The Art of Illusion The Art of Illusion

Hans Holbein Henry VIII

Hans Holbein
Henry VIII 1536

Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid

Holbein’s portraits were celebrated in their own time for the illusion they offer of the presence of the sitter. Renaissance humanists compared contemporary artists to the great artists of the classical past who had supposedly confused humans, and even animals and insects, into thinking their works were real objects. Holbein offered ample opportunity for such praise with his ability to depict likeness, texture, light and stillness in a manner that was admirable and deceptive. This is especially forceful in those portraits, many from the latter part of his career, in which the subjects are presented in full-face to the viewer.

Convincing in detail and unflinching in the presentation of old age, Holbein’s presentation of the sitters is nevertheless tightly controlled. The size of the features is sometimes exaggerated, and the space the subjects occupy is limited, making them appear closer to us. This sensation is heightened by the way in which in the smaller, late portraits Holbein devotes more of the picture surface to the head. Above all Holbein’s portraits are still: gesture or movement could too easily seem arrested, spoiling the illusion of presence. The paintings seem to pivot between acknowledging the spell of their subjects and the power of their creator.