Portrait and counter-portrait in Holbein's the family of Sir Thomas More.

Author:Smith, David R.
Position:Hans Holbein

Early in 1527 Hans Holbein painted two portraits of Sir Thomas More, the great English humanist and statesman who had become his host and patron when he moved to London from Basel in the fall of 1526. The first is the half-length portrait of More the courtier and public man in the Frick Collection (Fig. 1), which is a straightforward but rather impersonal likeness, in which his robes of state and the Tudor rose on his gold livery collar tell us as much, or as little, about him as his detached gaze. (1) The other portrait showed him at home with his family and was at once more private and more monumental. Painted in watercolor on linen or canvas, this eight-by-thirteen-foot masterwork perished in a fire in 1752. (2) It survives, however, in three late-sixteenth-century copies, as well as in Holbein's small preparatory drawing (38.9 by 52.4 millimeters) in Basel (Fig. 2), which is my main subject. (3) The two works are complementary in ways hitherto unrecognized, and partly for that reason I mean to call The Family of Sir Thomas More a "counter-portrait."

When Desiderius Erasmus received the drawing as a gift from More after Holbein returned to Basel at the end of 1528, he said it made him feel as if he was there, in More's home, which is no empty compliment in that he knew the household intimately. (4) Eight years earlier, in fact, he had written a famously warm and richly nuanced description of the family in a letter to the German humanist Ulrich von Hutten. In some ways Holbein's picture seems to echo Erasmus's words, as in the details of the monkey scampering up Dame Alice More's skirt on the far right or the viol hanging in the upper left of the curtain in the background. Erasmus specifically mentions More's monkey in telling of his love of animals and says that music was a family passion. Likewise, the presence of his jester, Henry Patensen, standing by the door on the right, confirms Erasmus's assertion that More loved clowns and fools. It is possible, too, that the clutter of books at More's feet reflects Erasmus's reference to his congenital messiness, though this pictorial detail more likely just points to heavy reading in this exceptionally learned household. (5) More generally, though, Holbein has captured something of the letter's tone, its evocation of domestic warmth and informality. The small prayer books in the hands of most of the family members suggest that they have gathered for prayers, but not in the manner of the average stiffly ceremonious family donor portrait of the time. The subject is the gathering, not the praying. On the far left Elizabeth Dauncey, the second daughter, has only just arrived, since she is pulling off her gloves. Next to her, More's foster daughter, Margaret Clement (nee Giggs), chats about a book with his father, Sir John More, while a little farther to the right Anne Cresacre, his ward and future daughter-in-law, passes quickly and unceremoniously behind him. On the other side of the composition, the figures are more settled, but the youngest daughter, Cecily Heron, evinces the same conversational mood with a fleeting glance at her kneeling stepmother. (6) And what is a monkey doing at a prayer service?

Erasmus actually called his letter a "portrait," and it may well have helped to plant the idea of a family portrait in More's mind, since he would have read his friend's description of his household in a collection of Erasmus's letters published in 1519. (7) If this connection has any meaning, however, it reflects a new conception of portraiture, one more closely tied to biography than to the ceremonial conventions that had dominated Renaissance family portraits up to this point. The literary scholar Margaret Mann Phillips, in fact, considers the letter to von Hutten the first real biography in the full modern sense. (8) Certainly, these are the terms in which critics have approached Holbein's portrait. Almost without exception they have interpreted its naturalism and informality as a fairly direct mirror of everyday life in the More household. John Rowlands, for example, speaks of the artist "recording the family when the buzz of talk has just subsided," which implies that Holbein simply set down an actual moment of domestic life as it passed before him. (9) More recently, Stephanie Buck has praised the picture's "intimacy" and tied it to "an important function of portraits in this period, one that photography would assume at a later date, namely to provide those far away with an image of the people they love," in this case" ... enhanced by depicting the person in his or her characteristic surroundings and engaged in everyday activities." (10) For the most part, these qualities have seemed more or less self-explanatory, and calling this portrait the first conversation piece outside Italy has summed up what Holbein seemed to have had in mind.

