If you ask someone to describe Henry VIII’s appearance, they will likely be quick to supply an answer: the king was tall, fat, leonine, with a spade-shaped face, piggy eyes, hands insolently on his hips, and gargantuan legs spread wide. They might not, however, know who crafted the image: the German artist, Hans Holbein the Younger. So too did he provide our instantly-recognisable visual depictions of Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Thomas More, Desiderius Erasmus, and many more. Holbein, quite simply, has for centuries dictated what Henry and the people around him looked like. He is the subject of a new book, The King’s Painter, by art historian Franny Moyle.
Moyle’s study opens with one of the most notorious episodes with which Holbein was associated: his painting of the exquisite portrait – and accompanying miniature – of Anne of Cleves. We then pull back, as it were, to see the full canvas, and it is here that the narrative really casts its spell. Beginning with the artist’s background, the book vividly brings to life Holbein’s world. Son and nephew to artists who served the late-medieval Catholic world, he stood on the brink of one of history’s greatest cultural, confessional, and artistic shifts.
It is in depicting this dangerous, colourful, intellectually inquisitive world that Moyle shines. Central to her study of Holbein is the importance of the era as one of innovation and uncertainty on all fronts. The reformation is often described as move from a religio-political culture founded on the visual to one based on the word. It was, after all, a period – in those countries in which the artist moved – when images were cast down, walls whitewashed, and the primacy of the Bible asserted over the worship of images. Yet, as Moyle makes clear, Holbein complicates this idea, providing as he did a colourful, realistic, visual dimension to Henry’s Renaissance court – producing, in effect, a new set of icons who were both secular and quasi-religious, who were always breathtakingly human and yet frequently larger than life.
As Moyle follows Holbein through the major artistic endeavours that mark his life – rubbing shoulders along the way with such subjects as Erasmus, More, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, and of course Henry VIII – her fascinating tale unrolls, like a painted cloth, to reveal a story that seems almost too good to be true. Throughout, she casts an appreciative eye on the man’s work, bringing out details which highlight not only his acuity but the aspects of personality and political significance which he captured. As for how Holbein fared after the disastrous Cleves debacle which opens the book, I’ll leave readers to discover.
Hans Holbein gave us our enduring visual understanding of the Henrician court and the mammoth figure at its centre. Yet the artist’s story has too often been submerged in the dramas, romances, and cruelties we continually reimagine his paintings acting out. And if Holbein gave us Henry VIII, Franny Moyle has given us Holbein in this welcome addition to Tudor historiography.
Franny Moyle is the author of The King’s Painter: The Life and Times of Hans Holbein published by Head of Zeus. You can read her piece on Holbein’s death here.