Friday, November 13, 2015

Hans Holbein: Portrait of an Unknown Man


Rating: 3 Stars


I am not terribly interested in art history but there is something about Hans Holbein the Younger that captures my attention every time I see one of his paintings. I was delighted to find a biography about him, though as is always the case with figures we revere, I also learned some things about the gifted painter that I do not especially care for. Additionally, there were some major issues with some of the author's facts and a HUGE bias in favor of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell in particular. I'll get to those in a moment.

Given the fact that Holbein was an artisan, it is not be expected that major details of his life were not recorded. Wilson has to make guesses at certain points with the information we do have, filling in the gaps with the most likely scenario. While it is frustrating to not know, sometimes it is the only option. Sadly, both Holbein's beginning and end are somewhat shrouded in mystery; we do not know for sure the year he was born, or how he died - but at least we know the year. It is possible the plague is to blame, but there is no way to be certain. Additionally, we do not even know where the artist was laid to rest and his mortal remains are lost to history.

Holbein's personal life is the area where we are most lacking in knowledge, not surprising. It appears he had two families; his wife Elsbeth and their children in Basel, and a mistress with whom he had 2-4 children who were young at the time of his untimely death - based on guesswork, Holbein was around 45 when he passed. Based on Holbein's infrequent visits home to Basel, it would appear he favored this family, as he spent far more time in London than his home city. Of course, London also happened to be where all his major patrons called home before they were systematically and literally destroyed on Henry VIII's orders (Thomas More, Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell), but for the author to make the claim that Holbein was a family man, yet he almost completely ignored his actual family, seems like a leap without the facts.

This then brings me to all the issues I found within the book, which disappointed me because I am currently reading another by Wilson and have another one sitting on my desk that I am about to start about the Tower of London. Anyone who has ever read any of my reviews on books about Anne Boleyn knows I am not a fan, so that was strike one against the author for such a dramatic bias in her favor. However, given later comments he makes about other wives, I have a sneaking suspicion that had Anne not been such a pivotal figure in bringing Henry's attention to Protestantism, he would have said incredibly nasty and misogynist things about he as well. Two examples: Wilson is the only author thus far I have read who has referred to Jane Seymour as a 'vapid creature' (page 252). Then in regards to ridding Henry of the influence of the Howard clan he says, "That opportunity was handed to them on a plate by a stupid, over-sexed young woman" (page 276), meaning Catherine Howard of course.

The author's heavy bias toward Boleyn and Cromwell (this was especially unsettling; yes the religious revolution was exciting, but at what expense? I'm not even Catholic and the destruction of the religious houses and all that history disgusts me), and the factual errors relating to those at the Tudor court leave me wondering then what he might have gotten wrong them about Holbein, the very subject of the biography.

Still, for those interested I can recommend with some reservation. We catch a glimpse of Holbein and the world he lived, thrived, and struggled in. We see how difficult survival could be - especially when the king you are trying to gain favor with keeps chopping off the heads of the people who have employed you. Interesting read, though not without flaws, that is for certain.

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