Ford Madox Ford.

Hans Holbein the younger; a critical monograph online

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Durer down as a Titanic cloud form, one of a range
that on a clear day we may see towering up behind
the mountain. The two men differ in kind and
in species. Holbein could no more have conceived
the Great Fortune than Durer could have painted
the Christina of Milan : Durer could not refrain
from commenting upon life, Holbein's comments
were of little importance.

That essentially was the ultimate difference between
the two : it is a serviceable thing to state, since in
trying to ascertain the characteristics of a man it is
as useful to state what he is not as what he is. Durer,
then, had imagination where Holbein had only vision
and invention — an invention of a rough-shod and
everyday kind. But, perhaps for that very reason,
the subjects of Holbein's brush — in his portraits —
are seen as it were through a glass more limpid. To
put it with exaggerated clearness : we may believe
in what Holbein painted, but in looking at Diirer's
work we can never be quite assured that he is an un-
prejudiced transcriber. You will get the comparison
emphasized if you will compare Holbein's drawing
of Henry VIII with the etching by Cornelis Matsys

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of [the year 1543. The drawing U an unconcerned
rendering of an appallingly gross and miserable man ;
the etching seems as if, with every touch <>t his tool,
the artist had been stabbing in little exclamation notes
of horror. The drawing leaves one thinking that no
man could be more ugly than Henry; the etching
forces one to think that no artist could imagine any
man more obscene.

1 lolbcin, in tact, was a great Renderer. If I wanted
to find a figure really akin to his I think I should go
to music and speak of Bach. For in Bach you I
just that peculiar Teutonic type of which I lolbcin is so

• an example : in the musician too you have that
marvellous mastery of the instrument, that composure,
that want of striving. And both move one by what
musicians call " absolute " means. Just as the fourth

le of the " Wohltempericrte Klavier " is profoundly
moving — for no earthly reason that one knows — so
is the portrait of Holbein's family. The fugue is
beautiful in spite of a relatively ugly " subject,"
the portrait is beyond praise in spite of positively

. And there is in neither anything
trancous : the fugue, unaided by " programme."
is pure mu^ic ; the portrait, unaided by literary id
The quality of the enjoyment that we can get
from the works of these two is also very precisely
identical. I do not know how long the Duke of
>rtrait of Christina of Milan has hung
in the National Gallery : it must have been there
many years, since I can hardly remember a " myself '
in which the idea of that " symphony " in blues and
blacks did not play an integral part of my pleasn
I would rather posset that painting than any Other
object in the world, I think, and I have visited the
National Gallerv, I do not know h<>w many time-.


simply to stand in front of it — simply to stand and to
think nothing. It is not for me a picture ; it is not
even a personage with whom I am in love. But
simply a mood — a mood of profound lack of thought,
of profound self-forgetfulness, which assuredly is the
most blessed thing which Art, in this rather weary
world, can vouchsafe to a man — descends upon me
in front of that combination of paints upon that

It is not merely this portrait that can evoke this
mood in us — it is the very quality of Holbein. I
happen to possess a very excellent set of reproductions
— made for a private person — of the series of Windsor
sketches for portraits. One can pass hours with such
things as these on the floor before one's chair. Here
is the court of Henry VIII, from the Groom Falconer
to the Earl Marshal. But it is not the former careers
of the dead queens, the tiny features of the little prince,
or the heavy jowl and weary eyes of the most unhappy
king — it is not the history, the intrigue, the gossip
of a small kingdom then barbaric and insignificant
enough. Here is Regina Anna Bulleyn ; but this is
not the queen who was done to death by false witnesses.
A comely, large-featured, slightly sardonic face looks
down not very intently upon a book. But it is neither
queen nor face that holds those of us who are attuned
to the quality that we call " Holbein " : it is a certain
collocation of lines, of masses.

We are, literally, in love with this arrangement of
lines, of lights and of shadows. The eye is held
by no object, but solely by the music of the pattern
— the quality that we call " Holbein." It is a
quality ; it is a feeling ; it is a method of projection
that one admires — and that one might well speak of
in the peculiar phraseology that is reserved for one's
admiration of musicians. Thus when one asks another,



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M Do you like Beethoven ? " he implies, DOt " Do you
like an old, sardonic, deaf man ? " or lk l><> you like
the Ninth Symphony or any other individual work ? "

— but " Are you pleasurable affected when the name
Beethoven calls up in you certain emotions— emotions
that you have felt when certain notes followed certain
others in an intangible sequence ; a sequence that
cannot be analysed, hut which is ' Beethoven ' ? " _

The quality, the power of Holbein is similar.
When we recall him to mind, no particular work
of his" sticks out " in the mind's eye. He is a mass,
or a force ; he calls up a mood.

