Fans of the Frick Collection’s famous 16th century portrait duo, “Sir Thomas More” (1527) and “Thomas Cromwell” (1532-33), will be relieved that More’s likeness appears here (no Cromwell, alas), along with pictures of dozens of other Tudor notables, scholars, publishers and merchants lucky enough to engage German-born Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/1498-1543), the man who would become court painter to Henry VIII.
More’s portrait, in particular, never fails to fascinate. Writer Jonathan Lethem opines in a recent book about the Frick that Holbein’s depiction of the statesman’s luxurious velvet sleeve “was ecstasy, the sleeve should be illegal, the sleeve was Utopia,” a reference to the Lord High Chancellor’s 1516 book about an ideal community.
The portraits, painted and drawn, at the Morgan Library & Museum’s arresting show seem ideally fit to hang in a utopia. For here we find truth and beauty, precisely realized figures in precisely realized, sumptuous garments, with carefully chosen accessories that scream, “This is who I am.”
These are statement pieces. And they are breathtaking for their evocation of “both the physical and the ineffable aspects of humanity,” Anne T. Woollett, curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles which collaborated with the Morgan, writes in the catalog.
Take the recently conserved roundel, “Simon George” (ca. 1535-40), one of the show’s signature images, accompanied here by a delicate preparatory drawing (ca. 1535). We know only the sitter’s name and that he hails from Cornwall — and that he’s a good dresser, with a jaunty feather in his cap and an embroidered black jacket with high shine that rivals More’s crimson sleeve for verisimilitude. Think of him as a Renaissance hipster.
The works on view are replete with symbols and markers of personal identity, like hat badges, rings, neckpieces, animals, emblems and mottoes with inscriptions that signal the subject’s values, interests, occupation and money.
Simon George holds a red carnation, a symbol of love and betrothal on the one hand, but maybe of Christ’s crucifixion and therefore mortality, on the other, when coupled with the pansies on his hat. Is he thinking about love or death? The meaning of the piece is a bit of a mystery to be sure, which just adds to its exquisite appeal.
“A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling (Anne Lovell?)” (ca. 1526-28) is likely a portrait in three-quarters of a noblewoman married to the King’s personal attendant, Francis Lovell. The subject’s identity remained unknown until 2004, when scholars linked the red squirrel on the lady’s lap to the squirrel on the Lovell family’s crest, and the starling near her shoulder to East Harling (note the play on words), location of the family’s estate in Norfolk.
It’s another iconic Holbein painting, with an uncanny depiction of feathers and fur. Note the squirrel’s bushy tail brushing against the woman’s bosom, and the glint in its eye, achieved with just a speck of white paint.
The artist did not confine himself to paintings and drawings, of course. He embodied the spirit of the age and turned his talents to prints, book illustrations and the design of personal emblems, jewelry and other metalwork.
His extraordinary versatility meant he could go large, and he could go small. There are many remarkable miniatures on display, such as the painting of his early patron, scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam (ca. 1532), and that of the Swiss printer, Johann Froben of Basel (ca. 1528-32), where Holbein networked and honed his skills before finally settling in London in 1532.
His sophistication, wit and love of intricate detail (get out your magnifying glass) is apparent throughout the exhibit, no better than in his designs for “Images of Death” (ca. 1526), a famous series of tiny woodcuts about the medieval Dance of Death developed with blockcutter Hans Lützelburger.
These works are action-packed and feature the Grim Reaper playing “gotcha” with his chosen ones, from Pope to plowman, each pictured going about their daily business. Despite the ghastly subject matter, the series was not meant to be frightening — just a “positive reminder to lead a good, devout life,” the Morgan’s Director Colin B. Bailey says in an audio tour on the museum’s website.
With chalk, pen, oils and plenty of gold — on tinted paper, canvas and wood panel — Holbein chronicled the personalities of his day. As Woollett writes, “His ability to paint convincing likenesses that evoke presence was unequaled ... The ‘lifelike’ qualities for which his paintings were praised by contemporaries ... were the result of his judicious idealizations of physical traits, combined with a sense of spectacle and confident manipulation of space.”
The sprig of rosemary on Lady Guildford’s bodice? Her elaborate headdress mirroring the capital on an adjacent Italianate column? Spectacle indeed.
“Holbein: Capturing Character” at the Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue (at 36th Street); through May 15. https://www.themorgan.org