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Hans Holbein the younger; a critical monograph online

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its interpolated shadows the eye which rests so grate-
lully upon the lighter surface of the real picture;
it achieves a comparatively cheap, "anybody's"
dramatic effect at the expense of that very tranquillity
which is the highest of Holbein's qualities — at the
expense of that very tranquillity which is, in a tiresome
and sad world, the most blessed gift which Holbein
had to bestow on humanity. It is, the Dresden
Madonna, a picture we arc proud to admire. The
picture at Darmstadt is one that, having stood our
little time be tore, we carry away with us to be a consoler
for ever in those moments when we are so happy
as to call it to mind. The two Dorothea OffenbutgS
are in their way works as line. At this time Holbein
had reached a level of skill that he never much sur-
d, from which, if anything, he declined slightly
into mannerisms. At any rate many of his later
portraits have a mellowness which, if one happens to
be in the mood for something very actual, sends us



back gratefully to the Lais Corintbiaca. It has not,
of course, the tremendous force of the portrait of
Holbein's wife and children : it is, in a sense, more
amateurish — or rather more experimental — as a paint-
ing than the Christina of Milan : but in its beautiful
lines and masses, its fresh and vivid colour, and its
wonderfully actual drawing — its " motion " — it has
qualities that they have not. It stands, to my mind,
along with the Louvre portrait of Erasmus : it has
that quality of dramatic interruption of which I have
spoken in writing of the portrait of Amerbach.

The Dorothea as Venus has all these qualities in a
lesser degree : the painting is less vivid, the drawing
less convincing, the possibilities of the face — as if
Holbein at that time had not so well studied it — are
made less of, the lines of the shoulders are less arrest-
ingly sumptuous : it is, as it were, a Dresden version
to the Darmstadt of the Lais — and it seems to me to
be almost an argument that both the Meier Madonnas
may be by Holbein.

That, however, is mere phantasy. What is inte-
resting is that by this time Holbein, in his dated
paintings, seems to have got rid of the trick of loading
his backgrounds with Renaissance architecture and
what not. The background of the Daimsta&tMadonna
is nearly simplicity itself ; behind the head of Erasmus
is nothing but a green surface with some decorative
stars ; behind the Dorotheas is merely a curtain. He
seems to have realized that, by this time, his marvellous
painting was a tower in itself, and from this date on-
ward it is only in " display " portraits that he troubles
himself to be very elaborate.

These, it is significant to observe, are, firstly, 'The
Household of Sir Thomas More, with which he " intro-
duced " himself to the English on his first visit ;
secondly, the portrait of Gisze, with which he " intro-




duccd " himself, equally, to the German merchants
of the Steelyard on his second coming here. The
Henries VII and Vlll and their Consorts was also by
way of being an introduction, and possibly also the
Ambassadors, since the two sitters might serve to
spread his fame into whatever mysterious court they
were accredited from. At any rate, from this time
onward, except in such special cases, the master seems
to have thrown his glove down to posterity : the
human face, the human shape, these were the " sub-
jects " with which he was to make his appeal. And
this " subject " being the simplest and the most
difficult with which a painter can deal, it seems to
follow that the achievement is the highest possible.
It takes to itself no adventitious aids : it relies upon
painting pure and simple.


IN the late summer of 1526 Holbein left Basle
for England. His motives for so doing are not
of the first importance and they have been
fully discussed by many people. Some will have it
that he was unhappy at home ; some that his im-
broglio with Dorothea Offenburg drove him away.
One authority credits him with an invitation to England
from a great English lord : it seems more probable
that More called to him. No doubt, too, times in
Basle were very evil for him, since to all other painters
they were very evil. Already painting was an art in
disrepute in a Basle coming more and more rapidly
under the sway of Lutheranism. Holbein, as I have
said, served both masters impartially — for the one
side he painted the Madonna, for the other he illus-
trated pamphlets so violent that they must needs be
burned. But for the moment Lutheranism offered
only pamphlets. To find room for paintings, Holbein
must find a land where there were convents still and
churches not whitewashed. It is an interesting little
incident, as showing Holbein actually in contact with
the troubles of his time, that, when he claimed the
painting materials — and more particularly the gold —
that his father had left in a monastery he was painting
in before his death, the answer he received was that the
monastery had been burned by the peasants and that
if Holbein desired the gold he must go seek it amid the

