September 22, 2022
  • September 22, 2022

Review: Hans Holbein struts at the Getty Museum

By on October 26, 2021 0

The original exhibition of Renaissance portraits by Hans Holbein the Younger at the J. Paul Getty Museum opens with a bang.

Her stunningly beautiful painting of a young woman, wife of a London courtier, sits straight ahead on the entrance wall. Shown in standard three-quarter view, at waist height, she appears decent and composed when accompanied by two unexpected pets, both shown in profile.

A red squirrel munching on a nut is held by a delicate chain tight in its hand. Just behind his right shoulder, as if about to whisper in her ear, a starling with shiny feathers is perched on a branch.

Animals do double duty. Materiality meets symbolism.

Holbein’s gorgeous and visually appealing displays are intensified by the material textures he stacks up in them. The squirrel’s bushy red fur, the bird’s smooth feathers, and the shimmering golden chain join the dense white fur of the young woman’s hooded beanie, the thin strands of her neatly parted hair, the linen shawl draped around her shoulders, the vaporous transparency of her dress’ sheer bodice and the soft white ruffle on the wrist coming out from under her sleeve.

Holbein struts. Like touring artists all over history, he needed to show the uninitiated what he could do.

Hans Holbein the Younger, “A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling (Anne Lovell?)”, C. 1526-1528, oil on panel.

(National Gallery)

The German artist, born in Augsburg in late 1497 or early 1498, was around 29 or 30 when he painted “A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling (Anne Lovell?)”. He grew up in a successful artistic family, which included a grandfather, father, uncle and brother, and he thirsted for a stable job. After traveling through Europe, mainly Switzerland and the Netherlands, he visited England for the first time to attract patronage. London was a difficult market to break into, but the estate of the lady’s courtier husband was one of many in the country – this one, 100 miles north in Norfolk County.

Hence the symbolism.

Squirrels, playful but industrious, are represented in Richard Lovell’s family crest. This led the researchers to conclude that the unidentified woman in the painting is likely his wife, Anne Ashby. (Holbein painted the portrait around the time she gave birth to an heir – a son, very important to a land nobility patriarchy.) For its part, the starling also functions as a visual pun, a game on the name of the Norfolk village of East Harling.

20th-century hobbyist con artist Marcel Duchamp is not the only artist to have played with verbal puns in his work, setting off the contemporary chain reaction in pop and conceptual art. That the bird whispers in Anne’s ear signals that a spectator must “hear” the language inscribed in the name of the species of the bird. The visual becomes audible.

Several portraits show people holding gloves or tools. However, folded books and papers are highlighted. Holbein’s attention to a visual intersection with language is essential to his appeal to Britain. There, the power of the written word has generally beaten painting in the long history of the liberal arts.

A painting of a bearded man in a hat and a coat, clutching the rolled up paper.

Hans Holbein the Younger, “A Member of the Wedigh Family”, 1533, oil on panel.

(Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemaldegälerie)

Then there was Erasmus, the great Dutch humanist philosopher with whom Tudor England was obsessed. Erasmus argued that writing occupied a higher rung on its aesthetic scale than the making of images. He was Catholic – in fact, the illicit son of a priest – but he also admired certain principles of the Protestant Reformation, including caution about the potentially evil power of images.

Erasmus supported Holbein, although with reservations noted in the image. His support was instrumental in the artist’s commercial success, including his subsequent rise to the rank of court painter to Henry VIII, the debauched intellectual who sat on the throne of England from 1509 to 1547. .

Holbein’s transparent union of materiality and symbolism was more than just showy. Rather, it is what makes the flesh-and-blood verisimilitude of his portraits so captivating.

What a skill. For “A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling (Anne Lovell?)”, Modern high-tech imaging techniques revealed that the painting was almost complete when Holbein added the animals – a move that required compositional adjustments skillful, especially around the lady’s hands. Holbein may have responded to a customer’s last minute request to add, but he did so without a hitch.

“Hans Holbein: Capturing Character in the Renaissance” was organized by Getty Curator Anne Woollett with Austėja Mackelaitė and John T. McQuillen from the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, where he is traveling in February. The exhibition presents 33 paintings and drawings by the artist. According to museums, there have never been so many Holbein panels – 20 at the Getty – in an American exhibit.

The pandemic has required some loans to be juggled, so the show will be slightly different at the two sites. And COVID-19 ominously highlights Holbein’s tragic death around the age of 45, believed to have been the result of a virulent plague that raged through London during the winter of 1543.

