Hans Holbein at Henry VIII’s Court
In 1538, Henry VIII sent his court painter, Hans Holbein, to Brussels to paint the portrait of Christina of Denmark. The following year, Holbein was sent to Cleves to paint the portrait of their Duke’s daughter, Anne. These were important commissions, indeed!
Henry was seeking among the courts of Europe for a wife who could bring him significant international alliances.
Strategic considerations dictated that Henry’s chosen bride have particular political and religious affiliations. The precise identity of that bride, however, depended on Henry’s liking for her face and figure – as portrayed in her portrait. Henry’s fate lay in Holbein’s hands.
Henry trusted those hands. Holbein had established a reputation in Henry’s court as a portrait painter par excellence, known for his ability to capture a true likeness. He was, of course, not averse to providing a little flattery.
In the course of his commissions from king and courtiers, he had undoubtedly gilded his fair share of lilies. In this circumstance, however, he could not afford to tell a visual untruth. Too much was riding on these portraits – both Henry’s future marriage and Holbein’s future at Henry’s court.
Holbein had spent years building his reputation. He was not about to jeopardize it now.
Holbein had arrived in England in 1526. Born in the Bavarian city of Augsburg in 1497/8, he was the son of a painter and engraver. Like Anne of Cleves, his native language was German.
As a teenager, he moved to Basel, a town located at the intersection of Switzerland, France and Germany. There he served an apprenticeship, joined the painters’ guild, became a citizen, married, and fathered two sons and two daughters.
Looking for opportunities for advancement, Holbein sought the advice of Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus advised him to go to England and wrote him a letter of introduction to his friend, Sir Thomas More, then Henry VIII’s chancellor for the Duchy of Lancaster.
Holbein received his first royal commission less than a year after his arrival. Erasmus had been right – Henry VIII needed artists! Englishmen, members of the London Painter-Stainers Guild, saw to the regular ongoing work of painting Henry’s palaces.
Henry, however, also needed artists who could paint decorative ceilings and altarpieces, as well as stage sets for court entertainments. He needed artists who could design jewelry and tableware and the banners carried in processions and tournaments. He needed artists who could paint portraits, both life-size and miniature, to serve as diplomatic presents or simply as reminders of his majesty.
Henry’s court was becoming a magnet for artists, many of them foreign-born. Holbein, however, stood out – for his versatility and his proficiency.
In 1527, Holbein was placed in charge of a major piece of decorative painting with important political overtones. Henry VIII was planning a magnificently grandiose and awe-inspiring reception for French notables. For this piece of political drama, to be held at Greenwich Palace, Holbein was to execute two enormous paintings on fabric.
The first was a rendition of the “Battle of the Spurs,” a victory by Henry VIII over the French in 1513 (Henry’s French guests got the point!) and the second was a view of the heavens, with all the planets and signs of the zodiac.
The following year, Holbein returned temporarily to Basel. By then, he had already made strides in establishing his reputation in yet another artistic discipline, the painting of portraits. All his subjects had some connection with the Greenwich Palace reception and would have met Holbein, and admired his artistic abilities, there. Holbein’s early English portraits include two depictions of Sir Thomas More, one of More himself and one with his extended family, as well as portraits of Sir Henry Guilford, controller of Henry’s household; Sir Henry Wyatt, Henry’s treasurer; Sir Nicholas Carew, a member of Henry’s Privy Chamber; and Nicolaus Kratzer, Henry’s astronomer.
Soon after his return to England in 1532, Holbein became the “King’s Painter” and began receiving a regular salary. His services were many and varied. He designed a pageant arch for Ann Boleyn’s coronation procession in June 1533. He designed a table ornament incorporating her heraldic symbol, the falcon, into a mythological motif. This was Anne’s gift to Henry at New Year 1534.
Holbein also designed the enormous golden-jeweled cup that Henry VIII gave as a wedding gift in 1536 to his next wife, Jane Seymour. The cup was melted down in 1629, but Holbein’s drawings survive,
That same year, he designed the title page for the new English Bible, translated by Miles Coverdale and authorized by Henry VIII. Henry, seated on his throne, holds a sword in his right hand while, with his left, he gives the Bible to his kneeling bishops. The stunning visual imagery encapsulates Henry’s vision of himself: both king and head of the church, combining secular might with his role as God on earth.
Holbein also produced a number of large full-color paintings of Henry VIII, showing him in all his regal glory.
The 1540 Holbein portrait shows Henry standing, facing front, arm akimbo, codpiece visible, ornately dressed and glittering with jewels. Holbein undoubtedly portrayed Henry exactly as Henry wished to be seen – attractive, strong, masculine, virile and powerful. This is assuredly not Anne of Cleves’ “incapable” Henry, but a Henry invigorated by his new bride Katherine Howard.
Even today, after hundreds of years, coming face to face with the portrait of Henry leaves no doubt as to who is in charge. Henry rules!
Many of Holbein’s portraits of individual members of the Tudor court also survive. There are even greater number of his more spontaneous preliminary sketches, drawn in colored chalk and ink. It is to Holbein that we owe our rich imagery of Henry VIII, his family and the individual members of his court. At one time or another, an estimated one-fifth of all the Tudor nobility sat for Holbein, giving us an unparalleled visual history of an era.
Holbein’s most notorious portrait may be that of Anne of Cleves. There are actually two portraits, both by Holbein and both done at approximately the same time. The larger, measuring approximately 19” x 26”, is at the Louvre Museum in Paris. The smaller miniature, some 2” round, can be found at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.
Henry VIII famously found the portrait, but not the woman, attractive. Anne of Cleves was wedded but not bedded, and ultimately divorced.
Whatever the problem, it was not with Holbein’s artistry. Holbein remained Henry’s Court Painter and continued to receive his annual salary. With his income supplemented by portrait commissions, he lived a comfortable and prosperous life in London until his death in the autumn of 1542.