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Practically the only other Basle evidences of his
life — save for the letter from Erasmus — are the
Dorothea pictures. One may read into them what
one likes. It is usual to consider that, since Holbein
painted her first as Venus and then as Lais, he must
first have been guilelessly in love with her, and then
have turned upon his mistress. The amiable apologists
for Holbein write eloquently upon the wrongs that he
must have suffered at her pretty but itching palms.
But it has always seemed to me that if a man has
enjoyed a woman's favours, it is discreditable of him
afterwards to call her even well-deserved names,
however excellent an organ his voice may be, and if I
were anxious to apologize for the painter, I should
simply adopt another line. I mean that there is no
documentary evidence to connect Holbein with
Dorothea : thus the portraits may have been com-
missioned by some other of the very many ill-used
lovers of the thus immortalized and beautiful Lai's.

I do not know that it is a matter of much import-
ance. Holbein cannot very easily be whitewashed,
since his will gives indisputable evidence of his having
led a not strictly regular life in this country. Such
things, of course, were not uncommon in those
distant days, and Holbein might plead the " artistic
temperament " to-day. And gossip says too that he
was % ' unhappy at home " — so that apparently for once
the desire of the critic to limit his remarks to the man's
work, and the desire of the world and his wife to
know about everything else, may be brought to coin-
cide. For it would appear that the less we say about
Holbein the man — the better.

It is, of course, true that the important thing about
a picture is how it is painted, and that the subject
matters, by comparison, very little. Nevertheless it
is an added, extraneous pleasure — a pleasure added


rather to what is called belles lettres than to the fine
arts — when such^a painter as Holbein comes upon
" interesting sitters." I mean that the charm of
Roper's " Life of Sir Thomas More " is infinitely
enhanced by looking at Holbein's Household — just
as the interest of the whole history of the period is
made alive for us by Holbein's portraits of Henry VIII's
court. Without the court to draw, painting only
peasants or fishwives, Holbein would have been a
painter just as great. Henry VIII and his men would
be lifeless without Holbein. You have only to
think how comparatively cold we are left by the name,
say, of Edward III, a great king surrounded by great
men in a stirring period. No visual image comes to
the mind's eye ; at most we see, imaginatively, coins
and the seals that depend from charters. Thus, if
oblivion be not a boon, an age may be thankful for
such artists as Holbein. That most wonderful age
in which he lived seemed, too, to be well aware of it
— since so many of the great sought the immortality
that his hand was to confer.

We who come after may well be thankful that
Holbein paid when he did his first short visit to this
country. Along with the portraits of the splendid
opportunists who flourished or fell when the end of
the old world came at the fall of More, he has left us
some at least of the earlier and more attractive men
of doomed principles. Along with More's there
decorated then the page of English history the name of
Warham, who, for mellow humanitarianism, exceeded
Cranmer, his successor, as far as More exceeded
Thomas Cromwell in the familiar virtues — and Fisher,
Bishop of Rochester, who as far exceeded the later
Gardiner. Being men of principle, set in high places,
these were doomed to tragedy ; and, if Warham died
actually in his bed, it needs only Holbein's portrait


Hanf Jaen,,


to assure us that, if the shadows of the future can still
affect us on our last pillows, this great man saw, on
his deathbed, things enough to make him haggard.
Fisher's head has about its eyes a greater intrepidity —
but the expression on both is the same ; and in these
two heads we may see very well how two great men
envisaged their stormy times.

