Holbein painted this small roundel about 1532–35, after his return to England. The young sitter can be identified as a court official, for he wears the livery of Henry VIII, with the initials H[R] for Henricus Rex embroidered in black on his red coat. The frame is original and the reverse is painted black and decorated with engraved circles. It is possible that the portrait, which is in excellent condition, originally had a protective painted lid. Such intimate portrait capsules were easily portable, as well as more affordable than larger-scale likenesses.
This painting has been attributed to Holbein since 1897, when it was first published in the catalogue of an exhibition in Basel devoted to the artist’s works. Only Roy Strong and Claus Virch in 1963 (memos in departmental archives), followed by Hans Werner Grohn in 1971, expressed any reservations. Since 1978, when Graham Reynolds reaffirmed the extraordinary quality of the piece, other Holbein scholars have concurred.
Starting in the 1530s and continuing into the early 1540s, Holbein made a number of small, roundel, bust-length portraits of various sitters, including potential wives for Henry VIII, members of the royal household, and servants to the king. Some were painted in oil on wood, others in bodycolor on vellum as miniatures. This portrait approximates Holbein’s miniatures in its execution and handling as well as in its parchment support. It is closest stylistically to his 1534 roundel portraits of a courtier of Henry VIII and his wife in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. The male sitter in Vienna shares the same pose and calm demeanor as well as similar dress, a red coat with the initials H and R that indicate "Hendricus Rex" and service to King Henry VIII. Further supporting a date in the early 1530s for the Museum’s portrait, as Foister (2006) has suggested, is the pageboy hairstyle, which had gone out of fashion by about 1536.
Considerable attention has been given to ascertaining the identity of the sitter here. At the 1897–98 Basel exhibition, he was identified simply as an official of Henry VIII’s court. Paul Ganz (1921) subsequently deciphered the embroidery on the jacket and noted that similar liveries were worn by other officials and members of the royal guard. Suggesting that the man’s features appeared either German or Flemish, Ganz wondered if he might be a painter in Henry’s service. Arthur Chamberlain elaborated upon these theories by linking the MMA portrait with the female pendant in Vienna, in which the sitter wears a Flemish costume and also, in his opinion, has "un-English" facial features. He therefore concluded that the Museum’s sitter could well be Lucas Horenbout, court painter and, from 1534, sergeant painter to the king, and that the Vienna female portrait could depict Horenbout’s sister, Susanna, who settled in England in 1522. At that time, their father, the renowned miniaturist Gerard Horenbout, served as court painter and had established a family workshop there. However, the identification of the Vienna portrait pair as Susanna Horenbout and her husband cannot be supported by any evidence. Although some authors have continued to support Lucas Horenbout as the sitter in the MMA portrait, more recent publications have approached this theory with greater caution. The sitter was certainly an official at the court of Henry VIII, but what service he rendered to the king cannot at this time be firmly established.
It is possible that this portrait had a protective lid of painted wood, as does Holbein’s small roundel of Philipp Melanchthon of about 1535 (Landesgalerie, Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum Hannover). The structure of the frame and the excellent condition of the painting corroborate this supposition. Such intimate portrait capsules were easily portable, as well as more affordable, than larger-scale likenesses.
[2013; adapted from Ainsworth 2013]
The support is composed of a circular piece of parchment set into the recessed center of a circular linden panel with an integral frame. The wood grain runs at a slight diagonal (approximately twenty degrees clockwise) from vertical. The panel appears to have been turned on a lathe, and three decorative concentric circles were engraved into the verso. While the back and sides are painted black, the frame molding has been gilded and enhanced with transparent black and red glazes, now abraded.
The painting is in excellent condition, with only some areas of light abrasion and a few scattered tiny losses. The linear cracks in the face and in the background at the right reflect the wood grain.
There does not appear to be an overall preparatory layer on the primary support, although under the stereomicroscope a cool gray underpaint can be seen in the area of the figure and a white underpaint was used for the blue background. Infrared reflectography did not reveal any underdrawing.
The portrait appears to have been executed using an oil medium in a manner strikingly similar to that employed for miniatures, which are painted with an aqueous medium. The short, overlapping brushstrokes, particularly in the flesh passages, are commonly seen in portrait miniatures associated with Holbein. The linear details of the jerkin seem to have been applied wet-on-wet. Judging from visual examination, a typical range of pigments appears to have been used, including a coarsely ground azurite for the background and vermilion and red-lake glazes for the jerkin and cap. The lack of definition in the hair is due in part to an age-related increase in the transparency of the brown paint.
