Art Through Time: A Global View
Portraits Art: Henry VIII, King of England
In 1526, Hans Holbein the Younger, his career in religious painting disrupted by Reformation iconoclasm, traveled from Basel, Switzerland, to London, England, hoping to find employment.
With a letter in hand from the humanist scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam, Holbein first approached Sir Thomas More. The artist executed a number of portraits for More and others of standing before returning to the Continent in 1528. Four years later, Holbein was back in England. To his previous patrons, he now added the German merchants of London’s Hanseatic League, and in short time, had made his way to the court of Henry VIII, where he worked across a wide range of genres and media, creating backdrops for ephemeral spectacle, designs for metalwork and jewelry, prints, murals, and miniatures, as well as easel portraits.
This iconic image of Henry VIII is perhaps the artist’s best-known work today. Ironically, like other existing copies of the portrait, it cannot be firmly tied to the artist’s hand and is possibly a workshop production. All of these images, however, are ultimately based on Holbein’s original prototype, a no longer extant mural in Whitehall Palace created circa 1537. A partial cartoon (a drawing by which the artist transferred the design onto the wall) that survives from the Whitehall project shows the king with the same impossibly broad shoulders, dressed in the same finery, and holding the same accessories as in the portrait seen here. The only difference is that Henry, who is shown full-length in the cartoon, stands on a slight diagonal. His head, thus, appears in three-quarters view. The ubiquity of the fully frontal Henry as represented by the current work and later copies of the Whitehall mural itself, however, suggests that Holbein might, in the final stages, have adjusted the king’s position for greater impact.
Karel van Mander, who saw the Whitehall mural in the early seventeenth century before it was destroyed in a fire, wrote that the king appeared “so majestic in his splendor that the spectator felt abashed, annihilated in his presence.” On the wall of the palace, Henry’s image was part of a larger dynastic scene in which the king’s parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, and his third wife, Jane Seymour, also appeared. As an independent portrait, the image of the king does not lose its effect. Henry’s elaborate clothing and jewelry show him as a gentleman of wealth and magnificence. His massive body, filling the canvas, proclaims him as a force to be reckoned with. A Latin inscription on the portrait puts the king’s age at 49, suggesting a date for the work of 1540. By that point in his life, Henry had already waged several wars, declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England, and married five of his six wives, divorcing two of them and beheading another.
The replication of this work suggests that it was used as the king’s official portrait. As such, it would have hung in the portrait galleries of Henry’s noble subjects and foreign allies.
Susan Sidlauskas, Associate Professor of Art History, Rutgers University
“The notion of portraiture is such a slippery one because in many ways both the subject and the portrayer want to control the event. Who has the power? Well you might have a powerful figure—you might have King Henry VIII commissioning a portrait by Hans Holbein. Well, who has the power there? Henry VIII was famous for lopping off the heads of many of the wives that he didn’t like, so you can imagine that Hans Holbein would be very anxious that he would please Henry VIII. So there you have a kind of asymmetry, perhaps, in power, except we know Henry VIII now, mostly, through that portrait by Hans Holbein. So who has the power? Well, Holbein has stood the test of time in many ways. We grant him the power because his portrait has such power. Henry VIII in his life had enormous political power. So I imagine that that was a very delicate relationship, but I would imagine that Hans Holbein never for one minute thought he had the ultimate power over how Henry VIII would look.”
Batschmann, Oskar, and Pascal Griener. Hans Holbein. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.
Buck, Stephanie. Hans Holbein the Younger: Painter at the Court of Henry VIII. London: Thames & Hudson, 2004.
Foister, Susan. Holbein and England. New Haven and London: Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre, 2005.
Hearn, Karen, ed.Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England, 1530–1630. London: Tate Publishing, 1995.
Howarth, David. Images of Rule: Art and Politics in the English Renaissance, 1485–1649. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.
Piper, David. The English Face, 2nd ed. London: National Portrait Gallery, 2006.