Thursday, February 14, 2013

Holbein's "Portrait of an Unknown Woman"

This is a photo of my studio wall and I would like to point out the image centre right of the woman in white fur tippet and cape holding a squirrel and with botanical detail of plant tendrils on a flat blue background. I have lived with this image among the others as inspiration for a good while now. So imagine my delight to find a novel written about it.

I have just finished reading this novel by Vanora Bennett ( Harper 2007) and I can highly recommend it to lovers of art and of portrait painting in particular. It is set in 1527 when the artist Hans Holbein is in London to paint the family of Thomas More. As an artist I find such novels gleefully inspire me, filled as they are with the minutiae of the artists' life. There is always something to glean about how these great paintings were put together even if it comes from the imagination of a novelist. Dwelling on these little snippets does find its way somehow into my own practice.

This is the completed painting of the family and circle of Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein. Although there are a couple of versions, the one at the top has an extra figure at the left and Bennett's novel revolves around the notion that this woman Meg Griggs is also the woman in his famous painting "Portrait of an Unknown Woman".

This is also known as "Woman with squirrel and starling". It does look amazingly like the figure in the group portrait and Bennett invents a plausible narrative to explain all the symbolism and inclusions.

I have admired Holbein's portraiture for many years. His sheer skill is laudable and he used all the technical resources of Renaissance naturalism that were at his disposal. The textures of skin, hair, fabrics and fur etc. have a high degree of verisimilitude. Also there is an unusual stillness, precision and clarity about his work and an objectiveness and dignity about his subjects. There is never any emphasis on the fleeting or captured expression. His work is far too serious for that. He reserves any sense of playfulness for symbolic inclusions.  His faces are quite flat though which I suspect is the result of working from his portrait drawings as source material for his paintings. It seems to me that he "filled in" with colour in the absence of his models.

This image of Thomas More is a tour de force and there does exist a drawing also exactly the same of the face.

To get back to the novel, the whole plot revolves around the circle of Thomas More. Bennett even rewrites her own version of what happened to the princes in the tower. She also introduces some interesting theories about Holbein's famous painting The Ambassadors" (The French Envoys) 

There has of course been a lot of scholarship about this painting and a book on my shelves called "The Ambassadors' Secret" by John North (Phoenix 2002) is as yet unread by me. ( I am promising myself to get to it soon especially after this book.) Bennett's theory about the memento mori of the distorted skull in the foreground is that it actually means "Remember More" (as in Thomas)!

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