Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Misappropriated Holbeins at the Mauritshuis

Stories of misappropriated art are as old as collecting itself. Take for instance Napoleon “buying” the ancient sculptures from the Borghese Gallery (was his sister part of the price, or did Borghese really sell them that cheaply?) and installing them as the nucleus of the Louvre’s ancient collection. Or Andrew Melon getting fire sale prices from Stalin on those Rembrandts, Raphaels, van Eykes, van der Weydens, Peruginos, etc. which once graced Catherine the Great’s Hermitage in St. Petersburg and now form the core of The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC – and encouraging other robber barons to donate their steals as well. Of course, the biggest misappropriation of all time has to be Lord Elgin’s Parthenon Marbles living in the British Museum in galleries built by the plundering, over-restoring, often mis-attributing art dealer to the ultra-rich, Joe Duveen. Recently, though, I learned of a case of re-appropriated art on a somewhat smaller scale which I find interesting enough to share.

In the Mauritshuis in Den Haag, Netherlands, there are several Hans Holbein (the younger) portraits. As you may know, Holbein was a German painter who moved to England in 1532 and 4 years later found himself court painter to Henry VIII. He is responsible for some of the most detailed portraits ever painted and is known for the splendid ones he did for Henry’s court, including several of the Wives.

The Portrait of Henry VIII at the Thyssen Bornemisa Museum in Madrid is fantastic, but my favorites are the pair collected by American Robber Baron, Henry Clay Frick and displayed flanking his living room fireplace in the Frick Collection in New York. In Mr. Frick’s living room, Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell face one another still, though both were beheaded by Henry – Cromwell contributing considerably to the case against More, then losing royal favor himself a few years later.

The Portrait of Thomas More is particularly fine and shows Holbein’s fondness for the sitter, his host for his initial visit to England, in the richness of its detail, its textures and finishes – the red velvet sleeve and gold chain are tour de force painting. The Portrait of Thomas Cromwell, by contrast, shows a distinct lack of finish, almost a primitive quality by comparison, which begs the question: is there some statement of fondness for More and disdain for Cromwell in the very finish and fineness of the paintings?

At the Mauritshuis there are a couple of Holbein portraits from his period at the English court. There is a little Portrait of Jane Seymour which is delightful, and which you’ve probably seen before in a history book, and of which there are several copies in various collections.

And there is Sir Robert Cheseman, Lord of Southall and Norwood and Grand Falconer to His Highness, Henry VIII. He is resplendant in his leather sleeves and rich fur collar, a hooded, belled falcon in hand. The textures for which Holbein is famous are as fully rendered here as anywhere. The bird’s feathers, the leather sleeves, fur collar, gold rings, white tucked linen shirt and steely grey hair are all rendered with the same perfect detail that identify the best Holbeins, like the Frick’s Sir Thomas More. The Grand Falconer was an important position in Henry’s Court, so Lord Southall was an important figure; this portrait reflects his importance in its size (it is a large panel for Holbein), the high degree of its finish and the inscription, which includes his name and age.

The other Portrait of a Falconer's sitter is not identified in the inscription, though his age is listed as 25 years. Unlike Lord Southall, he has removed the cover from the falcon’s eyes and the bird is shown from behind, looking to the left in profile. The bearded young man looks affable and is rendered with those perfect details, the wiry beard, rosy skin, leather glove, black velvet jacket with its red satin lining, and just a touch of the white linen sleeve. This is a masterpiece of a portrait, almost photographic, as we expect from Holbein, and is smaller than the other, more the size we expect.

Though both of these portraits are in the permanent collection of the Mauritshuis, both were once part of the British Royal collection. Dutch Stadholder and English King William III (1650-1702) took them from England to decorate his Het Loo Palace in Apeldoorn (Netherlands) at the end of the 17th century.

His heir, Queen Anne tried unsuccessfully to have them returned to England as property of the English crown. Her failure to have them returned to England was that country’s loss for they are now two of the treasures of the Mauritshuis: Netherlands: 2 / UK: 0. Too bad, so sad.


  1. Does anyone smile in his portraits, or are they too busy looking over their shoulders?

  2. It wasn't a very smiley time what with the gout and plague and reformation and all.

  3. Just wrapping up Wolf Hall, Booker Prize Winner by Hilary Mantel - all about Cromwell, wonderful story. I stumbled on your blog in search of Holbein's ptg of him, as there is a chapter that addresses his reaction to the portrait. I wondered if you had read it and if it would alter your comparison and assessment of Holbein's feelings about More vs. Cromwell. Cromwell WAS a simple man, a smithy's son...and derided by the courtiers for it. Perhaps that goes to the less elaborate presentation. But Mantel presents Holbein & Cromwell as fond pals. Perhaps that's fiction, though the book is supposed to be thoroughly researched. Looking forward to browsing your blog!