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Louvre: Hans Holbein – Erasmus

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Hans Holbein - ErasmusRichelieu wing – 2nd floor – Flanders, 17th century – Room 19

Hans Holbein is undoubtedly the greatest figure in German art and his illustrious contemporary Albert Dürer has to give him the first place. He practiced art in all its forms with equal control; as a draftsman, decorator, fresco painter, portraitist, architect, modeler, goldsmith, illustrator, miniaturist, he always reveals a wonderful personality. But he is, above all, the painter of portraits who remains incomparable.

Never has the human physiognomy been rendered with such precision, with so much penetration, and without artifice of color, by the clearness of the line, the rigor of the line, and the geography of wrinkles. There is only the truth of the immobile model before the painter, the very soul is expressed, the portrait becomes a revelation, almost an indiscretion; it is all a biography. No decor, no embellishment, no flattery, nature is taken on the fact, and this art remains unique, unequaled. His dryness give him one more quality: Holbein has this implacable sincerity, that uncompromising conviction, that wonderful impassivity which no one has possessed like him, and which make his work a special thing, a special treasure, bearing its mark indelible. One says: it’s a  Holbein, and this simple appellation evokes at once a gallery of remarkable effigies, all having the same interest and the same high value, whether it be Henry VIII, Queen Jane Seymour, Edward VI, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Christine of Denmark, Nicholas Kratzer, Erasmus, Burgomaster Jacques Meier, Doctor Jean Chambure, or so many others whose names are unknown.

The portrait of Erasmus, which we present here, is one of the most beautiful of the master. He is not the only one, however, as Holbein repeatedly painted the features of the celebrated Basle philosopher and scholar, who was his friend.

Erasmus is depicted in profile, sitting in front of his desk and writing. He is dressed in a heavy dark coat, with large sleeves trimmed with fur. His head is covered with a large cap of the same stuff and color. The background of the painting consists of a tapestry with ramages which the painter has intentionally drowned in shadow, like the cap and the costume, in order to bring to light only the head and hands of his model: the head of the thinker, the hand of the writer. All the interest and life of the painting are concentrated on these two clear spots, with an intensity and perfection which only an artist like Holbein could attain.

The drawing of the figure is wonderful with the attentive eye bent down on paper, the tapered nose, the pinched lips, the folds of the chin and cheeks. The whole attitude of this serious head betrays the application, the will, and at the same time that narcissistic finesse which was the hallmark of Erasmus’s slightly skeptical philosophy. The left hand, decorated with rings, holds the paper on the desk, while the right draws lines. The modeling of these hands is admirable and, in the case of Holbein, it is hardly necessary to add that this portrait is a masterpiece.

Holbein had known Erasmus in Basel, where he had come with his parents in 1515, where he spent most of his life. Basle, at that time, was a very active intellectual center, where even the reforming ideas of which Martin Luther began to shake Germany were bubbling. Among the humanists tossed in the eddies of this torrent emerged a mocking figure of a scholar and a philosopher who seemed to witness the great drama of the Reformation as an amused spectator rather than as an actor: it was Erasmus. He had entered the Order as a young man, but had quickly become tired of the monastic life, and had obtained from the Pope the right to be relieved of his vows. Holbein and Erasmus, as soon as they became acquainted, became friends, and when the philosopher, called to England by Henry VIII., settled in London, he thought of Holbein, whose talent he appreciated, and urged him to come to join him, promising to patronize him at court. Holbein left Basle and went to England. Faithful to his promise, Erasmus recommended him to Thomas More, chancellor of the kingdom, and to serve his friend more effectively, he sent him the magnificent portrait reproduced here. That was the safest recommendation. Thomas More saw the portrait, found it admirable, and gave Holbein the honor of posing in front of him with all his family, which afforded the painter the opportunity of realizing a new masterpiece. This portrait consecrated Holbein’s reputation in England. From that day onwards, all that the court and the city contained of considerable persons defiled in his studio. He was even the official painter of Henry VIII., who several times commissioned him to make his portrait and that of the different women whom he married successively.

The fine portrait of Erasmus belonged later to Charles I, who, after having preserved it for some time, gave it to Louis XIII in exchange for the Saint John the Baptist, by Leonardo da Vinci, whom he wished to possess. Since then, Erasmus has remained national property, it appears in the Great Gallery, to the span of German art.

Height: 0.42 – Width: 0.32 – Figure in half size bust.

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