Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"Thomas More" by Hans Holbein the Younger

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497- 1547) was a German artist and printmaker. He is considered one of the greatest portrait painters of the 16th century, indeed of all time. His father - you guessed it - Hans Holbein the Elder, was an artist of the late Gothic period.
While still in Germany, Holbein mostly produced religious works - paintings, murals, and designing stained glass and prints. He occasionally painted portraits, making a name for himself with portraits of Desiderius Erasmus, the Dutch humanist.
Holbein traveled to England in 1526 in hopes of finding work. He had a recommendation from Erasmus and was able to get into the inner circle of Thomas More, statesman and humanist and part of the court of Henry VIII, where he added to his already excellent reputation. Holbein returned to Basel, Germany for 4 more years than returned to England where he was able to get into the good graces of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell. By 1535 he was the King's Painter to Henry VIII. In this role he not only painted the royal portraits but designed jewelry, plate, and other precious objects.
Holbeins portraits went beyond just capturing the physical appearance. His portraits show details of clothing, jewelry, and other embellishments. He used objects in the paintings to allude to the sitter's position in society or to an event in the sitter's life.
His portrait of Sir (Saint) Thomas More is one of Holbein's most well- known portraits. It hangs in the Frick Museum in New York. I have had the privilige of seeing it a few times. It was painted in 1527 and measures 29 1/2 " by 23 3/4". It is oil paint on oak panel.
Thomas More was a diplomatic envoy and Privy Councillor in the Court of Henry VIII. He was elected Speaker for the House of Commons in 1523. In 1529 he became Lord Chancellor. He served in that office for three years. When the king wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon More resigned and refused to recognize the king's claim to be head of the Church in England (Act of Supremacy). More was arrested, convicted of high treason,and beheaded. He was canonized a saint of the Catholic Church in 1935.
This portrait of More shows someone of importance, which he was. The medillion he wears does not represent a specific office, just that he was in service of the King. The rendering of his clothing, to me, is remarkable. The velvet, the fur seem real; if you could touch the painting you would expect to feel those fabrics. There were a couple of other paintings of St. Thomas More but they have not survived. A drawing of More and his family - including father, children, and grandchildren - is in the Tate Gallery in London. As with many of Holbein's subjects, these portraits are they only pictures of Thomas More, the only way we know what he actually looked like.
Holbein died in 1543 during the plague in London.
For more information on St. Thomas More - This is a very comprehensive site with a biography, his works, articles and essays about him, links, and a discussion forum.
Other portraits by Holbein top row - Henry VIII; Erasmus
Bottom row - Woman with Squirrel; Anne of Cleves


  1. Thank you for the info. It sounds pretty user friendly. I guess I’ll pick one up for fun. thank u

    Portrait Artists

  2. What is a estimated value if a Holbain original 1527 oil on oak sir Thomas more painting