Oil Portrait Masters 1
Holbein was one of the greatest oil portrait painters of the sixteenth century, yet at first sight his portraits appear little more than an exacting record of appearances. Holbein was born in southern
. He moved to
in about 1514 and by 1536 he had become court painter to Henry VIII in
. His travels therefore mirror the spread of the Protestant Reformation as increasing numbers of people rejected the papal authority of the Catholic Church. In the wake of this, religious iconography was not only banned in Protestant churches, but also in the strict Calvinist regions decorations and adornments of all kinds were looked down upon. These developments give us an insight into the austerity of Holbein's vision. Although he was well aware of the lessons of the Italian Renaissance, its more exuberant excesses were forbidden to him by the new Protestant faith.
The key to Holbein's portraits is his mastery of drawing, for this enabled him to imbue even the humblest subjects with an unnerving tension. His precision of line is mirrored in his precise balancing of form: the way objects and shapes interlock to create a tightly-knit whole. Nothing in his compositions is without significance. Seemingly incidental objects balance his compositions and guide the eye around the portrait, but almost invariably they also carry symbolic messages.
Holbein rejected the idealized beauty of the Italian painters and their ethereal other-worldliness. His subjects were real, living human beings, with whose physical imperfections we can identify. What is ultimately convincing is the conviction of Holbein's vision. Like the compactness of a mathematical equation, his sparse world is a philosophy complete unto itself.