HOLBEIN, Hans the Younger
(b. 1497, Augsburg, d. 1543, London)
Portrait of Edward, Prince of Walesc. 1539
Oil on oak, 57 x 44 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Edward VI (1537-1553), king of England and Ireland from 1547 to 1553, was King Henry VIII's only legitimate son; his mother, Henry's third wife, Jane Seymour, died 12 days after his birth. Although Edward has traditionally been viewed as a frail child who was never in good health, some recent authorities have maintained that until several years before his death he was a robust, athletically inclined youth. His tutors found him to be intellectually gifted, a precocious student of Greek, Latin, French, and theology. On Jan. 28, 1547, Henry VIII died and Edward succeeded to the throne. He died in 1553 at the age of 15.
Edward stands behind a parapet and against a monochrome background of bright blue that has turned greeny-brown over the centuries. He raises his right hand in a quasi-majestic wave to the viewer, while in his left hand he holds a priceless gold rattle that is reminiscent of a royal sceptre. The rich, lustrous red gown with gold brocaded sleeves also indicates the princely status of the child.
The baby prince looks considerably more mature than his two years would warrant and, as in the previous portrait, his pose echoes the regal authority of his father. The gesture of the hands, found in Renaissance depictions of the infant Christ blessing onlookers, has another resonance. Holbein may have intended to legitimize the English Crown's new religious role by endowing it with the forms religious art could no longer pursue in Protestant England.
Painted on oak panel, the apparently conventional design is enlivened by the shadow behind and to the left, and the rich red, brown and gold colour combination gives a mellow impression of prescient childhood. The skill in the foreshortening of the right hand's extended fingers distracts somewhat from the flat facial features - a characteristic of Holbein's royal portraiture.