temple or palace: thus, in
this Nativity, he welds together subject and beauty,
producing the picture of a child born in a manger that
has been set up in a ruined palace. And we may well
exclaim : " How beautiful ! "

We may equally well exclaim " I low true ! " before
the little diptych (No. 13 of the Basle Museum),
Christ the Alan of Sorrows and Mater Dolorosa, two
small paintings in shades of brown which have de-
scended to the city of Basle from the collection of
Amerbach. Here there is no attempt made to recon-
cile the two currents. The Man of Sorrows is even
more forcibly set there than is the Dead Man, and it is
as if in his vaster frame there had been more room for
agony. We may, if we like, go out of our way to
analyse the literary side of the picture ; but whether
we evolve the theory that this is Christ in the halls
of Pilate before or after the scourging, or whether
we regard the columns and arches as merely creations
of Holbein's fancy to fill up the background and account
for the glancing light — in whatever way we satisfy
ourselves as to these details of small importance, this
figure of the man must remain for us the one reading
that we can carry about with us of that one side of
one incident of a tremendous legend. Holbein does,
when he addresses himself to it, drive home almost
more than any other preacher the fact of the humanity
of Christ. It is witli him a man who suffers, not an
amiable and distant divinity whose physical ills we
may neglect to the pleasing sound of church hymns.

A busy man, Holbein was under the necessity of
working quickly, and being neither a mystic nor a



sentimentalist, he struck swift and sure notes. There
was in him very little of what Schopenhauer calls
Christo-Germanische Dummheit ; he came before it
and before the date of angels who are conceived as
long-haired, winged creatures in immaculate gowns —
before the date of prettification, in fact. But, being
a busy man, he was naturally unequal in his work,
so that the figure of the Mater Dolorosa is neither so
arresting nor so convincing as that of her son ; and
two such figures as the SS. George and Ursula of
Carlsruhe, having been rather terribly overpainted,
are hardly even interesting as conceptions, though the
face and upper part of the body of the Ursula have a
certain, almost mediaeval charm. The curious obtru-
sion of the hips and bend of the knees suggest the
attitudes of the ladies in Holbein's design for costumes,
and would seem to prove that even so great a master
had, at times, to let his taste be perverted so as to
follow a fashion of the day or year. I mean that the
citizens' wives of Basle, walking all round Holbein
with a curious, distorted gait, seem, in this instance
at least, to have persuaded him that this was an ideal
attitude for the human form. It is interesting too
to observe in these two figures that shortness of
the legs which is so pronounced a characteristic of
the master's earlier work.

I am inclined to regard the Hampton Court painting
of the Risen Christ as being unjustly attributed to
Holbein. The attitude of the Christ is, at the least,
uncharacteristic of the painter, and the right arm of
the Magdalen, the clumsy line of her shoulder, the
stiffness of her drapery — the stiffness indeed of the whole
design — are out of sympathy with any other paintings
of the master's manhood, in which he distinguished
himself almost invariably by a flow of line and com-
position of masses that carry the eye from side to side

5 2


of a picture. You do not, I mean, anywhere else
see a rather clumsily outlined, stiff parallelogram of
light in the centre of a composition, such as is here
to be seen between the salient figures, nor indeed
do you elsewhere get such another stiff parallelogram
of light as is formed by the tomb with its slab rolled
away. Holbein, however, was so extremely various
in his conceptions, and the authorities who accept
the painting as his work are so formidable in weight,
as to make me speak with some diffidence ; neverthe-
less, the longer I look at the rigid lines of the picture
the more reluctant do I feel to accept it.

