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The clarity and precision of Holbein's art make him one of the most powerful portrait painters of all time. Even his early religious works such as The Meyer Madonna are characterized by minutely observed realism. This altarpiece is also typical of Holbein's painting in its cool colours and sharply defined outlines.
Lady Guildford was one of the first portraits that Holbein painted during his first visit to England. His most brilliant achievement of this period is the sensitive portrait of Sir Thomas More. The charmingly informal Unknown Woman with a Squirrel was also painted during these years.
The masterpiece of Holbein's second English visit is the stunning double portrait known as The Ambassadors, painted before Holbein entered royal service. When he did, his style changed dramatically: Henry VIII and Queen Jane Seymour are hieratic images set against plain backgrounds. A similarly bold simplicity of design also distinguishes Christina of Denmark and Unknown Lady.
Jakob Meyer probably commissioned this altarpiece in the year his two sons (who appear with him to the left of the Madonna) died in childhood. Kneeling opposite are Meyer's daughter Anna, his wife Dorothea and his dead first wife Magdalen Baer (shown behind Dorothea). Holbein's mistress Magdalena Offenburg probably posed for the Virgin. The painting has both German and Italian features: the cool realism and linear precision are in the German tradition, while the symmetrical 'Madonna of Mercy' composition, the classical motifs and the softened features of the Madonna t originate from Italian Renaissance t painting.
This is a companion portrait to Sir Henry Guildford. The date of the painting and the sitter's age (she is in her 27th summer, so is either 26 or 27) appear as if cut in stone above the ornate pillar beside her. This placing of the figure beside classical architecture is typical of Holbein's early portraits. The artist has paid meticulous attention to detail, particularly in the dress, but has created a bold composition, with clear outlines, strong colour contrasts and an impressive sense of bulk. A preparatory drawing exists which shows Lady Guildford smiling, with a vivacious sideways glance.
This superb portrait of Holbein`s friend, host and patron shows More in his late 4os, wearing the ‘Ss’ collar that signified his position as Lord Chancellor accurate in detail, the composition has a monumentality and simple grandeur appropriate to the sitter’s status and strength of character.
This lady was probably painted during Holbein's first visit to England: she is shown in the same half-length, three-quarter view as Sir Thomas More, while the twisting foliage is similar to that behind Lady Guildford. The painting's charm derives mainly from the bird, and the little pet squirrel which sits on her arm.
This magnificent, life-size double portrait shows Jean de Dinteville, a French aristocrat and ambassador to London and his friend and fellow-diplomat Georges de Selve, the young bishop of Lavour. The two men stand either side of a 'whatnot' on which lies an immaculately painted still-life display which symbolizes their intellectual and spiritual accomplishments. At first the painting appears to be a glorification of man's achievements, but it takes on another meaning when the distorted object which hangs between their feet is recognized as a skull. One of the several references to death in the painting, it makes the portrait a momenta mori (a reminder of death): its message is that despite man's wordly achievements, we all must die.
The only portrait from life of the king that is undoubtedly by Holbein, this picture may have formed a pair with a portrait of Henry's third queen, Jane Seymour. In this icon-like image, the body is flattened up against the picture plane, and the emphasis is on decoration: the gold thread, chain and buttons are painted in real gold.
This timid-looking ex-lady-in-waiting had only become queen in the year that this portrait was begun. The next year, size fulfilled Henry's dream by bearing him an on (Edward VI), hut died in childbirth. Like the king, she is set against a plain blue background wink her dress is painted in exquisite and precise detail.
A prospective bride for the king, following Jane Seymour's death, the widowed duchess sat for Holbein in Brussels on the afternoon of 12 March 1538, when the artist drew her likeness in a three-hour sitting. In this impressive full-length portrait, the young woman's fresh and delicate beauty is highlighted by her austere mourning clothes.
This young woman used to be identified as Henry's fifth queen, Catherine Howard, but she was probably a member of the Cromwell family. Like the Duchess of Milan, she is placed against a plain greenish background, on which she throws a shadow. The gold inscription indicating her age echoes the gold details of her dress.
Writer – Marshall Cavendish