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In July 1519, Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote a letter describing his friend and fellow humanist Thomas More. “His expression,” Erasmus wrote, “shows the sort of man he is, always friendly and cheerful, with something of the air of one who smiles easily, and (to speak frankly) disposed to be merry rather than serious or solemn.”

Eight years later, however, it was a serious and solemn More who sat to have his portrait painted by Hans Holbein the Younger. That famous painting, which usually hangs at the Frick Collection, is currently on display at the Morgan Library as part of “Holbein: Capturing Character,” an exhibition replete with oils and sketches of statesmen, scholars, merchants, and noblewomen. In the portrait, the middle-aged More appears watchful and taciturn, with a furrowed brow. He wears a gold chain bearing an unfurled rose, the symbol of his Tudor master.

Of course, nobody smiled in sixteenth-century portraits. But could there be another reason why More looks so tense? Unfortunately, the wall texts in the exhibition barely mention the movement that was raging across the continent, dividing the Tudor court, and clearly affecting Holbein's subjects and Holbein's work itself: the Reformation. Holbein's portrait of More was completed in 1527. The year before, King Henry VIII had fallen in love with Anne Boleyn. Protestant books, meanwhile, were pouring into London and Cambridge. More must have been rattled. He could probably sense the turmoil to come.

Holbein was born in Augsburg, Germany, around 1497. He trained to be a painter in his father’s workshop, and in 1515, he moved to Basel, a major book-printing center. There, he fulfilled commissions ranging from tiny illustrations to large wall paintings and altarpieces. In 1523, he painted two large portraits of Erasmus. “Capturing Character” contains several miniature portraits of the sunken-cheeked scholar, as well as his seal and signet ring. With Erasmus's help, Holbein visited London twice—the first trip lasted from 1526 to 1528, the second from 1532 to his death in 1543.

“Capturing Character” contains a selection of preparatory sketches, some done with pen and ink and wash and others with colored chalks, a relatively new medium in the early 1500s. Many of these sketches are designs for ornaments that would later appear in Holbein's paintings on the clothing or hats of his subjects. 

On his first visit to London, Holbein lodged with More in Chelsea. The artist’s depiction of the statesman likely functioned as a calling card for Holbein, whose deft rendering of textiles, jewels, and physiognomy was unlike anything the English had ever seen. In London, Holbein gained a bevy of noble patrons, whom he depicted in front of solid blue backgrounds clutching religious books, showing off cabochon rings, or even, in the case of Anne Lovell, restraining a squirrel with a tiny leash.

Back in Basel, a storm was brewing. Erasmus famously reported that the “arts are freezing.” Some of the reformers disapproved of religious imagery; a burst of iconoclasm in 1529 led to the destruction of many works. A few years later, Holbein decided to visit England again, this time with his family. In the 1530s and ’40s, Holbein cultivated the patronage of More’s arch-rival, Thomas Cromwell (whose Frick-owned portrait is sorely absent from this exhibit), and eventually the king himself. 

He also forged close ties with London’s Hanseatic League, a group of German merchants. Many of them were Protestant. Back in 1525, More had led a raid on the Hanseatic League on charges of heresy, as several members were suspected of owning Lutheran texts. This exhibition includes portraits of three of these merchants, painted after More had fallen from royal favor in the 1530s. Unlike Holbein’s English sitters, who are usually shown at a three-quarters angle or in profile, two of the merchants stare directly—and confidently—at the viewer.

Holbein's early woodcuts, some of which are included in this exhibition, also reflect the religious conflicts of his time. A few show disdain for abuses of power within the clergy. His woodcut The Sale of Indulgences, for instance, is a clear attack on corruption in the Church. This theme continues in the highlight of the exhibition, a series of tiny woodcuts titled Dance of Death. This series was made in Basel between 1523 and 1525, with the help of blockcutter Hans Lützelburger. A variation on the Danse Macabre genre that first appeared in France around the time of the Black Death, Dance of Death targets all those—including popes—who try in vain to evade death. 

“Capturing Character” is a wonderful opportunity to appreciate Holbein’s gift for perception. As humanists sought the truth by mastering ancient languages, and reformers by printing the Gospels in vernacular ones, Holbein pursued the truth by recording his subjects—both Protestants and Catholics—in honest, startling detail.

“Holbein: Capturing Character” will be at the Morgan Library in New York City through May 15. 

Jane Coombs is the Hilton Kramer Fellow at The New Criterion

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