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“Holbein was able to combine his ability to create a very believable likeness with these strong design sensibilities, and also an ingenuity, a cleverness, a creativity to create individual portraits of specificity and complexity.”

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/98–1543) depicted some of the most important thinkers and politicians of his day in beautiful, highly individualized portraits. In Basel, he socialized with and painted humanists such as Desiderius Erasmus and Bonifacius Amerbach. In London, he captured nobles and high-ranking officials like Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More. He even became court painter to King Henry VIII in 1536. Holbein also painted many noblewomen, a somewhat unusual practice at the time, paying particular attention to their style of dress.

In this episode, Getty paintings curator Anne Woollett discusses the exhibition Holbein: Capturing Character in the Renaissance, the first large-scale presentation of Holbein’s work in the United States. Woollett highlights key works in the exhibition, placing them in the context of Holbein’s milieu and career. The exhibition is on view at the Getty Center through January 9, 2022 before traveling to the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, in February 2022.

More to explore:

Holbein: Capturing Character buy the book
Holbein: Capturing Character in the Renaissance explore the exhibition


JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
ANNE WOOLLETT: Holbein was able to combine his ability to create a very believable likeness with these strong design sensibilities, and also an ingenuity, a cleverness, a creativity to create individual portraits of specificity and complexity.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with curator Anne Woollett about the Getty exhibition Holbein: Capturing Character in the Renaissance.
Hans Holbein the Younger was born in Augsburg, Germany, in 1497 or ‘98, but worked mainly in Basel, Switzerland. In 1526, he traveled to England where he moved in the humanist circle of Sir Thomas More, Lord High Chancellor of England under King Henry VIII.
After a brief return to Basel, Holbein resumed his career in England under the patronage of Anne Boleyn, Queen of England, and Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to the king. By 1536, Holbein was the king’s painter, producing portraits and festive decorations, as well as designs for jewelry, plates, and other precious objects.
I recently spoke with Getty paintings curator Anne Woollett in the exhibition galleries. Co-organized by the Getty Museum and the Morgan Library & Museum, the exhibition Holbein: Capturing Character in the Renaissance is the first major presentation of Holbein’s work in the United States.
Thank you, Anne. It’s great to see you in the galleries this morning, after such a long COVID-disrupted year. How’s the year been for you?
WOOLLETT: It’s great to see you, too, Jim. It’s just fabulous to do this in person again.
Well, it was a very, well, exciting and challenging year, I have to say. It was unlike any other process of putting together an exhibition that I’ve been through.
CUNO: How was the exhibition interrupted by the pandemic?
WOOLLETT: Well, really we were able to maintain our momentum. There was a great deal of writing at home and some meetings over remote processes, and we were able to pursue the loans that we wanted to have for the exhibition. It just required extra perseverance. All over the world, there were disruptions to workflows and colleagues being in or out of the office. So each case, in fact, every loan in this exhibition was a unique instance.
CUNO: And what do you mean by that?
WOOLLETT: Well, we had to work with the circumstances as they occurred with the lending institutions or the colleagues from which we wished to borrow objects. And in every country, the COVID pandemic had a different impact on cultural institutions.
CUNO: What about having the difficulty of having certain restrictions on travel?
WOOLLETT: Yes indeed. I was able, before the pandemic began, to visit all of the institutions myself and to speak with colleagues, essentially begin the negotiations for each loan. Painting exhibitions like this one—drawings, works of art and sculpture—ideally begin with a conversation in person with your colleagues, to make the case for lending something that’s rare and precious. And Holbein paintings in particular are very, very hard to borrow. They’re 500 years old, paintings are on oak panels or on linden; the drawings are very fragile. So each case has to be considered carefully and argued in a friendly way with one’s colleagues.
So that happened before the pandemic began. And then it was followed up with lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of correspondence.
CUNO: Yeah, I can imagine. But you got what you wanted in the end.
WOOLLETT: Yes, we did.
CUNO: Yeah. Tell us about Holbein’s early life and career, about his training as an artist.
WOOLLETT: So our artist is Hans Holbein the Younger, which means he is the son of Hans Holbein the Elder. These are artists, a family based in Augsburg, Southern Germany. And our Hans, the Younger, probably received his early training with his father, and perhaps also an uncle. But at an early age, he travels to Basel Switzerland, in 1515, with his elder brother, Ambrosius. They probably go there because there was a very thriving printing industry. Holbein, as a young man, is already proficient in design, and a skillful draftsman.
