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6 / Death

Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (The Ambassadors)
Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (The Ambassadors)
Artist / Origin Hans Holbein the Younger (German, 1497–1543)
Region: Europe
Date 1533
Material Oil on oak
Medium: Painting
Dimensions H: 81 ½ in. (207 cm.), W: 82 ½ in. (209.5 cm.)
Location National Gallery, London, UK
Credit © National Gallery, London/Art Resource, NY

expert perspective

Larry SilverProfessor of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania

Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (The Ambassadors)

» Hans Holbein the Younger (German, 1497–1543)

expert perspective

Larry Silver Larry Silver Professor of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania

The Holbein Ambassadors is such a different kind of picture from anything anyone had painted before that it is a kind of epitaph for the painter. The amount of physical detail is astonishing and the picture really is life-size. So when you confront it in London, it’s an astonishing experience. So that alone probably would be a kind of memorial for a painter. He was a court painter to Henry VIII. On the one hand, it certainly has a message that may have been very comfortable to a pious patron, that yes, I think about death, but it’s at a strange corner of my mind. But it also is an indication that the artist was himself involved in this culture. People who paid to have epitaph pictures were, in effect, just asking for a continuity of what they had. The idea of memorial is a kind of hope that they’d be remembered, but also a hope that the good things of this life would be repeated or enhanced in the next life. They used their wealth, in a way, to assure their afterlife. And that’s very much present in the Holbein Ambassadors. You see worldly instruments, instruments that measure the heavens, instruments that are geographical, globes, you see works of creativity, you see lutes, songbooks, architect squares. So it’s very clear there is a joy, a delight in what you can accomplish in this life. And the two characters who are presented there are such accomplished men.

Death is the loss of all these wonderful opportunities. And only with some guidance are you told that this strange white object that seems to go diagonally across the picture is something you need to look at from a different point of view. But it comes right when you turn to that side edge of the picture and look down on it. And, in fact, you see it reconciled as a skull. But at the time that you can see that, you are so much at the edge of the picture that you can see almost nothing else in it. So the experience is one where you can choose to see the worldly goods and people or you can focus on the skull itself. So there is this surprise, but also a kind of willful choice about which of the two you are going to respond to. To have to look at a picture from two different angles in order to make its meaning come across is a brilliant manipulation by the artist of anybody who looks at the picture. You have to get a different point of view even to think about death in the midst of all those wonderful, worldly trappings.” 


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