When it comes to the writings of Hans Holbein the Younger, all of the focus is on how little there is. Alas! they all say: old Hans has left us with nothing more than his will, the receipts for the brushes, and the court document he signed after his knife fight.
As for me – I’m baffled that no one ever discusses his artist’s statement – at least not as a serious document. But maybe it’s because it’s found within a painting. In his Portrait of Boniface Amerbach, beside Amerbach himself, there hangs a plaque. It reads: “Although a painted face, I am not second to the living face; I am the gentleman’s equal… through me this work of art depicts with diligence what belongs to nature.” If Holbein was going to post this portrait to Instagram, he surely would have ended it with #nofilter.
But if he did, his sharpest followers would have attacked him. Durer, Cranach, Matsys – they’d be all over him. And rightly so. The statement we read contradicts the portrait we see. And not Amerbach’s portrait alone. Scroll through Holbein’s account. He does not depict nature as diligently as his aforementioned fellow 16th-century German portraitists do. With Holbein, imagination plays a role.
Sure, he still has the essence of that Northern Renaissance painting style. That Alpine breeze still drifts across his canvasses, giving his sitters a shiver that perks their little details up and into focus. But at the same time, his idealization of form warms him up a bit and reveals a distant kinship with the Italians’ aesthetic. Some of his early paintings look like they could have come straight out of the workshop of Raphael. He tones it down after that of course, but the imaginative idealization is consistent throughout his career.
In my paper, through a comparative analysis of images, texts, and letters, I will address Holbein’s stylistic development, from his youth with the humanists of Basil to his maturity with courtiers of London… how the intellectualism of the former, and the wealth of the latter influenced his imaginative idealization – which culminated in the portrait that almost cost him his head.
Nicholas McNally earned his BFA in Painting from Massachusetts College of Art in 2001 and his MFA in Illustration from the Academy of Art University in 2008.
He has taught Illustration at Massachusetts College of Art and Rhode Island School of Design CE, Drawing at the GWVS Museum, and Art History at Bay Path University.
McNally has published children’s illustrations with Carus Publishing and Pauline Media and has exhibited at The Museum of American Illustration in New York City and Gallery Nucleus in Los Angeles. His work is inspired by the literature of the western canon, mostly pre-19th century. Currently, Exiles, a series of 5 large paintings ranging in size from 6’ square to 6’x12,’ are being exhibited in galleries in North Florida.
He currently teaches as Assistant Professor of Illustration at Jacksonville University.