Department of Paintings: German painting
© 2011 Musée du Louvre / Martine Beck-Coppola
Holbein shows the famous Dutch humanist writing his commentary on Saint Mark's Gospel in Paraphases on the New Testament, as comparison with a very similar painting in Basle confirms. Holbein's very sober composition focuses on the face and hands to reflect the model's concentration. The portrayal in profile is a clear allusion to the effigies of Roman emperors engraved on antique medals.
A humanist at work
Holbein's portrait is one of the best known portrayals of Erasmus (Rotterdam, 1469 - Basle, 1536). He portrays the famous Dutch humanist, who was also one of the great moralists of the Renaissance, in an interior, against a green wallcovering decorated with legendary animals and yellow and red flowers, with possibly a door jamb on the right. The scholar, wearing warm clothes and a biretta, is writing on a sheet of parchment laid on a book with red binding, propped at an angle.
The Basle Museum has another portrait of Erasmus by Holbein, in which Erasmus is portrayed against a neutral backdrop. In the Basle picture the humanist is writing the beginning of his commentary on Saint Mark's Gospel, written in 1523 and published the following year by his friend Johann Froben. It was probably through Froben that Erasmus met Holbein, then a young man, in Basle. Comparison with the few downstrokes still visible in the Louvre painting have established that the text is identical to the passage in the Basle painting.
An official yet intimate portrait
The eye is drawn to Erasmus's face in profile, eyes cast downwards, which stands out against the dark green wall hanging. Our attention is also focused on the finesse of his hands, which Holbein took great care over, as we can see from a study in the Musée du Louvre. The sober composition emphasizes the model's concentration on his writing. The choice of the profile portrait, rare for Holbein, is a clear allusion to the effigies of Roman emperors engraved on antique medals. Despite its intimacy, this portrait has a very offical look about it. Holbein's portrait is a veritable icon of this great man of letters, whose slightly pursed lips express his moral exigency. Erasmus, who paid great attention to his public image, and who was very disappointed by Dürer's uncompromising portrait of him, must have appreciated this skilful, calm picture.
A memento for a friend and fellow humanist?
We know of three portraits of Erasmus painted by Holbein whose intended recipients are still unsure. It is thought the Basle portrait was taken by the painter to the court of Francis I of France in an unfruitful attempt to secure his protection there. Erasmus himself sent two portraits to acquaintances in England. The portrait now in the National Gallery, London, was undoubtedly a gift to William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury. It is possible that Erasmus intended to give the Louvre painting to another humanist, perhaps his faithful friend Thomas More (an attractive but unproven hypothesis). On Erasmus' recommendation, the famous author of Utopia became Holbein's protector in England, and ensured his introduction at court.
BibliographyExposition. Paris, Musée du Louvre. 1985, Les Peintures de Hans Holbein
le Jeune au Louvre / Elisabeth Foucart Walter, Paris : Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux (Les Dossiers du Département des peintures / Musée du Louvre ; 29), 1985, pp.9-26.
Hans HOLBEIN II (Augsburg, 1497 - London, 1543)
H. 0.43 m; W. 0.33 m
Germanic countries, 16th century
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