Holbein - Technique and Imitation

Susan Foister, Director of Collections, National Gallery, London

Making Art in Tudor Britain
Abstracts from Academic Workshops (2007-8)
Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council




John Fisher, after Hans Holbein the Younger, 16th century (circa 1527) - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

John Fisher
after Hans Holbein the Younger
16th century (circa 1527)
NPG 2821

Hans Holbein the Younger first visited England in 1526-8 and returned by 1532. He died in London in 1543. Though settled in Basel by 1516, he was born in Augsburg in southern Germany. Examination of works in the National Gallery by three of Holbein's German contemporaries, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1533) Hans Baldung Grien (1484/5-1555) and Jakob Seisenegger (1505-67) demonstrate slightly differing techniques and styles of painting but share the use of a range of materials common to all Northern European painters of the period. (These observations are based on examinations carried out with Rachel Billinge and Marika Spring for the forthcoming catalogue of German Paintings before 1800; the materials and techniques of Northern European painters are discussed in National Gallery Technical Bulletin 18, 1997.)

 

Thomas Cranmer, by Gerlach Flicke, 1545 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Thomas Cranmer
by Gerlach Flicke
1545
NPG 535

Whilst Holbein also uses a similar range of materials his techniques and styles are again different in certain respects, and his accomplishment as a painter is extraordinary. Holbein's Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling c.1527 (NG 6540) shows his mastery of painting wet-in-wet to suggest the squirrel's toffee-like fur as well as the small pelts of ermine making up the sitter's fur hat. The Ambassadors 1533 (NG 1314) is a large and complex picture, with simple, economical techniques for the carpet and curtain, but bravura painting of Dinteville's pink satin sleeve and minute application of mordant gilding for the tassel of his sword.

Did Holbein have assistants who might later have continued to work in his manner? In Basel none are documented, though Holbein was offered a licence to sell his work abroad, which might suggest a sizeable production. Jochen Sander has recently argued that at least one assistant produced works while Holbein was in England in 1526-8. There is no documentary evidence that Holbein employed assistants in Basel or in England. As an alien until 1541 he could not legally employ assistants in England, though his position at court might have offered protection in doing so. Nevertheless, it was usual European practice to employ assistants for grinding pigments and to carry out larger commissions; the Greenwich revels accounts of 1527 show Holbein working with teams of English painters, all using pigments and techniques familiar throughout Northern Europe.

King Henry VIII; King Henry VII, by Hans Holbein the Younger, circa 1536-1537 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

King Henry VIII; King Henry VII
by Hans Holbein the Younger
circa 1536-1537
NPG 4027

The recent Tate Britain Holbein exhibition offered the opportunity to display together some paintings which might be the product of a Holbein workshop. Few of these paintings have been analysed using dendrochronology (the Walker Art Gallery painting of Henry VIII is an exception), hence their contemporaneity with Holbein can only be estimated. The influence of Holbein's portrait patterns clearly continued after his death: the recent Walker Art Gallery exhibition explored the relationship between the image of Henry VIII he created for Whitehall and a number of full-length portraits of Henry VIII. The makers of these need not have been Germans (though one may have been) or have had any knowledge of Holbein's working practices: indeed Hans Eworth, probably from Antwerp, appears to have produced at least one version of Holbein's image of Henry VIII, and Holbein remained a valuable, desirable commodity in sixteenth century England, as the presence of the Bishop Fisher face pattern in an Elizabethan collection of such images (now in the NPG) may also indicate. There is thus no necessary connection between nationality and the production of versions of Holbein's portraits.

Nevertheless, Holbein's work has usually seemed isolated from the rest of the production of the English sixteenth century. Two reasons stand out: one is that Holbein was a German painter, and, apart from Gerlach Flicke, from northern Germany, other artists whose work survives were Netherlandish or English. The other is the quality of Holbein's work: no imitator could easily reach the level of his achievements in painting or drawing or composition. We should not confuse differences in technique and style with differences in quality.

Bibliography

X. Brooke and D. Crombie, Henry VIII Revealed: Holbein's Portrait and its Legacy, exhibition catalogue, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, 2003
L. Campbell, S. Foister, A. Roy (eds.), Early Northern European Painting, National Gallery Technical Bulletin 18, 1997
S. Foister, M. Wyld and A. Roy, 'Hans Holbein's A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling', National Gallery Technical Bulletin, Vol.15, 1994, pp.6-19
S. Foister, A. Roy and M. Wyld, Making and Meaning: Holbein's 'Ambassadors', exhibition catalogue, National Gallery 1997
S.Foister, 'Holbein's paintings on canvas: the Greenwich festivities of 1527' (with an appendix by J. Kirby), in M. Roskill and J. O. Hand eds. Hans Holbein: Paintings, Prints and Reception. Studies in the History of Art 60 National Gallery of Art, Washington, New Haven and London 2001 pp 108-123
S. Foister, Holbein's Portraits of Sir Henry and Lady Guildford, exhibition leaflet National Gallery 2003
S. Foister Holbein and England, London and New Haven 2004
S. Foister with T. Batchelor, Holbein in England, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain 2006
A. Roy and M. Wyld, 'The Ambassadors and Holbein's Techniques for Painting on Panel' in M. Roskill and J. O. Hand (eds), Hans Holbein: Paintings, Prints and Reception. Studies in the History of Art 60 National Gallery of Art, Washington, New Haven and London 2001 pp. 97-107
J. Sander, Hans Holbein. Tafelmaler in Basel 1515-1532, München 2005
M. Strolz, 'Zu Maltechnik und Restaurierung des Porträts der Jane Seymour von Hans Holbein D.J.', Technologische Studien. Kunsthistorisches Museum, 1 2004, pp. 8-31

Illustrations

Henry VIII; Henry VII, by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1536-1537, NPG 4027
Thomas Cranmer, by Gerlach Flicke, 1545, NPG 535
John Fisher, after Hans Holbein the Younger, c.1527, NPG 2821