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

Robert Cheseman

Oil on oak, 59 x 63 cm
Mauritshuis, The Hague

Robert Cheseman (1485-1547) was an influential figure in Middlesex, where he was responsible for marshalling levies. He more than once raised troops for Henry VIII's campaigns. Along with other minor figures at court, many of whom were to rise with the fortunes of Thomas Cromwell in the 1530s, Cheseman was the sort of patron on whom Holbein concentrated during the first few years of his second English sojourn. Such clients were less in evidence once Henry and his royal entourage had adopted 'the Apelles of our time'.

These English sitters had more limited intellectual aims in mind for their portraits than the foreign merchants or ambassadors in London. The need for clear, effective portrayal, shorn of symbolism (and expensively painted detail) perhaps accounts for the innovatory use of the information about the sitter, that floats in gold lettering on the blue background, a feature more familiar in miniatures. The artist's regressive abandonment of spatially interesting, illusionistic backgrounds may be another indicator of the undeveloped taste of English clients - a full native understanding of perspective construction did not arise until Inigo Jones' theatre-design work around 1615.

Cheseman was the chief falconer to the English king Henry VIII, an honourable position. He had himself painted holding a falcon that he is stroking on his hand with a tender gesture. The head of the bird is capped, because the falcon is not supposed to see anything until the falconer sets him at a target. Cheseman appears to be looking for just such a target, his gaze apparently scanning the distance, beyond the pictorial field.

The very fine portrayal of the falcon shows Holbein's great power in observing nature; the bird's presence, signifying Cheseman's wish to show his social status, neatly serves to illustrate human nature.

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