Who would believe, in contemplating this placid female figure, that one of the many wives of Henry VIII, the terrible English monarch, is before his eyes! Nothing indicates, in her attitude, that she dreads the tragic end of one of her predecessors, Anne of Boleyn, decapitated on the orders of her husband. On the contrary, she appears to us infinitely calm, with a good face of German without passions, which would make her think of a nun, but the sumptuous costume with which she is clothed.
When Holbein painted the portrait of Anne of Cleves, she was not yet Henry VIII’s wife, which perhaps explains her beautiful calm. She did not know the bloodthirsty king who would become her husband. The latter, having cast his sights on her, had sent Holbein to the mainland with the mission of painting the young princess whom he had never seen. The flattery in the portrait was the least fault of the great painter of Augsburg. This time, however, he tried to be a courtier. Anne of Cleves was not beautiful, he shows us, if not pretty, at least pleasant enough. Moreover, her hairstyle, despite the wealth of embroidery and pearls, is not made to benefit: glued to the forehead and on the cheeks it completely removes the hair, this natural ornament of female faces. In spite of irregular and somewhat vulgar features, the physiognomy is not without approval; the eyes have kindness, the mouth of sweetness. One is surprised to pity the unhappy Princess, who owed this portrait to become the wife of such a man.
One can not guess the graces of the young woman under the rich but inelegant costume that imprisons her. The dress is of a velvet with large stiff folds. Largely indented square, the bodice shows the chest through a lace trimming; it is adorned with a broad band bordered with pearls and adorned with cabochons set with gems; the neck is encircled by a necklace of jewels where hangs a garnet cross. The belt, the skirt and the sleeves are also bolstered with gold ornaments covered with precious stones. From the fullness of the sleeves come out hands, tapered and ringed hands, which the princess keeps crossed in front of her.
This portrait of Anne of Cleves, a wonderful symphony of purple and gold, is an incomparable masterpiece. When he saw it, Henry VIII was excited about it. The model pleased him, since he married her, but he was no less satisfied with the talent of the artist. “I could,” he said, “make six peers with six laborers, but from six peers I would not make a Holbein.”
More happy than Anne Boleyn, Anne of Cleves had the chance to die of her beautiful death. When she had ceased to please, Henry VIII did not have her beheaded; he contented himself with repudiating her. But one can guess what it must have been for her royal husband and, more than once, her gentle, calm face was filled with tears and contracted in the throes of fear. The one who succeeded him, Catherine Howard, had less happiness. After a few years, Henry VIII made him cut off her head.
This fat, unbalanced man had the appearance of a boor and the ferocity of a Nero. His reign was a long series of treachery and crime. Like all tyrants, he had a worried, suspicious soul, and anyone who had drawn his distrust was marked for the scaffold. He has, in an age of chivalry, been a monstrous anachronism, and he has sullied the history of England with a bloody page. When he was tired of his wives, this crowned Blue Beard delivered them quietly to the executioner.
After the death of the unfortunate Jeanne Seymour, Henry VIII thought, before turning to Anne of Cleves, to marry Christine of Denmark, Duchess of Milan. This princess, who was only sixteen years old, was already a widow, and her reputation of beauty having reached the King of England, he offered him the crown. It was Holbein who was in charge of the negotiation and, according to custom, he had to paint the young woman he coveted. But the artist’s embassy failed pitifully. From the first opening, the princess exclaimed:
“I have only one head,” she replied, “and I want to keep it on my shoulders.”
Christine of Denmark later became Duchess of Lorraine.
Despite his failure, Holbein, as we have seen, did not lose the confidence of his terrible master. So, in spite of the brilliant offer of the mayor of Basle, who invited him to return to the city where he had lived so long, he refused to leave England. He died of the plague in 1544, only forty-six years old.
The portrait of Anne of Cleves is painted on vellum glued on canvas; it was part of the collection of Louis XIV. Protector of the arts as he was of letters, the Great King gave France the most beautiful paintings of its museums. He appears in the Louvre in the Grand Gallery, in the wing of German painting.
Height: 0.65 – Width: 0.48 – Figure half-body, small nature.
Translated from the book “Louvre Museum”, by Armand Dayot