Museum  December 7, 2021  Jordan Riefe

Hans Holbein the Younger’s Timelessness Visible at the Getty

Getty. Kunstmuseum Basel, Amerbach-Kabinett EX.2021.1.59.

Hans Holbein the Younger, Bonifacius Amerbach, 1519. Mixed technique on panel 29.9 × 28.3 cm (11 3/4 × 11 1/8 in.).

In the opening moments of the Alfred Hitchcock classic, Rear Window, the camera pans around a Greenwich Village courtyard finally landing on L.B. Jeffries, (James Stewart) lying in his open window. It travels down his body to reveal his leg in a cast and continues over a smashed camera, and the photo of an out-of-control racing car that he took just before the accident. Without the use of dialogue we learn the name of the character (written on his cast), his condition, how he got that way, and his profession. 

Whether Hitchcock knew it or not, he was referencing Hans Holbein the Younger (1498/99-1543), the subject of Holbein: Capturing Character at the Getty Museum through January 22. Marking the first major U.S. show of Holbein’s work, it features thirty-three paintings and drawings by the artist. 

“A Holbein portrait is a very precise object,” says curator Anne Wollett. “It’s telling that when it comes to identity and the process of finding the right elements to include in the portrait some items were really significant. And I don't think this was a common process amongst other artists in the period.”

Getty. Bought with contributions from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund and Mr. J. Paul Getty Jnr (through the American Friends of the National Gallery, London), 1992. © The National Gallery, London.

Hans Holbein the Younger,  A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling (Anne Lovell?), about 1526–28. Oil on panel. 56 × 38.8 cm (22 1/16 × 15 1/4 in.) The National Gallery, London.

A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling (Anne Lovell?), painted in 1526-28, looks nothing like James Stewart, but within the composition Holbein, like Hitchcock after him, incorporates items specific to his sitter, building character by expressing profession, passions, and social standing. Here we also find him showboating–exhibiting a deft hand at numerous varied textures like bare skin covered with sheer bodice, the folds of a linen shawl, the iridescent feathers of a starling, and the unruly fur of a squirrel’s tail. Those last two items were added later, requiring the artist to rework the subject’s hands. But it mattered because the squirrel and starling are on the family crest.

His 1523 portrait of Erasmus, the celebrity Dutch intellectual of the era, shows him at a three-quarter-angle, his hands on a bound volume, the spine of which reads “Herculean labors”. Behind him are a renaissance pilaster and some books on shelves, one inscribed with the words “No one will as easily be my imitator as my critic.” It was regarded as the definitive likeness of Erasmus, who had copies made and distributed to friends.

Getty. The Frick Collection, New York. Photo: Joe Coscia Jr. EX.2021.1.79.

Hans Holbein the Younger, Thomas Cromwell, 1532–33. Oil on panel. 78.1 × 64.1 × 0.7 cm (30 3/4 × 25 1/4 × 1/4 in.).

Neither it, nor another portrait of the philosopher seated side view, writing at his desk, was available for this show. One that is included is from 1532, a mere 18.4 cm. x 14.2 cm., in which the philosopher is positioned as he was in 1523, wearing the same fur coat. Behind him is the characteristically featureless blue background.

In royal portraits, blue is rendered from lapis lazuli, a material clients expected to pay more for. It’s there, behind Simon George of Cornwall, in an exquisite roundel rendering, painted when Holbein was a member of the court of Henry VIII. Not bad for a boy from the Bavarian city of Augsburg. Granted, he came from a family of artists—his father’s studio was well established—but even so he moved with preternatural speed through his career. Arriving in Basel at the age of seventeen, he was promptly commissioned to paint the portraits of Mayor Jakob Meyer zum Hasen and his wife Dorothea.

Throughout his career, many clients were first-time commissioners–like the Hanseatic Merchants, (four of seven surviving works in the show), celebrity scholars, and quirky aristocrats who embraced the ideas of the Reformation. More specifically, they embraced humanism, a new strain of thought espoused by Erasmus among others that focused on classical thought, philosophy, and art.

Hans Holbein the Younger, Mary, Lady Guildford, 1527. Oil on panel. 87 × 70.6 cm (34 1/4 × 27 13/16 in.).
Getty. Saint Louis Art Museum, Museum Purchase EX.2021.1.73

Hans Holbein the Younger, Mary, Lady Guildford, 1527. Oil on panel. 87 × 70.6 cm (34 1/4 × 27 13/16 in.).

Hans Holbein the Younger, Mary, Lady Guildford, 1527. Oil on panel. 87 × 70.6 cm (34 1:4 × 27 13:16 in.). sketch.

Hans Holbein the Younger, sketch for Mary, Lady Guildford.

“These drawings and paintings are a statement of his belief system. And he absolutely is responding to this long-held argument or debate about the efficacy of the word versus the image with a pure demonstration of skills,” notes Wollett. “He’s able to bring lots of different aspects of renaissance culture: the witticisms, the puns, the self-references, the emblematic, the heraldic, all of these things. It’s a true belief in the power of the visual to seduce and convince and playfully mislead.” 

Erasmus introduced Holbein to Sir Thomas More, who was well trained in the classics. He served as a conduit to Henry VIII, who also had classical training. A prolific designer, Holbein invented patterns, medallions, and accouterment in addition to the Tudor portraits British school kids grow up with–More, Sir Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII, Anne of Cleves, and Jane Seymour, among others.

“He’s a fantastic artist,” says Wollett, pleased at having put this first-of-a-kind exhibit together with Austėja Mackelaitė and John T. McQuillen of the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, where the show travels in February. “By the end of the sixteenth century and early seventeenth century, he never loses popularity. The portraits are given as gifts, they’re exchanged in the seventeenth century and they really go down through time never totally going out of fascination for people.” 

About the Author

Jordan Riefe

Jordan Riefe has been covering the film business since the late 90s for outlets like Reuters,, and The Wrap. He wrote a movie that was produced in China in 2007. Riefe currently serves as West Coast theatre critic for The Hollywood Reporter, while also covering art and culture for The Guardian, Cultured Magazine, LA Weekly and KCET Artbound.

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