How various Holbein could be is proved immediately
in 1522, the year which saw the production of the
SS. George and Ursula. It saw also the birth of the
Virgin of Solotburn, a picture so beautiful in itself that,
when all the glamour of its recovery from a dishonoured
ruin beneath painter's floor boards is allowed for, and
when too all has been allowed for in the very careful
and well-intentioned restorations that it necessarily
underwent — when, in fact, everything that need be
is allowed for, it remains one of the finest of

The germ of this design is to be found in the
beautiful little woodcut on the reverse title-page of
the " Stadtrechte und Statuten der loeblichen Stadt
Freiburg." This was published in 1520 and seems to
prove that Holbein carried about with him the ideas
of favourite designs, and that, having, as it were,
wasted this lovely little conception on an obscure
woodcut, he wished once more to bring it gloriously
into the daylight. This is perhaps merely a romantic
way of putting the fact that, as many other busy
painters have done, Holbein sometimes elaborated
rough designs into finished pictures and that here we
are able to identify a first design— to catch him in the



act. The woodcut I am inclined to think more
charming in its spontaneity than is the design of the
picture. It has at least a greater unity and more
balance ; for in the Solotburn Virgin the figure of
St. Ursus of Thebes — a somewhat stiff and conventional
creation — stands somewhat apart from the entwined
group of the Virgin and St. Martin. The sinuous lines
of their robes flow one into another ; the up-and-down
figure of the knight is slightly discordant in the whole
composition. But, apart from this, and from the head
of the suppliant which Holbein introduces as discreetly
as is feasible, the picture is one of those very lovely
conceptions about which it is difficult to say very much.
There it is : you may look at it for an hour, for a
morning, or for a day or so on end, and always with
increasing satisfaction. It belongs, like all the best of
Holbein's work, to a special class of picture. It is
not immediately very striking either in lighting or in
colour, either in dramatic gesture or astonishing
painting. But there is no false drawing, as there is no
exaggerated drawing, and there is neither false lighting
nor false painting.

The whole mood of the picture, in inception as in
execution, is one of entire tranquillity, so that the
painted Virgin seems to be as sure of achieving a
successful motherhood as was Holbein of turning out
a masterpiece. That he was a very wonderful man is
proved by his so wonderfully overcoming the con-
ditions of the painting, since the vaulted and barred
niche points to the fact that the picture was intended
to fill a given and unlovely place, whilst the head of
the suppliant would seem to prove that the picture was
commissioned by some wealthy person with something
on his conscience. And it must have meant either
some skill in argument or some convicting power of
personality that the artist should have been able to



save the unit}' of his little Freiburg design — that, in

fact, lie should have been able to persuade the donor
to make so unobtrusive an appearance in the work.

The surprising adventures of the picture, identi-
fications of the donor and even of the model for the
Virgin, the strange circumstances of the discovery,
of the never to be sufficiently praised industry of the
recovcrcr — all these things are part of the legends
of art, and add to the hopefulness of those romantic
souls who dream of one day discovering inestimable
art-treasures beneath the floors of their bedrooms or in
deserted granaries. Inasmuch as such things prevent
most of us from looking at a picture as a picture, making
us produce mouths round with astonishment as if the
object gazed at were a captive released from Barbary
or some similar wonder, I dislike recounting them.
But the faith and gallant doggedness of Mr. Zetter,
who nosed out the picture from beneath dishonouring
rubbish, are so worthy of celebration that I cannot
refrain from referring such of my readers as care about
the matter to Mr. Zetter-Collin's " Die Zetter 'sche
Madonna von Solothum : Geschichte und Originalquellrn.
Solothum, 1902." Here will be found recorded all the
possible ana of the subject.

During this period — to be precise, from June 1521
until October 1522 — Holbein was engaged upon one
of those ta-ks which, along witli the Hertcnstein
frescoes, the Bar table, and the " Dance of Death,"
remained for some subsequent centuries wonders of the
world. This was the decoration of the council chamber
in the Basle Rath-haus. The frescoes themselves have
vanished, so that no man living has seen more than
patches of colour upon the walls : the pictures arc in
that heaven of lost masterpieces where, perhaps,
may one day sec the campanile of Venice, the arm-;
of the Venus of Milo, or the seven-branched candlc-



stick of the Temple of Solomon. Vigorous and splendid
sketches remain, some copies and many descriptions —
but these afford us very little idea of what may have
been the actual effect of the decorations, as decorations.