Of the portrait of Warham there are two copies
in oil extant — both apparently by Holbein, the one in
the Louvre, the other at Lambeth : the latter is, I
think, the hner example. The oil picture of the
Household of More has, of course, vanished ; but the
drawing, a mere sketch with annotations by More, is in
Basle, and there are studies for the heads at Windsor.
Perhaps, however, the best portrait-picture of this
visit to England is the Dresden Thomas and John
God salve, in which the head of the elder man has
always appeared to me to be one of the finest pieces
of Holbein's painting. The Windsor portrait of
Sir Henry Guildford is more generally preferred ; to
my taste it is too much overloaded with decoration —
though this was probably to the taste of Sir Henry, a
commonplace gentleman whose successful career was
much aided by the king's friendship, and whose position
at court made him to a large extent arbiter elegantiarum.
Thus the portrait has some of the nature of a " display "

But upon the whole, and if no question of pecuniary
value or labour expended need influence, I should be
inclined to prefer to either, the wonderful, alert
Portrait of an Englishwoman, in two chalks, in Basle, or
the almost more wonderful body-colour Portrait of
an Englishman in the Berlin Royal Cabinet. These
little drawings of an hour or so are so inexpressibly
alive in every touch that the more minutely you
examine them, the more excited you will become.


In the finished paintings one is presented with a
mystery : in these drawings one has the very heart of
the secret. Each stroke that one looks at seems to
unfold an envelope of the bud — at each unfolding
one discovers that the secret lies a little deeper. I
suppose Holbein himself could not have told how it
was done.

But, of course, these drawings and all the earlier
paintings take, as it were, their hats off to the
portrait of Holbein's wife and children. As in the
case of most of the really impressive portraits of
the world, there is here no background, no detailed
accessory to worry the beholder's eye. The figures in
the picture exist just as at first sight a great human
individuality exists. One has no eyes for the chair
he sits in nor much for the kind of clothes he may
wear. He overcomes these things and makes them no
part of his individuality that they are as much taken
for granted as are the number of his fingers. And it is
precisely the property of the great portrait that it
makes its subject always a great man. It brings out
the fact that every man is great if viewed from the
sympathetic point of view — great, that is, not in the
amount of actions done, but in the power of waking
interest. It brings out, in fact, in what way its
subject is " typical," since great art is above all things
generous, like the strong and merciful light of the
sun that will render lovable the meanest fields, the
barest walls.

And such a great portrait as this is notable as
explaining what must be, always, the artist's ambition
— that his work shall look " not like a picture."
When one stands before it one is not conscious of a
break in atmospheric space : one does not subcon-
sciously say : " Here the air of the room ends : here
is the commencement of the picture's atmosphere."

By permissum of ,W«srs Braun, CUmeni.

1 1 L H E I N

The figures in the picture arc figures in t lie room.
It is not, of course, a matter of a Pre Raphaelite

attempt to " deceive the eye " by a kind of stippling
as if the painter had attempted with cuttle-fish to
smooth out the traces of his tool, for the tool is
frankly accepted and the brush marks visible enough.

The large, plain woman, with the unattractive
children, lives before us, luminous, throwing back
the light with that subdued quality of reflection
that all human flesh possesses. She is an entity that
one cannot question; she is not so much a type as
a representative of the womanhood of a whole race.
She is, I mean, not an allegorical figure representing
"United Motherhood of the Teutonic Fami!
she is an individual mother who will make us think
of the troubles of maternity. What is typical in
the picture is her quiescence. She is not represented
as washing, feeding her children, or scolding. As an
individual figure she is given in as "all round"
mood as was possible : in a period of reverie she is
thinking of actions to come or of actions past.

One so exhausts superlatives in these days that
there seem to be none left in which to speak of the
almost perfect drawing of the woman's shoulders and
head, of the harmony of the whole design, on
whose surface, or rather in whose depths, the eye
travels so pleasantly from place to place. The woman's
hands are particularly worth looking at — the masterly
way in which the one on the boy's shoulder shows in
its lines that it rests heavily, and the way in which the
pressure on the baby's waist is indicated.

