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Work Portrait of a young woman smiling

Department of Prints and Drawings: 16th century

Portrait de jeune femme en buste, souriant

Prints and Drawings
16th century

Author(s):
Boyer Sarah

This is a rare example of a drawn portrait attributed to Holbein the younger. It is a head-and-shoulders portrait of a young woman shown almost face-on. Her hair is plaited and a few locks have come free. She is wearing a gown that covers her shoulders. Along her corsage is an inscription in abbreviated German: ALS. IN. ERN. ALS. IN. (All in honor or In all honor). Around her neck she wears the insignia of Saint Anthony, probably an amulet to protect her from the plague.

The "German Mona Lisa"

The confident, precise line of the metal point models the curve of the shoulders and the cheeks of this young woman, who is looking down. Her head is slightly to one side and her glance from beneath partly lowered eyelids is modest. Her discreet, mysterious smile is reminiscent of that of the Mona Lisa. While the linear style is similar to that of the artist's father, Hans Holbein the elder, there is a new sensitivity in the expression and a gift for observation that prefigure the portraits in three colors that the artist was later to produce in England.

An anonymous portrait?

While the realism of the drawing suggests that Holbein was working from a live model, the identity of the subject remains a mystery, although a number of hypotheses have been put forward. Some commentators have suggested that the woman's eyes reveal the early signs of the eye disease that afflicted Holbein's wife, Elsbeth Binzenstock, as recorded in the touching painting Portrait of the Artist's Wife and Two Eldest Children, now in the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel. Holbein had the idea for this painting after his first visit to London in 1528-29. Other commentators have suggested that the model is the same as for the Lais Corinthiaca, also in the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel, although this interpretation is less convincing.

A characteristic technique

Whatever the truth about the model's identity, the technique combining metalpoint and red chalk highlights is characteristic of the artist's early career. Following the religious upheavals that shook Basel, he spent a short while in France in 1524, where he certainly developed an admiration for the works of Clouet. He then took up the technique using three colors, typical of the portraits he produced during his two later stays in England. In the case of this portrait, the touches of white gouache on the bridge of the nose, the corners of the mouth, the lower eyelids, the corners of the eyes, above the eyebrows, and to the left of the nose give the woman's face a certain softness. The work is a preparatory study for the Solothurn Madonna, commissioned by Johann Gerster, clerk of the town of Solothurn, and completed in 1522. (This painting is now in the town museum in Solothurn). This woman appears in the painting, which combines the Gothic tradition and aspects of the Italian Renaissance, in a slightly different position, with her head held high and a less apparent smile.

Bibliography

Mantz Paul, Hans Holbein, Paris, Société Française d'Éditions d'art, s.d., pp. 41-45.
Magnon M., Dessins de Dürer et de la Renaissance germanique, cat. exp. musée du Louvre, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1991-1992, pp. 154-156, n 141.
Muller Christian, Dürer, Holbein, Grünewald : Meisterzeichnungen der deutschen Renaissance aus Berlin und Basel, cat. exp. Bâle, Kunstmuseum, Berlin, Staatliche Museen, 1997-1998, pp. 343-418, n 25 .1-25.32.
Muller Christian, From Schongauer to Holbein. Master Drawings from Basel and Berlin, cat. exp. Washington, National Gallery of Art, 1999-2000, pp. 350-424, n 161-191.

Technical description

  • Hans Holbein the younger (Augsburg, 1497/1498-London, 1543)

    Portrait of a young woman smiling

    Before 1522

  • Metal point gone over with pen and black ink, highlights of red chalk and white gouache on pink prepared paper

    H. 19.6 cm; L. 15.5 cm

  • Everhard Jabach collection; purchased for the Royal Cabinet of Curiosities, 1671

    3920737

  • Prints and Drawings

    Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.

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Additional information about the work

Metalpoint inscription along the edge of the corsage: ALS. IN. ERN. ALS. IN.