And it’s in Basel that he’s able to establish himself amongst a very learned group of patrons. Basel is a lively city. It has many churches. There’re opportunities to paint altarpieces. The publishing industry is burgeoning. And he makes contact with patrons that will sustain him, both locally and beyond Basel. Mostly humanists.
We can talk about the Holbein’s career as peripatetic. And in this way, he’s not so unusual. Holbein moves around. He’s ambitious. He wants to seek a court position where he can use all of his extraordinary skills. And so he seems to make a trip to France around 1524, to see if he could work for Francis I. This doesn’t work out. He may’ve gone to Italy; it’s quite possible.
In any case, he travels via Antwerp to London, where he meets Thomas More. He spends two years in London. Very successful portraitist. He returns to Basel briefly in the late 1520s, where the Reformation, which has been gathering momentum, is really— the effects are felt on the work of artists. There are no longer altarpiece commissions. In fact, there’s iconoclasm in 1529. And Holbein, I think, is restless.
And he returns to England, where he had had this wonderful success, and he does it again with Erasmus’ letters of introduction. His patrons from the first visit to London are, however, no longer available to him. They’ve either passed away or they are disgraced, as in the case of Thomas More. But Holbein quickly builds other contacts, and in fact, has a just brilliant career in London until his death in 1543.
We know he becomes court painter to the king by 1536. It may’ve been earlier. And this exhibition highlights the many types of individual that were seeking portraits and other designs and drawings from him in this period. So merchants and prominent women at the court.
CUNO: What about his particular training as an artist? Was it different than others might’ve had?
WOOLLETT: You know, Holbein’s training was very much rooted in the expertise brought to high-level commissions of his father and wider family circle. So very standard training, in the sense of learning how to use oil paints. He was also associated with goldsmiths’ work. And so it seems that he was able to develop his drawing skills and his design skills in a very refined way, and also at an early age.
But he seems also to have been very receptive to other techniques that were being developed at the time. So we see in his drawing practice, for example, he has two different approaches in each of his London periods, using, in the second period, papers that are primed with pink coloring.
CUNO: Yeah. Now, you use a particular phrase in your catalog. You call Holbein’s “signature a combination of verisimilitude and illusion.” What do you mean by that?
WOOLLETT: Well, we’re highlighting in this exhibition the unique set of skills that Holbein brought to portraiture. He’s by no means the only portraitist at this time, of course, by no means the only skilled German portraitist. But Holbein was able to combine his ability to create a very believable likeness with these strong design sensibilities, and also an ingenuity, a cleverness, a creativity to create individual portraits of specificity and complexity.
So this means that we feel that we’re really seeing a real person, very precisely defined. And yet the composition is a little bit misleading. In fact, he’s a little bit devious. When we start to ask questions about where someone is sitting—what space are they in? How is it possible to see both things at once? How is the expression constructed?—these are very artful aspects of Holbein’s career, and something that carries through this exhibition. But in each case, for each sitter, he comes up with an individual solution.
CUNO: You also say that he “constructed statements of identity to express his early patrons’ perspectives on their own representation, and to assert the essential contribution of the artist to the process.” Tell us about that.
WOOLLETT: One of the most charming aspects, I think, of Holbein’s artistry is that he is not afraid to be sure that we know that he is present. And the way that he does this sometimes is very blatant, through inscriptions which allude to the artist’s skill and to he skill which deceives us, in fact.
So we find through the exhibition, examples where he is referring specifically to a debate that’s happening in cultured humanist circles, one that goes back to antiquity, about whether the written word, whether rhetoric, or whether a visual image can best define an individual, and in particular, an individual’s interior qualities.
CUNO: And what was the culture like in Basel when he was there?
WOOLLETT: Yeah, Basel Switzerland was a very cultured city. It was a city that had a large number of lawyers. There was a university, in fact. And there is this publishing industry. So we have to remember that in the early 1500s, the book is really coming into its own. And there is an industry growing in Basel, particularly under Johann Froben, which is producing beautiful books for humanist patrons. And so there’s an exchange of ideas about antiquity, about poetry and literature, about sort of visual ideas. There’s use of Renaissance motifs coming from Italy, for example.
