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

Lais of Corinth

1526
Limewood, 34,6 x 26,8 cm
Kunstmuseum, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel

Lais of Corinth was a hetaira in ancient Greece who was famous for her dazzling beauty and her high price. The well-formed, elegantly proportioned beauty of the figure in the panel speaks for itself; the gold coins and the right hand stretched out towards the viewer draw attention to the payment the woman expects for her services. Whether the courtesan is to be equated with the Lais who sat for, and was the lover of, the most noted painter of antiquity, Apelles, is still a matter of speculation.

The worldly-wise elegance of pose and expression of this courtesan, combined with the soft and smoky modelling of her features, shows the influence of Venetian painting, which, by the 1520s, was already renowned (and sometimes attacked) for its air of opulent hedonism.

Lais - said to have been the mistress of the ancient Greek artist, Apelles - signifies Mercenary Love, it has been thought that a similarly posed figure in a smaller work entitled Venus and Cupid (also in Basel) might be a pendant to this, representing Pure Love. However, although Venetian artists were familiar with the theme of `Sacred and Profane Love' contrasted, as in Titian's great work of that title, no such conclusion seems possible in Holbein's case.

As Giorgione's Judith reveals, Holbein's sources were preeminently the sinuous, well-proportioned figures that Leonardo and Raphael had used for their Madonnas (as `perfect' women) but which had taken on other, less spiritual qualities once they reached Venice. Nevertheless, Holbein's adaptation seems to restore some of the earlier Renaissance innocence and Lais's demure expression belies her supposedly brazen costume. The artist shows greater interest in effectively foreshortening the figure's right arm than in presenting a character of easy virtue.