No doubt the Family Portrait deserves this label, along with its connotations of impending modernity. As an explanation, however, it begs a number of critical questions. For example, Rowlands's much-quoted "buzz of talk" seems tailored to a casually conversational model of the family that began to become a portrait convention only one hundred years later. Where did Holbein get the idea? Helpful as Erasmus's letter may have been for various facts and anecdotes, it could not inspire a new artistic genre by itself, nor does the snapshot analogy implicit in Rowlands's and Buck's remarks carry much weight. It is possible, as many have thought, that Holbein derived the idea from the only previous conversation piece, Andrea Mantegna's Portrait of the Gonzaga Family in the Camera degli Sposi (Fig. 3) of fifty years earlier, which is built around a specific family narrative. (11) But the evidence is decidedly mixed as to whether Holbein ever visited Mantua, and both the narrative and the formal structure in Mantegna's mural are too different from Holbein's picture to account for its distinctive character. (12) By the same token, while the Basel drawing clearly served Erasmus as an intimate reminder of absent friends, this description hardly suited the monumental painted version, which must have hung like a tapestry in a major room of More's palatial manse in Chelsea. By no stretch of the imagination can the Family Portrait be taken for a mere "snatch of life" or an exercise in modern bourgeois realism in the usual sense. It is a highly constructed image, in which ambiguities and contradictions abound.


First of all, the family was not really constituted in this way. Holbein has left out More's sons-in-law and grandchildren, despite the fact that his daughters and their families all lived together under his roof in a domestic arrangement that was unusual even in Tudor England. (13) There is no reason to think that More had his sons-in-law excluded for hostile or derogatory reasons, since his relations with them generally seem to have been good. (14) Rather, their omission indicates that the portrait is as much about a conservative, dynastic social order as about a descriptive record. (15) Flanked by his father, Sir John the Elder, and his son, John the Younger, Sir Thomas presides in the center of the composition before a cloth of honor that marks a ceremonial axis. In effect, his living room doubles as a throne room. Obviously, extra males not belonging to the blood line would have upset this arrangement by creating competing forms of relationship and, not least, by overcrowding the picture space.

Yet the central contradiction is that Thomas More himself has been quoted, body and soul, from the portrait in the Frick (Fig. 1). This is not just a question of using the same cartoon for both faces. (16) Holbein also has copied the lavish garments and gold livery collar that to Oskar Batschmann and Pascal Griener mark More in the Frick painting as "a truly magnificent King's servant" but that strike them as "a rather improbable feature" in the conversation piece. (17) Other scholars, to be sure, have not seen an anomaly here, presumably because they have taken it for granted that this simply is Thomas More, whether at home or at the office. But the impulse to take portraits "at face value" is as naive as it is common, and especially so in the case of a man like More, who wore so many hats, played so many roles: lawyer, judge, politician, knight, courtier, statesman, diplomat, father, husband, patriarch, humanist intellectual, social critic, wit. Portraits are rarely exercises in replication alone but images of social identity, too. The word "persona" means "mask." (18) And here, in the midst of his wife and children, his monkey and his books, Thomas More defines himself entirely in terms of his public mask as Tudor courtier and official. Stranger still, it was an identity that made him uncomfortable, especially at home. According to Erasmus, his friend had little use for flashy attire of any sort and disliked court hierarchy and ceremony, for "by nature he has a great love of liberty and leisure." (19) Holbein acknowledges the implicit incongruity by abstracting More from the people and the goings-on around him. In his public guise he holds no book, carries on no dialogue, but stares off into space with a neutral, objectified expression. Only Margaret Roper, his eldest child, follows his example in the lower right.


This incongruity, this conflict, has led me to label The Family of Sir Thomas More a "counter-portrait." The term refers less to the obvious contrast between the Basel drawing and the Frick portrait than to this deeper contradiction built into the Family Portrait itself, which amounts to a form of parody. In this case parody does not connote the kind of negative satire and heavy-handed ridicule so common in its modern incarnations. Holbein and More were certainly capable of mocking laughter, and this does play a part here, as will soon be evident. That it has gone unnoticed...

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