CUNO: What distinguishes Holbein’s career and work from that of his near contemporary Albrecht Dürer?
WOOLLETT: Well, Albrecht Dürer was an absolutely immense, towering figure, someone of great intellect and personal influence. And he’s a little bit older than Hans Holbein the Younger, and I think must’ve offered kind of an important sort of precedent for Holbein’s ambitions. One of the interesting things about Holbein the Younger, though, is that we have no correspondence from him in the first person.
So we don’t know, in terms of how he expressed himself in writing, what he thought, what his life experiences were. And so we have to see his art as an expression of his belief system and of his conviction that painting and drawing and design were the equals of the written word.
So Hans Holbein the Younger enjoyed, perhaps, less status in his own time that Dürer did. One of the ways that we measure this is the laudatory verses that emerge from writers and critical thinkers. And Dürer is compared to Apelles, the great painter from antiquity, very early on. But this accolade comes to Hans Holbein the Younger in the 1530s, eventually.
CUNO: What about the Dutch theologian and philosopher Erasmus? Tell us about him—whose portrait is in the exhibition—and how he and Holbein came to know one another, and of the influence Erasmus had on Holbein’s career.
WOOLLETT: Yes, Erasmus’ influence on Holbein’s career is essential. Desiderius Erasmus was an Augustinian canon. He was a Dutchman, born in Rotterdam. And after distinguishing himself as a scholar, he was able, in 1517, to seek and receive from Pope Leo X, release from his monastic vows. He’s about fifty years old at this point.
He’s also published two key works that are known to the general public, amongst many, many other specialist treatises. One is the collection of Classical proverbs and sayings known as the Adagia; and the other is Praise of Folly, which is written for Thomas More.
And in this moment in the mid-fifteen-teens, it corresponds really with Holbein’s emergence as a young artist. And Erasmus is relying on Johann Froben, in particular, in Basel, to publish his works. And it’s in Basel that Holbein comes to his attention.
And we have to remember that Holbein, in this context, is considered a craftsman. So despite his amazing talent and ingenuity, cleverness, he would not necessarily have had a close personal relationship, we have to imagine, with Erasmus. But Erasmus was appreciative of his talents, and he commissions an important portrait, three-quarter-length portrait of himself sitting in his study. It’s a very influential composition that Holbein devises for him.
And Holbein goes on to paint other portraits of Erasmus. He becomes the means by which Erasmus’ likeness is disseminated. And really, Erasmus is the first celebrity scholar. There is a great desire amongst his fans, true fans, for his likeness. And so Holbein is able to develop these small-scale portraits—some of them in a round format, some of them in an upright small rectangular format—to satisfy that desire.
But it’s Erasmus’ steadfast willingness to recommend Holbein to his own associates, men, prominent men, in his humanist circle, that helps Holbein establish himself, particularly in England.
CUNO: Well, tell us about Sir Thomas More. You mentioned him. What was his influence on Holbein’s career?
WOOLLETT: Thomas More is a statesman, a lawyer, a writer, an Englishman based in London. He met Erasmus during Erasmus’s visit to England in 1499. They become close friends and correspondents. And it’s to Thomas More that Erasmus introduces Holbein in the fall of 1526. Thomas More writes back and says, “Well, you know, your painter is very talented, but I’m afraid he’s not going to find much work here.” Something like this.
But in fact, because Thomas More had wide contacts in the humanist milieu of London and the sort of Tudor court, he was able to give Holbein access to a great number of important individuals, it seems. It’s very quickly that Holbein secures commissions for portraits, but also for ephemeral decorations for royal festivities, for example, at Greenwich. And we mustn’t forget, of course, Holbein’s own portraits of Thomas More and his family. In particular, the very spectacular portrait that he paints of More alone, in the collection of the Frick.
CUNO: And what brought Holbein back to Basel in 1528? And why did he ultimately then return to England years later?
WOOLLETT: So it’s a bit like today, actually. A person in the early 1500s receives a sort of dispensation from their home city, the city in which they’re a citizen—Holbein was a citizen of Basel at this point—to leave temporarily. So kind of a passport. So he returns because his two years is up. But also, his family is in Basel. He has a wife and two children.