The exhibition also features an illuminating array of dozens of contextual objects – from letters and medallions to engravings, ornamental hat badges and recent x-ray scans – that shed light on Holbein’s work habits. The inclusion shows that Holbein’s portraits were not only immediate records of what he saw, but rather were put together over time.

Some portraits of other contemporary artists, notably the Flemish painter Jan Gossaert, are included for comparison. The catalog is excellent.

A painting if a person on a white horse.

Hans Holbein the Younger, “An Allegory of Passion”, c. 1532-1536, oil on panel.

(J. Paul Getty Museum)

Rightly (albeit somewhat ironically), the exhibition aims to shed light on one of those contextual elements – an unusual Holbein in the Getty’s own collection. “An Allegory of Passion” is not a portrait; it shows a rider in a classic toga charging forward on the back of a galloping white steed. But the diamond-shaped panel illustrates a line by the poet Petrarch on the pursuit of desire. It is one more example of the intersection of image and language that animated Holbein’s thought.

The power of human desire provides a good explanation for the Renaissance efflorescence of portraiture as a major artistic theme. There are others, including a class desire to display vast wealth and assert power. This lady’s pet squirrel doesn’t just identify family. It displays the upper class distinction of even having a family crest.

Elsewhere, through the intricate gold threads woven one by one into the elaborate headdress worn by a pious “Mary, Lady Guildford”, Holbein created a veritable halo for an aristocrat. (Her husband was controller of the spendthrift Henry VIII). An astonishing verisimilitude merges every elegant strand, shining in the light, with the authority of the model to be one of the few who can afford a painting commission.

Then there’s the alert gaze of a predatory hawk, perched in the foreground on the gloved hand of an unidentified nobleman, seemingly climbing his status. (The bird was another last-minute addition to a nearly finished likeness.) The all-black suit, crooked buttons, and protruding gold jewelry of the ruthless courtier, “Richard Southwell,” asserts the severity.

Through the portrait, these are all people who say calmly but firmly: “Don’t mess with me”.

A painting of a man in a dark hat and coat with his hands clasped.

Hans Holbein the Younger, “Richard Southwell”, 1536, oil on panel.

(Uffizi Gallery)

Southwell, hands clasped and eyes focused like a laser in front of him, sits formally in front of a rich green wall almost as off-putting as his dark clothes. But is it any wonder that Holbein’s preferred frame for many of these portraits involved a flat plane of celestial blue? Guardians occupy both heaven and earth.

Think of it as a high English Renaissance version of today’s vulgar prosperity gospel that equates Christian faith with material success – say, Joel Osteen or Benny Hinn without the sticky taste.

It is missing from the show “The ambassadors, The iconic British painting from the National Gallery in London. The most famous portrait of Holbein is a double whammy, famous for the large anamorphic, wildly deformed human skull, distributed at the bottom of the photo, where it highlights the two life-size figures of an imposing French ambassador and his friend. clerical.

Dressed in sleek pink satin, fluffy white lynx, and shiny black silk, the majestic nobleman resembles a Renaissance box filled with Good & Plenty candy. The skull, composed on a raking angle that matches the casual tilt of the man’s cap, gives him a perceptually acute visual emblem for the Latin text of his motto: memento mori “Remember, you have to die.

The absence of “The Ambassadors” from the Getty is hardly a surprise. The masterpiece did not travel because, with almost seven square feet and one of the largest Renaissance oils painted on wood panel, it is simply too fragile for such a trip. It’s quite a miracle that 19 smaller Holbein panels made the trip from major museums in the United States and Europe.

In July, when we learned that the Huntington Library, San Marino Art Museum and Botanical Gardens had made the mistake of agreeing to loan their physically delicate icon, “Blue Boy,” to the National Gallery of San Marino. London in January, I hoped for a fraction of a second that in exchange, the British Museum might be able to lend its equally iconic Holbein “ambassadors”. But that, of course, would have been an equally dangerous arrangement. A prominent and less vulnerable Joseph Wright of Derby canvas arrives instead.

A drawing of a man with bangs and a hat.

Hans Holbein the Younger, “Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey,” c. 1532-1533, chalk and ink.

(The Royal Collection)

London, however, gave the coup de grace to Anne Lovell and her animals, and the Queen of England was generous with designs among the 80 in the royal collection. Along with the rest – including a scholar’s Getty chalk and ink study, the unique design in North America – they make for an unparalleled experience.

Just remember what brought down Holbein and when you go be sure to wear your mask.

‘Holbein: Capturing Character in the Renaissance’

Or: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood

When: Tuesday to Sunday, until January 9

Cost: To free

Info: (310) 440-7300,

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