HOLBEIN, Hans the Younger
(b. 1497, Augsburg, d. 1543, London)

Portrait of Jakob Meyer zum Hasen

1516
Limewood, 38,5 x 30,8 cm
Kunstmuseum, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel

There is a companion-piece of this painting, the portrait of the sitter's wife, Dorothea Meyer, née Kannengiesser.

The transference of artistic knowledge and material from Italy northwards through the Alpine passes during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century led to the emergence of Italianate portrait-construction in Germany. This was being practiced with increasing confidence by the time Holbein received his first commissions. Dürer was crucial here, primarily through his Venetian visits in 1496-7 and 1506. Holbein eschewed most of the emotionalism intricately bound up in Dürer's view of the world and once having developed his ability to make a calm appraisal of the sitter's condition, as demonstrated here, maintained it throughout his career. This has led to the mistaken belief that little or nothing changed in his technique over thirty-five years.

As a result of the power and poise of Holbein's preliminary silverpoint portrait, line dominates over colour and texture throughout the painting, except, ironically, in the face. The lines of the bunched fingers compel attention more against the undifferentiated dark jacket, and the illustrative rigour of the architectural background belies the subtlety of light and shadow in the face, perhaps revealing an overly self conscious borrowing of Italianate design at this early stage in the artist's career.

The portrait seems to have had a personal function, as the mayor and his wife are informally, if splendidly, dressed. Meyer's main concern would have been the proud display of his wealth, which had enabled this merchant's son to become the first mayor of Basel who was not from the city's upper class but a representative of the guilds. The coin that Meyer holds out prominently towards the viewer presumably refers first and foremost to his occupation as a moneychanger, and only secondarily to the right of the city of Basel, confirmed in 1516 by the Emperor Maximilian (emperor 1486-1519), to mint gold coins. The numerous gold rings on Mayer's left hand vividly demonstrate his prosperity. With his right index finger he points discreetly at his wife, who is likewise richly arrayed, in her case in pearls and gold chains, and clothes and bonnet that are expensively embroidered and laced with gold thread. Even the architecture - with its glossy columns of red veined marble, richly decorated frieze with classical acanthus leaves, and expensively coffered barrel vaulting borrowed from Italian Renaissance architecture - creates a splendid frame for the figures. Holbein places the self assured man in front of the solid pier, thus underlining his physical dominance vis-à-vis the petite woman, who is seated against a monochrome blue background.

In a small cartouche in the frieze above the head of Jakob Meyer, mayor of Basel, Hans Holbein has signed the double portrait with his initials and dated it 1516. This is the first time Holbein, still an apprentice painter, emerges from anonymity. The architecture provides a link between the two portraits and creates a shared space for the figures; prior to Holbein, such a pictorial concept was unknown in Basel panel painting. The same applies to the decorative elements on the architecture, derived from the Italian Renaissance, such as the coffered vault and the acanthus leaf frieze, which incorporates two putti.