And he returns. He’s able to buy two houses in Basel, at this point. And I think he wants to try to make his career there. But the circumstances are highly complex. And the impact of the Reformation on commissions for artists in Basel is profound. And Holbein is able to finish works that he had begun. For example, the very magnificent devotional painting called the Darmstadt Madonna, the Meyer Madonna, and other works. He does portraits of Erasmus, probably at this point, and Johann Froben.
CUNO: Alright, let’s start looking at some of the paintings in the exhibition. There seem to be relative few portraits of women in the exhibition and in its accompanying catalog. And exception is this portrait, Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling. What is the meaning of that?
WOOLLETT: This is a marvelous painting, I hope also relatively familiar to Holbein enthusiasts, and we have placed it at the very beginning of the exhibition. She introduces the exhibition and its themes. It really shows how Holbein brought a powerful form of portraiture to England. England at this point didn’t have a native portrait tradition, per se, but did have a strong heraldic tradition.
And Holbein is here portraying a woman from Norfolk. And her identity has really only been discovered in recent years, around 2004, when the importance of the animals became understood. She’s portrayed against a vivid turquoise-blue background, with vine tendrils, and she’s dressed in a white, soft fur ermine cap that’s peaked at the top. It has kind of an architectural form. And she has a very smooth silk shawl wrapped around her shoulders, and she’s dressed in a dark dress, a black dress with white cuffs.
And she’s holding a red squirrel who’s eating a hazelnut. And in the foliage over her right shoulder is a starling which, I have to say, looks like it’s about to either sing in her ear or peck her ear through the cap. But it’s a very important painting. And you’re right, Jim; there are relatively few portraits of women in this period.
And it’s important, Holbein’s approach to this conundrum, because he brings into portraiture a wider array of female sitters. And we’ve brought a number of them into the exhibition, so that we can look at how he portrays women. Women who’re associated with the court; but also, it seems, private individuals who are more decorously arranged.
And we see this here with Anne Lovell, who looks away from us. So she looks out of the portrait. And her hands are arranged very decorously in front of her. And he has a rather serious expression, you might think, for someone who’s holding a squirrel. And that’s really because that was appropriate behavior—propriety was key here.
And it’s also because the squirrel is a late addition, it seems. So Holbein had painted her likeness. And we can imagine that there was conversation between Holbein and his patrons, who would’ve been Anne and her husband, Francis Lovell, who becomes Sir Francis about this moment.
It has been determined that squirrels eating nuts are a motif on the Lovell family coat of arms. And so this is a way of indicating the family name. The bird also seems to play a role. There was an interest in not only visual puns but verbal puns, and in English spoken at this moment, starling is similar in pronunciation to the name of the village near the estate where the Lovell’s lived in Norfolk, East Harling. So these two elements help situate and specify who the sitter is.
CUNO: Tell us about what seems to be a modest costume that she’s wearing.
WOOLLETT: So our sitter is dressed very much as an English gentlewoman would be dressed. There were very specific laws in this time for how someone dressed. You could not dress outside of your status. And so Holbein seems to have paid very close attention to English costume, particularly English costume for women. So the different head coverings and the different dress types and the different fabrics were all crucial to appropriately portraying his sitters.
CUNO: And what about his painting by Bonifacius Amerbach? What about this painting of Bonifacius Amerbach?
WOOLLETT: Well, this is an important work at the beginning of the exhibition. Almost a square format. And we see a man in a dark coat with a fur collar, black cap, seen in about three-quarter-length profile. And he seems to be outside, underneath a tree. And in a way, this is a collaboration, and it really shows, even from the beginning of Holbein’s career, how he worked together with his sitters. They had kind of, often, a rapport that we can see in his paintings.
In this case, Amerbach is a lawyer and a humanist. In fact, he is a Classical scholar that was admired by Erasmus, and who was made Erasmus’s sole heir. He and Holbein are about the same age. Holbein’s about twenty-two years old and Bonifacius Amerbach is twenty-four or so. And you can imagine these two young men working on Bonifacius Amerbach’s likeness.
In this case, there’s a plaque hanging on a twig on the side of the tree, with an inscription, beautiful lettered inscription sort of on an angle. And Amerbach himself devised the inscription. In the exhibition, we include a draft page in which he’s working out his verse, trying different formulations and trying to get the wording just right.
CUNO: It’s over here on the left?
WOOLLETT: It’s over here on the left. And it’s a torn page, no less, so we really feel like it’s a working sheet, with this very…
CUNO: How would that have survived?
