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

Portrait of Jane Pemberton

c. 1540
Vellum mounted on playing card, diameter 5,3 cm
Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This image of the twenty-three-year-old Mrs Robert Pemberton (c. 1518-1588), the wife of a prosperous London cloth merchant, is acknowledged to be one of Holbein's masterpieces in this genre, transcending the wooden-looking figures that Horenbout had been producing for about a decade before. Mounted in suitably precious settings, such portraits could be worn as costume jewelry. Holbein's miniature portraits made a very important contribution to a branch of English painting that would become very popular over the following centuries.

Holbein's working methods, using preliminary drawings as for full-scale portraiture, enabled him to capture mood and character memorably. The sitter's intent but gentle gaze out of the picture space and the subtlety of the colouring, which prefigures the austerity of his non-royal subjects from the later 1530s, condense the full presence of a life and personality onto a tiny surface area. The static, calm pose insists on the sitter's dignity - only the artist's assurance equals hers.

As with many privately commissioned miniatures, devised as keepsakes, it is set in a locket. This tradition, originating in the exchange of images between European monarchs and nobility as tokens of diplomatic goodwill, may be contrasted with the sharing of adulatory portraits of intellectual heroes around the circle of Erasmus and More. The miniature represented this form of admiration at its most intimate.

Much as they admired his work, neither Nicholas Hilliard (c.1547-1617) nor Isaac Oliver (1563-1619) employed Holbein's acute psychological realism in their own miniatures, developing instead a more emblematic presentation.

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