Hans Holbein the Younger is well known as the dramatic court portraitist of Henry VIII’s court. His ability to convey likeness means that the portraits of the king now hanging in The National Portrait Gallery are considered as close as we’ll ever get to Henry’s true likeness and appearance. It is because of Henry’s determination to document himself and his court that we have as much detail about clothing and hierarchy that we have. Hilary Mantel has said that the writing of her books about the Tudors was helped by a large reproduction of The Ambassadors by Holbein, which graced her study.
Holbein was not just a painter of external appearance though. His ability to get inside the heads of his sitters and to reproduce intensity of character and confidence of position, as well as his capacity for what can only be called realism, is what made him a great painter. Character is not just conveyed by faces. In the portrait of Charles de Solier, which I saw recently in Dresden, it was the right hand of the Ambassador to England, which captivated me. The left hand is gloved in an olive green glove and grasps a gold dagger. The right hand is curved inward and holds the other glove. The hand is the most remarkable hand I have ever seen in a painting. Blue veins show up on the surface running into the base of the fingers and the flesh has a slightly greenish tinge, which might be due to the change in the under-paint colour over time, although here it adds to the translucency of the skin. The knuckles show as bony protrusions under this thin organ. It is the hand of an older man but one that is determined and full of purpose. It is so life like that it appears as if it is standing out from the painting with a three dimensional life of its own. I returned two or three times to look at the painting and each time I had the slightly eerie feeling that this hand was moving towards me, maybe the fingers were opening. It was too life like for its two dimensional home.
Hands are renowned difficulties for painters. Many portraitists concentrate on the face and leave the hands in a mist of indecision. Hands can become bunches of sausages or slivers of pink flesh for the most adept of artists. A friend whose mother was an artist was telling me how she would suddenly be told by her mother at the breakfast table to ‘keep your hands in that position just as they are’, whilst she tried to commit the specific complicated shapes her daughter’s hands were making to memory.
Charles de Solier’s right hand continues to give me a small shock every time I see the postcard of the portrait on my desk. A not very good reproduction does nothing to diminish the power of that hand. At any moment, maybe when I am not even looking, it will open up, drop the glove and reach towards me.