Arts & Tradition

A US First: Hans Holbein the Younger’s Portraits and More

A winter exhibition worth visiting
BY Lorraine Ferrier TIMEJanuary 25, 2022 PRINT

Preeminent 16th-century German painter Hans Holbein the Younger is best known for his nuanced portraits of English Renaissance greats. But visitors to the upcoming “Holbein: Capturing Character” exhibition at The Morgan Library & Museum will be able to see that Holbein created so much more.

The exhibition is the first major U.S. show dedicated to Holbein’s entire career, from his artistic beginnings in the book trade in Basel, Switzerland, to the height of his career at King Henry VIII’s court in England.

In addition to his myriad portraits, exhibition visitors will see that Holbein designed prints, printed books, personal devices (emblems with mottos), and even jewels.

“Simon George of Cornwall,” circa 1535–40, by Hans Holbein the Younger. Mixed technique on panel, diameter 12 3/16 inches. Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main. (Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main)

Dear Portraits

In Holbein’s portrait paintings, we see everything that the Renaissance held dear: Christian virtues, classical learning, and an appreciation of fine art and craftsmanship.

He excelled at creating portrait paintings that conveyed the physical attributes and personalities of his sitters, whose often influential identities he reinforced by painting an array of objects and symbols—a visual language understood in the Renaissance.

Holbein’s portrait of Simon George of Cornwall demonstrates this well. The Morgan chose this particular portrait to promote the exhibition. To us, George appears to be an English nobleman fashionably dressed in the Italian style, appreciating a red carnation. But back in the Renaissance, George’s portrait revealed much more. He’s a man seeking a wife, according to the red carnation in his hand and the pendant of Leda and the Swan pinned to his hat. The circular composition, known as a tondi, nods to antiquity too, as in ancient times the circle was believed to be the purest geometric form.

The exhibition is a fascinating peek into how Holbein’s subjects wanted to be seen and remembered, and how Holbein designed devices and objects to convey that message.

The “Holbein: Capturing Character” exhibition is at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York, from Feb. 11 through May 15, 2022. To find out more, visit The

Lorraine Ferrier writes about fine arts and craftsmanship for The Epoch Times. She focuses on artists and artisans, primarily in North America and Europe, who imbue their works with beauty and traditional values. She's especially interested in giving a voice to the rare and lesser-known arts and crafts, in the hope that we can preserve our traditional art heritage. She lives and writes in a London suburb, in England.
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