Friday, December 08, 2006

Holbein in England

Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger. Holbein was a genius at capturing facial expressions.

Another highlight of our twenty-four hours in London was the "Holbein in England" exhibit at the Tate Britain (running through January 7). Holbein had made his reputation in Basel, before coming to England in 1510s with a letter of introduction from the humanist Erasmus, who was well-respected among prominent Englishmen like Sir Thomas More. During his years in England, Holbein established himself as a court painter to King Henry VIII. After the death of the beloved, male-heir-producing Queen Jane Seymour in 1537, the King was soon shopping around for another wife. In 1538, Henry sent Holbein to Brussels to paint a full-length portrait of the sixteen-year old Christina of Denmark, famous for her lovely dimples when she smiled (click link to see an image of the portrait, which was part of the Tate exhibit). In the portrait, she has a rather knowing expression on her face, and in the end she responded to Henry's offer of marriage by saying that she would gladly marry him, but only if she had two heads to offer—a reference to his beheading of wife number two, Anne Boleyn. Christina went on to marry the Duke of Lorraine.

Anne of Cleves (1539). Henry VIII commissioned Holbein to paint this portrait so that the King could chcck out Anne as a potential bride.

Meanwhile, in 1539 Henry sent Holbein to paint a portrait of Anne of Cleves so that he could check her out as a potential bride. He apparently liked what he saw, and had his ambassadors arrange a marriage. According to the woman standing next to me as I examined Anne's portrait, Anne smelled of goose fat when she first met the King. Some historians believe that she was completely grossed out by her obese husband, and deliberately made herself so unattractive that he never consummated their marriage. Henry refused to sleep with her and referred to her as "the Flanders mare," and had the marriage annulled after six months.* The portrait at left, now in the Louvre, was not part of the exhibit at the Tate. The exhibit did include the small, round portrait below, which does make her seem quite lovely.

Back in Lorraine, Christina's husband died in 1544, leaving her as Regent of Lorraine. Click this link to see her shortly after her husband's death, in a portrait by Michael van Coxcie in the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin. She seems to be reflecting on her wise choice in refusing Henry VIII—since a couple of years before this portrait was painted, Henry had beheaded yet another wife. After dumping Anne of Cleves, Henry decided not to trust to Holbein's portraits, lovely as they were (perhaps too lovely), and married a pretty English bride, Kathryn Howard. Like Anne, she was grossed out by Henry, but evidently wasn't clever enough to smear herself with goose fat and make herself unattractive. Rumors of her infidelity soon began to circulate, and Henry had her beheaded.

*Anne of Cleves is the only wife of Henry VIII buried in Westminster Abbey. During my visit to the Abbey, immediately after leaving the Tate, I walked past her tomb, not far from those of King Richard II and King Henry V.

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