HOLBEIN, Hans the Younger
(b. 1497, Augsburg, d. 1543, London)
Portrait of Simon George1536-37
Oil on oak, diameter 31 cm
Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt
At the other end of the spectrum of portraiture from the blatant display of regal power in Henry VIII's portrait (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid), is the aesthetic delicacy and reverie of this circular portrait. It is also Holbein's only profile portrait. A minor court figure, Simon George sports a fashionable hat similar to the King's, a hat whose circularity echoes that of the work itself.
Holbein had avoided the profile hitherto in England since it reduced the scope for his sharp yet reticent portrayal of personality. After Holbein's death, this format became popular for a while among his followers, perhaps for the very reason that it made a less searching examination of their ability to express psychological nuance.
The humour in the eyes and some inscrutable edge of a smile about the mouth is remarkably conveyed here, although these qualities had been lacking in the blunt preliminary drawing.
The carnation held by the sitter in his right hand is a reference to an engagement or marriage. The identification with Simon George is based on an inscription on the relevant portrait study in the Royal Collection in Windsor Castle, which notes that Simon comes from Cornwall. Otherwise little is known about him.