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

Sir Thomas More

Tempera on wood, 74 x 59 cm
Frick Collection, New York

Sir Thomas More (1477-1535) was humanist and statesman, chancellor of England (1529-32), who was beheaded for refusing to accept King Henry VIII as head of the Church of England. He is recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic church. He was the most important patron of Holbein during his first stay in London.

Along with Colet and Linacre, More was one of the moving spirits of the revival of learning and letters in the early years of Henry VIII's reign. The King himself seemed to presage a new civilized age and was keen to attract foreign artists and intellectuals to embellish his extrovert court; Erasmus himself was tempted to stay in England but finally refrained.

Holbein presents the public figure, robed in authority (for all his saintly reputation More was ferocious enough to condemn heretics to be burnt). The determined severity of countenance betrays little of the retiring scholar, although this is suggested in the figure's slight stoop. More was certainly concerned with the impression he made, insisting on having the flamboyant cuffs on his official costume replaced by ascetic plain ones.

When this portrait was painted in 1527, More held the office of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. He had been knighted in 1521. It is not known whether the golden chain of office made of S-shaped links was bestowed on him on this occasion or earlier, in 1517, when he first entered the king's service, the chain indicating the willing submission of the wearer. It is typical of Holbein's method that the half length figure composition repeats the tried-and-tested composition of the Venus and Lais pictures. The colours used in More's portrait, however, give the composition an entirely different mood.

The fine drawings made prior to the painting show a new delicacy of touch prevalent in the artist's manner after his visit to France; greater attention to the texture of material, fur and velvet was the painterly consequence. The emergence of complementary red and green tonalities to stress spatial values is apparent, but is more straightforward here than its usage in Holbein's second English period.

In the Royal Collection, Windsor, there is a preparatory drawing for this painting. Several copies of the painting exist in different collections. The copy in the Prado, Madrid, was made by Rubens during his stay in England in 1529/30.