Sketch of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger (1539?)

Holbein was the first great paparazzi, maybe, one of the great artists of European courts–specifically, the court of Henri VIII.

These are not romanticized “Tudors” but the real deal: oil paintings and sketches of Henry’s courtiers, officers, and key people. While the paintings are brilliant, I find the sketches most interesting, as they are studies for paintings and not intended to be seen… revelatory. The picture of Henry, above, is much more insightful than the painting below: the close-up of the eyes, the tight little mouth, the pettiness and power of the entire face is amazing. It is the face of a king, but not of a very nice man.

Portrait of Henry VIII, 1539 at age 47

There is great psychological insights in these quick sketches, where the focus is on a precision of line and expression, with little to no color. Give us a clear idea of Holbein’s notion of the sitter’s character, often without flattery. Gives us insight into a fascinating place and time, coming to England as Holbein does–just when Henry is getting ready to divorce Catharine of Aragon and wed Anne Boleyn–who is one of Holbein’s patrons on this, his second trip to England–while his first patron, Thomas More, is executed. But then Boleyn is executed, and Holbein goes on the paint for Henry a portrait of Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife, and then portraits of the candidates for the king’s fourth wife, including Anne of Cleves… who Henry chooses to marry based in part on the Holbein portrait of her.

Jane Seymour, wife #3

Anne of Cleves, wife #4

Thomas More, Holbein's first patron

Thomas More, Holbein's first patron


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