WOOLLETT: There’s a large archive of Amerbach’s correspondence in the university library in Basel. And they very generously lent us a page from this large volume.
CUNO: And does the text on the page correspond directly with the text on the plaque that’s—?
WOOLLETT: No. The text on the page is earlier ideas, we must assume. It’s not the final solution. But it’s a capsule, if you will, of this humanist discussion, of this conversation about the importance of rhetoric, of the written word in describing a person, and also a painter’s ability to match that or exceed it. And this is a deliberate sort of playful back and forth between the two, in which really, the inscription gives the applause to the painter.
CUNO: Now, what about this portrait of Erasmus, I assume, over here on the left?
WOOLLETT: We’re looking at a small rectangular portrait of Erasmus towards the end of his life. He has a gray beard, and we can see some gray tendrils of hair underneath his black cap. And he’s wearing what’s become a very recognizable attire. Which is to say, it’s a very thick and heavy black cloak that has a black fur collar, and underneath that, another garment that has a brown fur collar. And he has cuffs that are turned back, that are the same brown fur. So he looks very snug.
He also looks kind of monumental. All of these layers are built up around his chest and his neck, and he’s nestled in there. And above all of that, we see this familiar face, by this time, with its long nose and kind of firm lips and penetrating gaze. This is a style of portrait that Holbein devised years earlier for Erasmus, in a larger format, that he’s reduced and has used again, presumably to meet the demand for likenesses of this celebrity scholar.
CUNO: Well, should we go to the Terminus? Well, this is a very strange painting. It’s called a terminus, and it’s of Erasmus. Tell us about this painting. And what would it have been painted for?
WOOLLETT: So this little painting shows a sculpted herm—essentially, a torso, a male torso—with an idealized likeness of Erasmus as the head, with a radiant circle, a sort of halo at the back. And this herm is sitting in a barren landscape. I have to say, it looks pretty desolate. We’re really looking as if through stone portal. The edges indicate that we’re looking through a circular window.
This is the device, the personal emblem of Erasmus. Erasmus selected a personal emblem based on an antique ring that he owned, his signet ring. That ring was a gift from a student. It contains an ancient gem with a carved figure that was, at the time, believed to be Terminus.
And Terminus is not a well-known god from antiquity, but he was associated with boundaries. He resisted the attempts by Jupiter to move past a certain point on the Capitoline Hill, and comes to stand for steadfastness.
It’s a little unclear why Erasmus chose this particular and rather lesser-known god for his personal emblem. But I think that at the time, in the early 1500s, he’s beginning to feel that he’s under more scrutiny, that his opinions— which are sometimes satirical and then couched in terms that give him some protection— He’s already receiving some outside pressure of criticism. But he’s committed to his beliefs and to pursuing his own course.
And so he adopts this emblem, and it’s picked up by a couple of important artists. One of them was Quentin Matsys, who designs a portrait medal with Erasmus’ likeness on one side and the terminus on the verso. But it’s Holbein who produces numerous images of Terminus for Erasmus in different guises. This painting, we must imagine, was probably made for someone who was a fan or an enthusiast of Erasmus and his work, and it serves as a surrogate, if you will, for the great scholar.
CUNO: Is it all part of the culture of learned men, to have such emblems like this?
WOOLLETT: In this period, it was not uncommon for cultured individuals to choose a personal emblem or device, and perhaps even compose their own motto or saying. Sometimes those sayings came from Classical literature or poetry. They could also be common phrases. Erasmus chose for himself a motto that reads, “I yield to none.” And so this phrase is often found on these images of Terminus.
CUNO: Now over here, we see a medal designed by Quentin Matsys—again with Terminus on the reverse and a portrait medal of Erasmus. Would Holbein have known of this?
WOOLLETT: Yeah, Holbein was very attuned to work going on in Antwerp and amongst Flemish painters and designers. He was a visitor to Antwerp as he traveled between Basel and London. Quentin Matsys was probably the most famous painter in Antwerp at this time.
Quentin Matsys painted the first painted portrait of Erasmus, and also a companion friendship portrait. So it’s natural that Erasmus should turn to him for this portrait medal, which is a large medal, designed to be given as a gift by Erasmus to friends and associates.
CUNO: Now, what about here in the the second room of the gallery? What’s the theme of this room?