This characteristic is most marked when one con-
siders the work that he did after his final establishment
in England. One may use a cliche phrase so that it
becomes, in this case, vivid and actual : he poured out a
stream of pictures. They arc better or worse than each
other only in accordance with the beholder's private pre-
ferences ; just as, in a stream, different men standing
at different points on the bank and seeing different
facets of the ripples see differing lights and shadows
differing. You may above all things care for the
Ambassadors, which moves me very little ; I shall
never be contented with praise of the Duke of Norf«lh
of Windsor, or the Unbekannte Dame of Vienna. Yet,
in the mass and after the review, you and I may both
set the abstraction we call " Holbein " at the same very
high level.

He has always seemed to me to be the earliest of
" modern " painters — to have looked at men and
women, first of all, with the " modern " eye. If you
glance rapidly along the series of sketches at Windsor
you will be astounded to sec how exactly they resemble
the faces you will pass in the Windsor streets. If you
compare them with, say, Lely's portraits of a later
court, the characteristic becomes even more marked,

v 81


since Lely's men and women died a century or so
later than Holbein's — and have yet been dead so much
longer. He got out of his time — as he got into our
time — with a completeness that few painters have
achieved — hardly even Velasquez or Rembrandt.

The claim is not, really, a very high one : the modern
eye looking at things in a rather humdrum and unin-
spired way. But, of course, the praise appears more
high if we put it that Holbein's works may be said to
have compelled us to look at things as we do, just as,
after Palestrina, the ears of men grew gradually
accustomed to hear music only in the modern modes.
Artistically speaking, it means that Holbein, pene-
trating, as it were, through the disguise of costume,
of hair-dressing, and of the very postures of the body
and droop of the eyelids, seized on the rounded per-
sonalities — the underlying truths — of the individuals
before him ; so that when one looks at the portrait of
de Morett, or the wonderful sketch of a dark girl
with a figure that rakes back, one neither notices the
clothes of the one nor the absence of clothes of the
other. ^Esthetically, of course, the painting of the
clothes and ornaments has a value of its own — in the
portrait of de Morett it leads up to and supports
the heavy and sagacious face — but, until we consciously
examine it for our own aesthetic ends, we are not
really aware of the clothes at all, and the figure
before us might be that of any prime minister, plumber,
or book publisher of to-day.

It is only in the " display " portraits — the George
Gisze type of which I have spoken despitefully at some
length — that the " human interest " sinks into the
background. And even these might have been satis-
fying works of art had Holbein been content to take
hold of absolutely the other end of the stick — I mean,
had he been content absolutely to subordinate the



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portrait of the man to the painting of the accessories ;
so that, as it were, we should nave had a portrait of an
inkpot and a carnation with a background of Gisze.

Such a teat would have been nothing to Holbein.
In his earlier — but not earliest — decorative designs,
in such a piece as the Man of Sorrozvs of the I'.
diptych, he balanced very fairly the accessories oi
pillar and arch with the human figure. In this., be it
admitted, neither the figure nor the accessories are
conceived in a plane of " actuality " ; they remain
in that halt-dreamland which is the decorative world,
whilst the George Gisze portrait belongs to that
mood of Holbein which has been called his most

In the last phase of his painting the former type of
work sank absolutely into the back-round, and in the
wonderful series of portraits that are our Holbein,
neither in the background nor in the fore does there
appear any trace of that Renaissance luzuriousness
that, in his earlier pictures, filled us with amazement
and respect for his fertility of invention. The
columns and the cherubs have gone together from
the picture. But when one looks in museums and
discovers such masterpieces as the title-page portrait of
Erasmus with the god Terminus one realizes how much
Holbein has mended and how little altered his v.
The painting of the portrait comes as near Renaissance
perfection as any Suabian could be expected to attain.
Diirer, as I have said, abandoned Renaissance ideas
because they were pagan : Holbein dropped them out
of his canvases because the actual world as he saw it
no longer had a place for them. But in the particular
realm where his fancy had a Legitimate scope and
unlimited plains on which to perform gambados and
demivolts he pursued the loves of his childhood into
all sorts of skyey distances. 1 le refined until the least



sympathetic must admire ; he invented until our
wonder at his powers of invention melts into a nearly
perfect sympathy.

In these decorative feats of his — his designs for
bands of gold, his dagger-sheaths, his loving-cups —
his is the braver spirit of the two main streams of
" decoration." His spirit — and it is, of course, the
primitive and the pagan — impelled him to cover
every inch of his surface with ornament, to tighten
the screw more and more and more in that prodigal
direction. There must be always more cherubs, more
vine leaves, more foxes, more grapes, until even the
original, sinuous main design of branch and stem is
cut into and vanishes. Thus the general effect of one
of his designs for dagger-sheaths is almost that of
the pebbles that tessellate the bottoms of certain trout
streams. The eye follows lines along them and is
agreeably diverted without fixing upon any one point,
main current, or figure. The same tendency accounts
for what pleasure one feels in looking at such a tour
de force as the woodcut of the celebrated Table of
Cebes. Here it is true Holbein presents us with all
the incidents of a Pilgrim's Progress ; but considered
as " realism " the page has no value, and allegorically
it is unimpressive. The total effect, the " look," of
the whole thing is nevertheless agreeable.