Regarded theoretically they cannot have been
perfect or even desirable : here again plain walls were
made to look like anything else but walls. But no doubt
they were very wonderful things whilst they still existed.

Nevertheless I cannot resist a feeling of private but
intimate relief that these tremendous tours de force
are left to our imaginings. We lose them — but we
gain a Holbein whom we can more fearlessly enjoy.
For, supposing these things with their nine days'
wonder of invention that Holbein shared with many
commoner men and set working for the gratification
of every commoner man — supposing these extremely
wonderful designs still existed, the far greater Holbein
— the Holbein of the one or two Madonnas and of
the innumerable portraits in oil or in silverpoint —
the Holbein whose works place him side by side with
the highest artists, in that highest of all arts, the art
of portraiture — that tranquil and assured master must
have been obscured. Those of us who loved his
greater works must, in the nature of things, have been
accused of paradox flinging : the great Public must have
called out : " Look at that wonderful invention :
that compassionate executioner with the magnifying
glass, seeking to take out his victim's eye with as little
brutality as might be ! " And beside that attraction
the charms of Christina of Milan or all the sketches
at Windsor would be praised in vain. We should have
gained another Shakespeare rich in the production of
anecdote, we might have lost some of our love for an
artist incomparable for his holding the mirror up to
the men and women of his wonderful age.

So that, one way with another, we may at least




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console ourselves for the loss of these decorations
in the thought that they no longer obscure what was
the real and true greatness of a many-sided man.
The decorations came to an end late in 1522, when
only part of the council chamber was finished.
Holbein, it is recorded to the honour of the city of
Basle, had contracted to complete the work : but
having been paid all the money due to him and having
put into the room as much work as he deemed fitting
or reasonable, he petitioned to be released from his
bargain or granted a further sum for its completion.
The councillors recognized his claims and, having at
that date little money to spare, released the painter
without giving a further commission.

The career of Holbein for the next year or so
takes one of its characteristic dips into the sands of
oblivion. Except for several portraits of Erasmus
we have little or no actually dated matter to go
upon. The very reasonable theory is that in or about
1^23 he travelled into France, going apparently with
the portrait that Erasmus was sending to Amerbach.
The beloved Bonifacius was then studying at Avignon :
perhaps the attractions of his society, perhaps the
troublous times that made themselves felt rather
early in Basle, caused Holbein to leave Basle and travel
across France. W'c have one fairly certain trace of
his itinerary in the little drawings from the painted
monuments of the Duke and Duchess Jean de Ben y
in the cathedral at Bourgcs, which he must have visited.
Perhaps, too, the fact that the Dance of Death wa
eventually published by the brothers Trcchscl of
Lyons would seem to prove that Holbein's history had
repeated itself — that, even as in the first instance
he had come to Basle in order to obtain work from the
printer Frobenius, he had now come to the south of
France on such another errand. Perhaps the mere



fact that Holbein found time to execute so many-
portraits of Erasmus — the Louvre portrait, the one
in Basle, which is no doubt what Holbein carried to
Avignon, the little round design cut in wood by
Liitzelberger, and the one for a diptych containing a
companion portrait of Frobenius which has now dis-
appeared — this fact of his executing so many portraits
of the same great man might lead to the idea that
his other sources of employment were failing. Indeed,
of the years 1524-25 we find no signed traces what-

In 1523 the great troubles and upheavals that saw
Rome herself sacked by Lutheran mercenaries were
still comparatively at a distance. Writing of that
year, one of the greatest of all the rather unsavoury
politicians of that wonderful century sums up the
topics that were then in men's minds : " By
the space of xvii hole wekes ... we communyd of
warre pease Stryfe contencyon debatte murmure
grudge Riches pouerte penury trowth falsehode
Justyce equyte discayte oppreseyon Magnanymyte
actyuyte force attempraunce Treason murder Felonye
consyliacyon and also how a commune welth myght
be edifyed and continuyid within our Realme. How-
beyt in conclusyon wee haue done as our predecessors
haue been wont to doo that ys to say, as well as wee
myght and lefte where we begann. . . . Whe haue
in our parlyament grauntyd vnto the Kynges highnes
a ryght large subsydye the lyke whereof was newer
graunted in this realme."

