- Hans Holbein (the Younger)
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Hans Holbein (the Younger)

From time to time, everyone "overindulges" at the dinner table. The problem is, some of us have the misfortune of having every such incident recorded for all to see at or near the beltline. The problem is not new nor does class limit it. Perhaps the poster boy for such gluttonous endeavours is the renowned King Henry VIII. Even though his eating habits and extravagant eight-course meals are legendary, it is through the exquisite portraits of his court painter, Hans Holbein the Younger, that we are left with a lasting image of what the portly monarch and his 54" waist looked like.

Most of us willpower-challenged individuals shrink from any graphic representations of our bodily magnitude, or turn blue holding our guts in while the photographer tries desperately to focus his camera. Elbowing your way to the back row of a group photo works too. But if you're king, no one stands in front of you and it might be difficult to exert enough abdominal control to pose for an oil portrait. Of course if the artist owes his job to your royal patronage, perhaps he could be bribed a few pounds to take off a few pounds. However, such was apparently not the case with Holbein. Instead, he used the vain young king's magnificent obesity and over six-foot frame as a showcase for his incredible dexterity in handling a wide range of jewelled embroidery, velvets, furs, brocades, and other, miscellaneous sartorial detail; doing so with such delicate realism that we're hardly aware of the massive girth of the model.

However Holbein's skill with a brush didn't start or end with regal vestments. He was first and foremost a great portrait painter in the finest English/German sense of the word. Born around 1500, he was originally a member of the humanist circle of Sir Thomas More. He was appointed court painter in 1536. In 1540, he painted Henry VIII at age 39, probably the best known and most striking of his several royal renditions. Given the king's proportions, the painting is almost as broad as it is tall, but the direct, eye-contact of the stylishly bearded monarch is so commanding our gaze is riveted (initially at least) by his countenance rather than his enormous physique or even its elegant attire. Holbein was undoubtedly rewarded quite well for his mastery of this painting skill; but he was not the highest paid painter in the employment of the King. That honour belonged to a Flemish woman named Levina Bening Teerling, officially known as the King's Paintrix.

contributed by Lane, Jim

22 May 1998

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