WOOLLETT: Here in the center of the exhibition, we’re looking at Holbein’s work for members of the Henrician court. The exhibition really highlights the diverse membership of the court and Holbein’s contacts within it. So we have a mixture here of very large-scale portraits and we have some smaller-scale portraits.
We’re looking now at the magnificent portrait of Lady Guildford, Mary Wotton. She’s shown in an architectural space wish a splendid Renaissance-style column behind her a deep blue background with the familiar fig vine motif twirling up behind her body, and there’s a curtain rod across the top.
She is one of two portraits. She was paired with a likeness of her husband, Sir Henry Guildford. And Holbein knew these sitters. We see Lady Mary, quite a strong presence in a dark gown with these vivid copper-colored sleeves highlighted with gold threads, and she’s holding a small green-bound volume.
The edge of the volume has an inscription from Holbein which tells us that it’s the Vita Christi. This is a very popular devotional volume. And we show a corresponding volume from the Morgan Library and Museum, to the left, in a case here. The Vita Christi was a very lively text that enabled the reader to identify and essentially consider the suffering and the experiences of Christ’s passion.
Lady Mary is a woman of high rank, so Holbein has shown her with all of these specific elements. She’s decorated with very rich gold jewelry, multiple strands of gold chains across the bodice of her gown. Her gabled headdress is decorated with many, many, many pearls. She wears an ornate necklace and she’s wearing rings on her fingers. So Holbein is attentive the marks of her status.
Also, I think, there is a playful element, if you will, that we can see here in the architecture of the column. In the capital, there is a head of Medusa. I have to say, this is a style of capital that’s not based on anything real. But there’s a head of Medusa, and the Medusa’s gaze is to the side, so towards the pendant portrait of her husband.
CUNO: What about this extraordinary portrait of a dapper young man holding a red carnation perhaps?
WOOLLETT: This is Simon George of Cornwall, an absolutely stunning painting that is in the exhibition in a recently cleaned state. So he’s very beautiful and vivid, and we can really appreciate Holbein’s technique in this painting.
Simon is shown in profile. So in a round format like this, this very much reminds us of antique coins or medals. And I’m sure that was the illusion that the sitter wanted, as well. But he’s extremely modern; he’s dressed at the height of fashion. We have to admire this shoulder that’s closest to us, which is a sort of purplish-black satin-silk, and it’s highly decorated in the same color. It’s over a creamy white undergarment, and also a sort of red, rose-red garment. And then around his neck, on the shirt underneath, is this blackwork, this black embroidery that we see around the collar, and it’s also on his sleeve.
And on his head, he has a small cap that’s decorated with tags, these little gold embellishments; a hat badge that shows Leda and the swan; and then these little violas, these enameled small flowers; and a plume. And then he’s holding the red carnation, which could signify betrothal or love, perhaps.
We don’t think that it’s part of a pendant; it’s sort of a self-contained image—although there are several aspects about the painting that are not entirely clear. It’s not entirely a painting about love and romance. I think there are certain aspects that could also refer to devotional themes. So to loss and to the crucifixion. So there are complex aspects to this portrait.
And we have to really admire here Holbein’s technique of painting flesh, which— It’s a very sculptural approach. It’s very smooth, luminous, rounded forms.
It’s paired here on the wall with the drawing that Holbein made first. This shows Simon George also in profile, with his close-cut hair, but he doesn’t have a beard. And it seems that in the course of making the portrait, that this beard idea grew. So there were changes even in the painting. There was a short beard initially that was made longer by the artist. And this may reflect changing court fashion or other aesthetic considerations.
But the drawing is an important aspect of Holbein’s work, and a very significant aspect of his oeuvre as a portraitist. This is where he encounters his sitter, where we feel, often, he’s making these initial choices for the ultimate presentation.
CUNO: Now there’s quite a difference between the depiction of Simon George of Cornwall, who shows himself to be a dapper young man, and this big, looming, brutish-looking figure of Thomas Cromwell. What was the status of Cromwell at this time? ’Cause he’s going to lose his head in a few years.
WOOLLETT: Well, it’s one of the exciting aspects of an exhibition like this one; we can bring works together to provide these contrasts. So we see here, a sense of the range of Holbein’s patrons and the kinds of work he’s producing. The portrait of Thomas Cromwell is very strictly constructed, and we see this, as you say, kind of monumental figure at the center.