This great work was painted in oil colours on paper
which has since been cut out along the outlines of
the figures and affixed to a panel. It was the work of
[528-29, when Holbein was once more in Hade. He
had bought himself a house and perhaps had designs



of settling down in the Swiss town for good. He seems
to have found employment mainly in designs for
printers and jewellers, though the small round painting
of Erasmus at Basle and the similar portrait of Melanc-
thon now in Hanover appear to belong to this period.
1529 was the year of the greatest tribulation for Swiss
painters; nevertheless in 1530 the Basle Town Council
commissioned Holbein to continue his decorations of
the town hall. The frescoes themselves have vanished,
but, to account for them, we have the drawing of
Rehoboam and the magnificent Samuel and Saul, which
is to my mind the finest of all Holbein's quasi-decorative
subject pictures.

The way in which, in this drawing, the figures of the
marching troops, of the king, and of the arresting
prophet are rendered actual, and at the same time
blended into one composition with the strictly decora-
tive scroll-work of smoke from the blazing background,
proves that Holbein had at this time reached the very
high-water mark of genius — of genius which is the com-
prehension of the scope possible to a certain class of
design. It is decoration achieved, not by the multi-
plication of arbitrary details and not by the arbitrary
treatment of actual forms, but by the selection of
natural objects fitted to fill and to make beautiful a
certain space. It is the sort of selection that is given
to most of us at rare moments. Thus I remember
seeing, whilst I was making a final tour for the purposes
of this book, a number of workmen taking a siesta
along the bottom of a sunlit wall. There may have
been thirty of them, in various but similar attitudes,
on the ground, and nearly all of them wore blue blouses.
This similarity of their attitudes and costumes and the
straight line that they made brought to my lips at
once the words : " If only Holbein had seen
that ! " I suppose that I had my mind full of the

7 2



little frieze of Dancing Peasants that there is in the
Basle Museum.

But with these decorations of the council chamber
the possibilities of work for Holbein in Basle seem to
have been exhausted. It is true that he was given
the painting of a town clock and paid rather extrava-
gantly for the work. But Erasmus, Amcrbach, and
the other Humanists had shaken from their feet the
dust of a city given up apparently to tragic icono-
clasts, and for Basle, as for Italy, it might be said
that that lustre 1525-30 saw the end of the Renais-
sance. That particularly good old time had come to
an end.

It was natural that Holbein should seek to recapture
what he could of it — to chase westward the glimmer of
that setting sun. So he returned to England. He
left his family apparently well provided for : his chil-
dren at least seem to have kept their heads very well
above water. Subsequently the Basle Town Council
did their best to induce him to return. They offered
him, as did Venice to Diirer, a rather princely retaining
fee, stipulating only that he should reside for a part of
each year in the city. Holbein appears to have thought
of accepting the offer, but he had not yet done so
when, ten years later, the plague cut short his days in

1 lis career subsequent to his coming to this country
irly dcducible. More, Ins patron, and Lord
Chancellor of the kingdom, fell very soon after Holbein
arrived and before he could benefit the painter at all.
\ t of new men became all-powerful with the coming
of Thomas Cromwell, and, for a time at Least, Holbein
could do little to attract their notice. It was then,
apparently, that he set himself to L, r ain the patrol
of the Merchants of the Steelyard, a corporation
of Germans securely established in London, men



most of them of great wealth, and no doubt of some

So Holbein painted the celebrated portrait of
George Gisze. I must confess that it leaves me rather
cold. The man himself is wonderfully painted and
the colour of the whole picture is fresh and attractive.
So, too, each of the too many accessories is brilliantly
put upon the canvas. But it is in consequence difficult
to see the wood for the trees, and Holbein is guilty
of wrenching the hands of Gisze into an unnatural
attitude in order that the spectator may read the
superscription of the letter the merchant holds.
Nevertheless, though the whole picture be a feat of an
inartistic kind, it is none the less a feat that we may
feel glad to have beheld. For, as Dr. Johnson
says in a passage that I remember but cannot
recapture, it enlarges our ideas of what mankind
can do if we witness some such achievement of leger-
demain as seeing sixteen balls kept in the air by-
one man.

The picture served its purpose in attracting the
custom of other merchants of the Steelyard, many of
whom remain immortalized in galleries throughout
Europe. Those at Vienna and Berlin are notably
fine, and we have reason to be thankful that in the
matter of detail Holbein did not keep these later works
up to the sample of the George Gisze.

