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

Portrait of the Merchant Georg Gisze

1532
Oil on wood, 96,3 x 85,7 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin

From the objects shown in this portrait it is evident that the sitter was anxious that not only his likeness but also something of his way of life should be presented. A Latin couplet above the merchant's head intimates how faithfully the artist has rendered every aspect of the man : `What you see here, this picture, shows Georg's features and figure such is his eye in real life, such is the shape of his cheeks.' Yet it is clear from the very form this couplet takes that the picture is meant to convey more than outward appearances and to underline the humanist milieu in which the merchant wished to be seen. The same mood is implicit in a Latin motto inscribed on the rear wall immediately beside a pair of scales: `Nulla sine merore voluptas' (`No joy without sorrow').

The merchant is depicted standing in his workroom, behind a table covered with a richly embroidered cloth. Among the many objects on the table and the wall which illustrate his trade, the Venetian-glass vase, containing carnations and other flowers, clearly has a special significance; in the medieval language of symbols the carnation was a sign of betrothal.

From the shelf in the top right-hand corner several keys, signet-rings and a spherical container are hanging, the latter presumably containing string. On the table is a pewter writing-stand with goose-feathers, ink, sand, wax disks and sealing-wax. Beside it are a pair of scissors, a signet-ring and a seal. Near the table's edge, precisely placed in the centre foreground, stands a small table-clock which, together with the fragile glass vase and the perishable flowers, is a reminder of the passage of time, as was the hour-glass in earlier pictures.

The name Georg Gisze occurs frequently and appears several times in various styles of handwriting on the documents attached to the wall. From the letter in the merchant's hand one gathers that he has been corresponding with a brother in Germany. The subject of the portrait, the son of an alderman, was born in Danzig in 1497. Holbein painted him in London in 1532. Three years later Gisze married in Danzig, and we may assume that the portrait was commissioned in anticipation of the marriage.

The painting was in the Duke of Orleans' collection in 1727 and appeared in the inventories until 1788. The collection was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1793 and put up for auction. The Swiss publisher and copper-engraver Christian von Mechel acquired the picture and tried in vain to persuade the Basel Library to buy it. For about twenty years it remained in Switzerland without finding a purchaser, until Edward Solly acquired it at a very low price. In 1821 it found its way into the Berlin Museum with the rest of the Solly Collection.