And he’s within a space that’s dominated by horizontal and vertical elements, mostly woodwork. So we have a table in front that separates us from Cromwell. And also the wooden backing to the seat that he’s on, and then the carved wooden element on the left, which is probably a window frame.
Thomas Cromwell, at this moment in 1533, is an extremely powerful individual, key advisor to King Henry VIII. He’s risen to power relatively quickly. He is a lawyer; he was a merchant. He spent time on the continent also, working in Antwerp and he was in France. He has a varied career. But it’s through his administrative skills and generally strong disposition, it seems, that he becomes indispensable at the Henrician court, working with Cardinal Woolsey initially; and then after Wolsey’s downfall, sort of taking his place as this key advisor to the king.
At this moment, he’s in a point of transition in his responsibilities to the king. And we can see sort of precisely the moment we’re talking about because on the table, there’s a letter with an inscription to him, apparently from the king, referring to Cromwell’s responsibilities as the master of the jewel house. So that’s a position with a great deal of responsibility, not only for the jewels, but sort of other important and valuable aspects of regalia for the king.
The other element linking Cromwell to royal service is this spectacular book that sits on the table, with the corner just over the edge. So it’s something for us the viewer to take note of and is something that Cromwell himself possesses. It was probably a leather or perhaps velvet material. It’s deep black edged in a gold metal, with these jewels—a jewel in the center and jewels on the clasps.
This is also something that probably was not produced in England but maybe was a Flemish, possibility French item, a very luxurious gift, perhaps an indication of royal favor.
CUNO: And what about these four portraits of merchants? They seem to be very proud of their position and seem to be very successful in their careers.
WOOLLETT: Well, along one of the walls here in the exhibition, we’ve been able to assemble four of the seven known portraits of the Hanseatic merchants. The Hanseatic League was a group of German merchants who resided in London under special dispensation, and they lived in an enclave along the river, known as the Stalhof, the steelyard. And the steelyard was pretty close to Holbein’s studio, in fact. And it’s not very surprising, I suppose, because they’re essentially his compatriots, his German compatriots. So Holbein painted not only these portraits, but he decorated the guildhall, for example. He had a close relationship with these Hanseatic merchants.
They’re in the exhibition for many reasons. They’re amongst, you know, his most beautiful portraits, in some respects, and they also show how individuals didn’t necessarily choose to be literal in their self-definition. So these are men who are not portrayed, by and large, as merchants, but they’ve chosen to emphasize other interests, other aspirations, other intellectual pursuits, if you will.
The portraits themselves, you know, they may have been individual, had an individual function. They could’ve been sent home. We can think about these young men who are away from their families in Germany and are able to provide not only a record of their appearance at a particular moment, but a sort of statement of their success and their presence in this kind of court city. But it’s also possible that these portraits hung together in the guildhall and were a way of sort of representing the group. Seen here, I think we can appreciate how different, though, each one was.
CUNO: Now what about this painting? It’s in the collection of the Getty and it’s an allegory of passion.
WOOLLETT: Well, this painting in the Getty’s collection provided the impetus for the exhibition. It’s always been considered a somewhat unusual painting in Holbein’s oeuvre and in fact, has a complex attribution history. It’s so unusual. It’s a diamond shape, diamond standing on its corners. And in the center is a round composition showing a gray horse galloping across a field with a man on his back in a red toga. And the man is looking out at us. And beneath the figure of the horse and rider is an inscription in Italian, “[E cosi desio me mena]” which is taken from Petrarch. And the corners of the painting are red with beautiful gold Arabesque designs.
I was really interested to see if we could provide a context for this painting to bring together the works by Holbein that inform it, and also allow our viewers to understand how it may have functioned in the culture at the Tudor court. And this work fits in very, very well with Holbein’s design compositions for jewels, for allegorical compositions, and also for other decorative works in metalwork.
And it fits into a culture where there was great interest in Italian Renaissance poetry. There were leading figures at the court of Henry VIII who were translating the works of Petrarch from Italian into English, Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard being the two key figures that we represent with drawings by Holbein. Thomas Cromwell also was a very cultured individual who had interest in Italian Renaissance poetry, including Petrarch. So these are all individuals who could have been patrons for this painting.