Nothing was further from Holbein's spirit — and
nothing indeed is further from the spirit of his nation
and age — than any idea that great results can be
obtained with small means. He belonged to a nation
to whom display was and remains the readiest means
of indicating value of whatever sort. Simplicity and
severity were probably distasteful enough to him.
Thus nothing could have been further from his sym-
pathy than what is best in modern decorative art,
and he had little or no idea, beyond that enforced

8 4


by the exigencies of space, of adapting his design to
the form of the object to be decorated or of reducing

the amount of ornament further and further until
the best decorated space be that which contains the
Least ornament. His dukes would never have been the
worst dressed men of a house of Peers.

His is the other end of our line, in this as in so many
other things, and to appreciate him thoroughly we
have to make mental efforts of one kind and another.
A we might put it, he was vulgar, which we are not,
but he had more blood and more hope, so that he
achieved the impossible so many times, and climbing
in places where we are accustomed to say that climbing
is wrong or hopeless, he appears on peaks more high
than any of ours. That, of course, is what the master
does in the realm of the arts.

I have employed freely the words " actual " and
" realist " in speaking of Holbein's work, and in that
I have followed the example of many who use the
terms either panegyrically or in contempt. But in
the modern sense he was little of a realist, dealing
rather in the typical. One can exemplify this best
in such drawings as the very beautiful and celebrated
"hip" design. Our present-day "realist" would
give us some moment from the career of somc_actual
ship. But Holbein's is hardly an actual ship at all.
Jt can hardly have been drawn from the life, since,
D in that day when ships absurdly unmanageable,
top-heavy, and unsteerable made voyages the mere idea
of which turns the hair of the modern sailor grey —
i in that day no ship so absolutely unballasted
would have ' li] from any port. Hut Holbein
had got into his head, had made part of his ideas, a
representative ship. He had seen Bhips perhaps at
I ins, perhaps in the Channel, and he evolved from
his mind a typical form. Equally, too, he had seen



ships set sail, had seen men being seasick, had seen
fat warrior-sailors on board embracing fat women, had
seen bumboats casting off, had seen pots of beer handed
up to a masthead and gigantic standard-bearers casting
loose their flags to the breeze. But in bringing all these
things together into his design he overwhelms one with
the idea that he could never, upon any one setting sail
of a ship, have seen so much at one moment. Thus,
admirable and actual as each detail of the drawing is,
it impresses one not as a realistic shadowing of any
incident, but as an almost didactic portrayal of what
it might be possible to see. It is as if he wished to
show men of the inlands who had never seen a ship
as much as possible in one drawing.

Of course his real purpose may have been no more
than a note to remind himself, as in the case of the
Bat and Lamb drawings. But that semi-didactic
spirit is visible in much else of his work. It seems to
fill the Dance of 'Death series, which, as it were, exclaims
continually, " See what Death can do ! " And it
is the " real " note of all his portraits. Whilst going
to the bottom of each individual, whilst absolutely
searching out his most usable qualities, he seems to
be selecting those saliences which will make the in-
dividual really noticeable. Diirer wrote upon his
drawings : " This is how the Knights rode in armour
in 15 15." Holbein tries to force us to see in his
portrait of the Lady Parker : " This is how women
of the narrow-eyed, small-nosed, wide-mouthed, tiny-
waisted type looked in the year 1537." Or, in an
exaggerated form the George Gisze shows us the
merchant with all his arms around him.

This last is, of course, merely material — but it is a
material indication of the artist's'psychological approach
to his sitters. He does not, as I have said, take them
in their " moments," he does not show them under


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The Lady Parker.


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violent lights or in the grasp of strong passions. lie
rounds them off, catching them always at moments
when the illumination, both of the actual atmosphere
and of their souls, was transfused and shone all round
them. Thus he has left us a picture of his world,
as it were, upon a grey daj .

Other artists arc giving us more light, others again
have given us both more light and more shadow, or
more shadow alone. But no other artist has left
a more sincere rendering of his particular world,
and no other artist's particular world is compact
of simulacra more convincing, more illusory, or mere
calculated to hold our attentions. He has redeemed
a whole era for us from oblivion, and he has forced us
to believe that his vision of it was the only feasible
one. This is all that the greatest of Art can do,
whether it takes us into a world of the artist's fancy
or into one of his fellow-men. And by rescuing
from oblivion these past eras it confers upon us,
to the extent of its hold, a portion of that herb oblivion,
a portion of that forgctfulncss of our own selves, which
is the best gift that Art has to bestow.

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