The point about this letter, which is addressed to
Cromwell's " especial and entyrelye belouyd Frende
Jno Creke in Bilbowe in Biscaye," is precisely that at
that date there was no burning question in England.
Every possible subject was discussed with academic
calmness, and the country appeared to be outside the




lly permis.'.icm of Me;irs. liraun. CUmen


European storm-centre. And such letters went all
ever Europe in these years, holding out the promise
of a halcyon state to such workers as Holbein whose
means of subsistence vanished in storms like that of
the Peasants' War, and whose very works were de-
stroyed out of all the churches of Protestantism.
And not only in Protestant lands, since even such
a Pontiff of the plastic arts as Michel Angclo was soon
to find out that the Pontiff of the Church deemed it
expedient to attend almost more to the affairs of his
cure than to marbles, however deathless.

Of these bad times for artists we can find, as I
have said, little or no trace in the career of Holbein —
there arc no pictures of his bearing the actual dates
1524 or 1525. It may be convenient therefore to
speak here of the Dance of Death series and the Death
Alphabet, although the Trechsels did not actually
publish the former until many years had elapsed.
This is another of Holbein's wonder-works. It
achieved and maintained a European celebrity
such as perhaps no other work of art ever did. The
only parallels to it that occur at all immediately to
one are Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress" in Western,
and the " Labyrinth " of Comenius in Eastern
Europe ; and these two appeal to a comparatively
limited class of races, however widespread. It has
struck straight at the hearts of innumerable races,
at the hearts of the lowest of peasants as at those of
the greatest of artists. It was carried by chap-book
pedlars to the remotest hovels of the earth, and
Rubens declared that from it he had his earliest lessons
in drawing — just as the first master of Michel Angclo
was, vicariously, Martin Schongaucr.

It is easy to say that the appeal of the scries came
from its subject, and that its subject had been the
common property of the mediaeval centuries. Yet



the mere fact that of so many Gesta Mortis only this
of Holbein's held the popular imagination with any
lasting firmness, the fact that it was the selected
version of all the versions, would go to prove that it
was some sort of technical excellence, some sort of
technical appeal that caused its apotheosis. And
excellent indeed is almost every one of these woodcuts —
excellent in the simplicity of design which recognizes
so truly what the thick, unctuous line of the wood-
engraver can do ; excellent in the placing of each little
subject on the block ; excellent in the way in which
each figure stands upon its legs ; and above all, excel-
lent in the appeal to the eye, in the " composition "
of each subject.

It is, of course, open to one to say that story-
telling is the least of all the departments of designing.
But when once such an artist as Holbein sets himself to
tell a story, the matter becomes comparatively un-
important. He was so true to himself that his
designs had the proper, the individual " look," whether
he were putting on paper something so purely arbitrary
as the design for a coat-of-arms, or the figure of Death
driving a weapon through a soldier. The subject
simply did not hinder him : he could employ any
object so as to form an integral part of his decorative
purpose. And, what is still more to the point,
having set himself to tell a story, he did tell it with a
quite amazing lucidity. The detail essential to his
idea is always what strikes the eye first — or rather it
is " led up to " as skilfully as in the denouement of a
good French caste. That is, of course, one of the
lower merits : but that he took so much trouble over
it is proof of how conscientious a worker he was — of
how amply he deserved the enormous popularity that
became his.