We’re showing it in a really unusual way in the exhibition, very unlike its normal position in our galleries. It’s not framed here. It’s as if it’s sort of hanging free. And this is helping us to rethink its purpose and its original function. The back of the panel is beautifully preserved, and includes two marks, two brands—one a very elaborate knot that maybe is a collectors mark, and the other a collector’s mark, H.P., for Henry, Prince of Wales, a collection of the early seventeenth century. Holbein’s works were prized and collected at the court of Charles I in particular, Henry’s younger brother, who becomes king after his death.
The Getty’s Holbein resembles, in some ways, the panel of the terminus that’s in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. And that panel is a personal device, so it’s quite possible that the Getty’s painting is, in fact, a personal device, something that a courtier chose, perhaps seeing a composition like it of this running horse, which was a relatively common motif to convey intensity. The Getty’s image conveys intensity of passion in the pursuit of love. And we have in the exhibition, in the form of portrait medals in particular, other allegorical compositions in which horses play a prominent role.
But it’s also very similar to a series of drawings that we have on loan from the British Museum, which are for hat badges and medallions, very important didactic elements of personal adornment that Holbein designed.
CUNO: Show us those.
WOOLLETT: You know, in this period, prominent jewels, allegorical compositions, arabesque decoration were all very, very popular aspects of personal adornment. And Holbein used his skills as a designer and his knowledge of goldsmithing to make a number of small drawings that offer different allegorical compositions.
It’s a little but unclear whether this group of drawings that we’re seeing here in two mounts that were once part of a sketchbook were, in fact, sort of model drawings for potential patrons to choose from, or whether maybe they even record objects that were made or designed by Holbein. But Holbein had close contacts and friendships with prominent goldsmiths in London that worked for the king and members of the court. And so he made these very specialized designs that communicate the virtue, aspirations, desires of the wearer in a very concise way.
CUNO: Tell us about this portrait of Richard Southwell.
WOOLLETT: This is one of the last paintings in the exhibition. And it’s here on the left because it summarizes, I think fabulously, Holbein’s incredible technical skill, and also his approach to portraiture.
Richard Southwell, in some ways, is sort of our baddie in the exhibition. He was a man who was involved in some of the most notorious aspects of the 1530s Henrician court culture. He worked for Thomas Cromwell, he was involved in the dissolution of the monasteries, he played a fairly unpleasant small role in the trial of Thomas More, and he was responsible for securing the execution of Henry Howard a few years later, at the end of the 1530s. But we see him here, in this beautiful portrait from the Uffizi, in an interior, with his arms resting on a red tabletop. There’s just a peek of red in the lower right corner.
It’s a stunning display of painting by Holbein, these blacks, the satin sleeve, and the thick gold chain that is around Southwell’s neck. And there is a two-line inscription, which is very unusual in Holbein’s portraiture—these gold letters hanging as if in the air, against the deep blue background, that refer to the specific year of Henry VIII’s reign, as much as to the sitter’s age.
So the specific reason for this is something for us to consider, but apparently Southwell really wanted to underscore his loyalty to the king.
And on his cap we see, prominently placed, a beautiful hat badge, the bust of a woman, probably red carnelian, in a gold setting. And this is very much an interesting juxtaposition with Southwell’s face, which is very stern. His gaze is somewhat hooded. We can see, also, he has some scars on his neck and on his forehead, so it gives us a sense of the sort of physical nature of the man. But this piece of jewelry also links him to the cultured court aesthetic and to this fashion for didactic elements of personal display.
CUNO: Looks like he has plans for his career.
WOOLLETT: Yeah, Southwell, a very ambitious man who seems to have made his way through the difficult times in the 1530s. He went on to serve two more monarchs.
CUNO: Well, it’s an extraordinary exhibition and catalog, Anne, for what it tells us of Holbein and his circle. Thanks very much for sharing it with us this morning.
WOOLLETT: My pleasure. Thank you, Jim.
CUNO: Holbein: Capturing Character in the Renaissance is on view at the Getty Center October 19, 2021, through January 9, 2022. It is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.
This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Mike Dodge Weiskopf. Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003, and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other podcast platforms. For photos, transcripts, and more resources, visit or if you have a question, or an idea for an upcoming episode, write to us at Thanks for listening.

JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
ANNE WOOLLETT: Holbein was able to combine his ability to create a very believable likeness with t...

Music Credits
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824

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This post is part of Art + Ideas, a podcast in which Getty president Jim Cuno talks with artists, writers, curators, and scholars about their work.
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