HOLBEIN, Hans the Younger
(b. 1497, Augsburg, d. 1543, London)
The Ambassadors (detail)1533
Oil on oak
National Gallery, London
No preparatory drawings survive for The Ambassadors, nor is it clear how the commission for the work came about. Only the character and employment of the sitters are known. The identification of Jean de Dinteville has been aided through a portrait drawing by Jean Clouet of about the same date as the painting.
Though Holbein's style changed little over the course of his career, the subtlety and opulence of the colours in this work are different from the starker tonalities he used in Basel. The green backdrop and the pink slashed shirt of the diplomat add a zest which is further enhanced by the juxtaposition of different textures of silk and woven cloth. Like Titian, Holbein was an assured painter of fur (a crucial ability for a court painter) and the contrast between the soft ermine and the glistening metal chain serves as a rich textural counterbalance. The intense realism Holbein achieved here was due to his prodigious visual memory and refusal to let either draughtsmanship or the application of paint alone dominate the execution.