I have hardly space here to trace the evolution of

H O L B I ; I N

the idea of the Todtentanz, It originated, how lar
back; we cannot tell, in a universal, and no doubt
praiseworthy, religious desire of " rubbing in," to
each mortal creature, the fact that he or she must die.
1 1 was a matter not merely of chalking upon, or carving
out of, a wall : ik Remember, O man, that thou
art mortal " — a lesson that each reader, like each hearer
of a sermon, was apt to apply rather to his neighbour
than to himself. The framer or inventor of a Todten-
tanz wished to bring the moral home to each beholder,
and in order to do this he exhausted his knowledge
of the human avocations or estates. Thus a butcher
who received a grim joy at seeing his friend the horse-
merchant, the lacemaker, or the coney-catcher in
the arms of a corpse, was expected to receive a shock
and ensue no doubt a moral purging at the spectacle
of the representation of all Butcherdom dancing in
the embrace of a phantom ox-slaughterer. For, in
the original conception of a Todtentanz, each man or
woman danced, not with Death the Abstraction, but
with a dead mortal of his own kidney. Of such
" dances " there were many on the walls of cloisters
all over Europe : at Basle itself there is still one to
be seen — and no doubt such perpetrations and the
fact that they were continually beneath the eyes
<>f men during successive generations did have a
considerable influence on the trend of thought.
They must, I mean, have smitten very hard the poetic
and imaginative few during their childhoods. Perhaps
t<> them may be ascribed the continual preoccupation
of the mind of Montaigne with one idea — that of
dodging the fear of death when it came by living all his
dava in a state of mitigated terror.

In Holbein the preoccupation was perhaps natural,
since his name means " Skull," and at times, as in the
picture oi The Ambassadors, he proved that he was



not oblivious of the fact. The " vein " cropped up
from time to\time in his later works : thus in the
rather inferior and very much damaged portrait of
Sir Brian Tuke, now at Munich, the hour-glass is in the
front of the picture, whilst the background is filled
by a skeleton presentation of Death with his lethal
instrument. We might almost regard the great
Meier Madonna as containing one more of these
warnings, since, with her shroud half concealing her
face, behind the living wife kneels the dead Dorothea
Kannegiesser whom Holbein had so beautifully painted
a decade before.

With this famous Madonna and what I am tempted
to call the infamous portraits of Dorothea Offenburg,
Holbein seems once more to re-emerge from the shades
into the Basle of 1526. The Madonna is another of
the Holbeins that has a " wonder " attaching to it.
For centuries the Dresden copy was accredited the
real work : for a long time it was considered to be the
lost Household of Sir Thomas More. Then came the
discovery in Paris in 1822 of the real picture.

It is really neither here nor there whether the
Dresden picture be a copy by another artist or a
replica by Holbein himself. It is sufficient that,
until one has seen the Darmstadt picture, one may
hold the Dresden version to be another work of which
ne plus ultra might be written. But, if one travels
swiftly from one picture to the other, one is conscious
of a strange sensation — of the deepening of a sensation.
The Dresden Madonna is prettified : the Darmstadt
is overwhelming. The Dresden has retired, as it were,
on to a comparatively commonplace footing : the
Darmstadt masterpiece comes right forward. The
Dresden picture one looks at : one seems to be actually
in the one at Darmstadt.

And indeed this last is the " note " of the real


picture : it is absolutely Intimate : it is precisely the
Household of a Man in which the Mother of God
moves as in the midst of her family and ours. The
mere crumpling of the carpet which in the other
version is straightened out and rather ugly — that
detail adds to the intimate note — even the comparative
ill-favouredness of the Madonna adds to it. The other
picture seems to have been altered to satisfy the
criticism of a commonplace mind. One seems toha\ e
heard a voice say before the Darmstadt picture : "The
Madonna is too familiar ; she should be idealized ;
I )orothea is loo ugly and grim, tone her down ; the
alcove is too low to be elegant ! " And either some
very clever copyist, or Holbein in one of his more
dangerous moods, did this thing.

It damages the lines of the composition as much as
it spoils the poetry of the subject; it worries with

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Online LibraryFord Madox FordHans Holbein the younger; a critical monograph → online text (page 4 of 6)