The subsequent career of Holbein was one of steady
work and of steady rise in the world. We find him
very soon painting the portrait of Cheseman, the king's
falconer, and very soon afterwards those of the greater
courtiers. It is customary to conjecture that he owed
this latter employment to the patronage of some
particular eminent personage. I think we might be
content to ascribe it to the eminence of his gifts in
portraiture in an age when the rich and powerful


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were particularly anxious to have memorials of them-
selves, and to his skill in designing jewellery in an age
when the sovereign as part of a settled policy was
ruining his great nobles by forcing them to a lavish

But, if it be necessary to ascribe his rise to any one
patron, we have the man to our hands in Thomas
Cromwell, then already all-powerful, and then already
in contact with those Germans the ultimate alliance
with whom was to cause his downfall. At that time
Cromwell was wildly lavish in expending, upon what
we should now call articles of virtu, the enormous
sums that were at his disposal in the way of bribes
and peculations from the monasteries that he was
dissolving. His agents all over Europe were engaged
in looking out for him the most elaborate of Flemish
furniture, the most costly works of goldsmiths, pictures,
and globes of the earth. When he could he duplicated
these purchases, retaining one example for the collec-
tion that he was making, that his son Gregory might
become a great lord. The duplicate he presented to
the king, whom he kept as far as he could in a good
humour with almost daily gifts.

Considering how elaborate was his system of spies,
it would have been difficult for Cromwell to remain
in ignorance of Holbein's existence in the land ; and
considering his tastes and necessities, it would have
been strange had he neglected to use the painter. \\ e
find him actually writing Holbein's name early in
February 1538, when, after the death of Jane Seymour,
Philip Hoby was sent about Europe to inspect marriage-
able princesses :

" Instructions given by the Lord Cromwell to Philip
Hoby sent over by him to the dutches se of Loreigne and
after to the dutchesse of M Mane. . . .

"... Then shall he desire to know her (Christina



of Milan) pleaser when Mr Hanns shall comme to
her for the doing of his feat in the taking of her
picture. And so hauinge the time appointed he shall
go with him or tarrie behind as she shall appointe."

The result of this journey was of course the matchless
portrait — but the " feat " was not as remarkable as
one serious historian avers ; he did not " finish his
picture in three hours," though probably he spent
no more over the small sketch which he made in
this as in all other cases, and no doubt he finished
the picture, either in London or Brussels, from
memory. Holbein was by that time official painter
to Henry VIII. It has been conjectured that he
was exhorted by Cromwell to flatter Anne of Cleves
in the portrait of that lady. The portrait shows
a princess by no means ill-favoured — but we have
historical evidence to prove that Anne was really
considered beautiful by her countrymen, and we
have not any particular evidence that proves that
even Henry considered her repulsive except for
reasons of State.

At any rate, to the extent that the portrait had an
influence, Holbein was an actor in History in the
Large. It was in or about 1536 that he had been
made painter royal. In that year he painted the
portrait of the Queen Jane Seymour ; soon after, the
fresco of Henries VII and VIII with their Queens ;
soon after, he designed the Jane Seymour cup. He
continued making portraits and designs until his death
by the plague in November 1543. Even after his
death a design of his came as a New Year offering to
the king. His will shows that he left some illegitimate
children ; stray letters show that he had a few friends
in London ; the Record Office documents show that
he drew his salary habitually in advance — as thus,
from the King's Payments :



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"Apl. [540. Hans Holbyn th< K" Painter in
advancement of bis wages for one half year beforehand
since Michaelmas la '. [5. li.

•"Mich. 1540. Hans Holbyn: nihil quid prius

Vndsoa a] : Qality he passes out of the historian'


I OPENED this little monograph with a pseudo-
comparison of Durer with Holbein : of course
the two are not comparable. For if, to con-
tinue the use of a simile of my first page, Holbein
be a mountain peak in a chain of hills, we must write

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Online LibraryFord Madox FordHans Holbein the younger; a critical monograph → online text (page 5 of 6)