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

Portrait of Anne of Cleves

c. 1539
Parchment mounted on canvas, 65 x 48 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris

In 1539, Holbein was sent to Düren, in the Duchy of Cleves, to paint a portrait of Anne as a possible candidate for marriage. Despite its bland, unprepossessing appearance, this royal commission is coloured by a controversial history. Holbein was placed in an impossible position: despatched to Düren with orders to produce an instant likeness of Henry VIII's next intended bride, he needed to exercise diplomacy and tact - he would have had to show the results of his rapid sittings to the foreign officials. As it is, Anne's dress seems to have fascinated him more than the strangely lifeless symmetry of her features.

As the Paris portrait is painted on parchment and not on a difficult-to-transport wooden panel, it could have been painted on the spot, or at least well prepared by Holbein. The point of the picture was to give Henry as close an idea of the woman's appearance as possible. This would explain the frontal position, in which every detail of the face can be examined.

Henry's displeasure at finding Anne of Cleves more like a `fat flanders mare' when she arrived for the marriage ceremony in January 1540 cost Holbein dear in prestige, and he received no further important work from this quarter.

Belying her appearance, Anne of Cleves, like Christina of Denmark, was no fool. Despite - or because of - the evident humiliation of the failed marriage she obtained a handsome settlement from Henry and lived in quiet comfort in England until 1555. Henry's two subsequent wives were English.

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