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

Portrait of Nikolaus Kratzer

Tempera on oak, 83 x 67 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris

Kratzer (1487 - c.1550) was born in Munich and studied in Cologne and Wittenberg. From a letter sent by Petrus Aegidius to Erasmus on January 19, 1517, we know that "Nicolaus Bavarus" was due to travel from Antwerp to Brussels to sell astronomical equipment. In the same year, Kratzer was appointed professor in Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and henceforth remained in England. A humanist, he was a close friend of Thomas More and from 1519 the royal court astronomer in the service of Henry VIII. He was employed by both More and Cardinal Wolsey (whose downfall occurred a year after the portrait was painted).

The painting is pivotal in many respects. Despite being a product of his first stay in England, Holbein developed the allusive style of illustrating his sitter's career (as a maker of mathematical and geometrical instruments) to new levels of coherence. Although a display of similar items was to recur in The Ambassadors, there they are passive witnesses of mental concerns, while the refreshing directness of Kratzer's practical involvement means that his character is not buried by the artist's determination to include convincing still-lives.

Compared with the Guildford portraits, a new mastery is evident, in the subtlety of lighting, the elegant range of cream, brown and black tones in the pattern of instruments against the wall, and in the presentation of Kratzer's idiosyncratic heavy-lidded gaze. It is revealing to contrast this humane mood with the archly aristocratic tone of Bronzino's Ugo Martelli.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.