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

Portrait of Henry VIII

Oil on wood, 28 x 19 cm
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Henry VIII (1491-1547), king of England (1509-47), who presided over the beginnings of the English Renaissance and the English Reformation. His six wives were, successively, Catherine of Aragon (the mother of the future queen Mary I), Anne Boleyn (the mother of the future queen Elizabeth I), Jane Seymour (the mother of Henry's successor, Edward VI), Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, and Catherine Parr.

This portrait is the only surviving individual portrait of Henry that Holbein himself painted. In terms of features, it corresponds largely to the figure in the Whitehall cartoon. Both portraits are likely to have been based on a single, now lost portrait study by Holbein. However, as a consequence of the small format of the panel painting, the heavy shoulder chain that the king wears in the monumental portrait is omitted here, and his sleeves are embroidered with a very delicate gold thread.

This is the quintessential image of the overbearing and tyrannous monarch, from the year the dissolution of the monasteries (and the consequent appropriation of their wealth for the Crown and its servants) was instigated. Holbein depicts the King at `face value', without flattery, emphasizing the small, humourless eyes and mouth, the curiously flat cheeks and chin. Henry's bulky and capricious authority haunts the work despite its small size. Its condensation of magnificence run riot here takes the form of real gold used in the chain, jewellery and collar.

The portrait is undoubtedly a tour de force; after its execution, Holbein's position at the court seems to have been secure, and he was used as a painter-ambassador when the King's marital plans unraveled in the late 1530s. Only his misleading portrayal of Anne of Cleves would check his popularity.

The subsequent spawning of similar but less effective portraits of the king by Holbein's followers has tended to obscure the compelling mixture of simplicity and realism displayed in this design - the tilt and curve of the black and white hat, the fearful symmetry of the jewelled jacket and the modelling of the hands: imitators often managed either simplicity or realism but never both.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 5 minutes):
Camille Saint-Saens: Hénri VIII, Scene and Henry's aria