The characters H and R embroidered on the jerkin have been reinforced with gold paint added at a later date. The fragmentary state of the gold makes the letters difficult to read clearly.
[2013; adapted from German Paintings catalogue]
Inscription: Inscribed (on tunic): H[R]
?private collection, Paris (until about 1891; sold to Engel-Gros); Frédéric Engel-Gros, Basel and château de Ripaille, Thonon, Savoy (by 1897–d. 1921; his estate sale, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, May 30–June 1, 1921, no. 18, for Fr 294,937 to Paravicini); his daughter, Madame E. Paravicini, Basel and château de Ripaille (1921–at least 1924); [F. Stern, Brussels, until 1939; sold to Pinakos and Knoedler]; [Pinakos, Inc. (Rudolf J. Heinemann), and Knoedler, New York, 1939–40; sold to Harkness]; Mrs. Edward S. (Mary Stillman) Harkness, New York (1940–d. 1950)
Basel. location unknown. "Ausstellung von Werken Hans Holbeins d. J.," 1897–98, no. 101 (lent by Herr F. Engel-Gros, Basel).
Kunsthaus Zürich. "Gemälde und Skulpturen, 1430–1530: Schweiz und angrenzende Gebiete," September–November 1921, no. 87 (as "Luc Horebout," lent from a private collection).
Paris. Musée du Jeu de Paume. "Exposition de l'art suisse du XVe au XIXe siècle (de Holbein à Hodler)," June–July 1924, no. 91 (as "Portrait du peintre Luc Horebout," lent by Mme Paravicini, château de Ripaille).
New York. M. Knoedler & Co. "24 Masterpieces," November 4–23, 1946, no. 8 (as "Portrait of a Man, Presumably Luc Horebout," lent by Mrs. Edward S. Harkness).
London. Tate Britain. "Holbein in England," September 28, 2006–January 7, 2007, no. 43.
Paul Ganz. Hans Holbein d. J.: Des Meisters Gemälde. Stuttgart, 1912, pp. 241–42, ill. p. 115, as by Holbein, in the collection of F. Engel-Gros, Schloss Ripaille, near Thonon; calls it a portrait of an official at the court of King Henry VIII, probably an artist, apparently a Netherlander or a German; relates it to a pair of round portraits of a court official and his wife dated 1534 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), seeing a close likeness between the MMA sitter and the woman in Vienna; states that it was first exhibited in Basel in 1891 [sic, for 1897; see Ref. Ganz 1921, p. 263].
Arthur B. Chamberlain. Hans Holbein the Younger. London, 1913, vol. 2, pp. 71, 353, dates it to the same period as the two roundels of 1534 in Vienna; tentatively identifies the sitters of the Vienna pictures as John Parker and his wife Susanna Hornebolt [Horenbout] and suggests that the sitter of the MMA painting may be Lucas Horenbout, brother of Susanna and painter in the service of Henry VIII; notes that there is an old copy on copper in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; states that Engel-Gros purchased it in Paris.
Paul Ganz. "Les portraits-miniature de Hans Holbein le jeune a propos du 'Holbein' de la collection Engel-Gros." Revue de l'art 39 (April 1921), pp. 263–66, 268, ill., states that it was discovered thirty years before in a private collection in Paris; notes that the initials H R stand for Henricus Rex; accepts Chamberlains's [see Ref. 1913] proposal concerning the identities of the sitters of the MMA portrait and the two Vienna roundels, calling the sitter of the MMA picture Luc Horebout [Lucas Horenbout]; notes that the Vienna pictures form the top and bottom of a painted box and concludes that the MMA painting must have been part of a similar box, with a second, lost, painting depicting Horenbout's wife, Marguerite; dates it about 1534.
"Tiny Holbein, Only 4 Inches in Diameter Brings 294,937 Francs in Paris Auction." American Art News 19 (June 11, 1921), p. 1, ill., as a portrait of Lucas Horenbout.
Paul Ganz et al. L'oeuvre d'un amateur d'art: La collection de Monsieur F. Engel-Gros. Geneva, 1925, vol. 1, pp. 124–25, 139, no. 32; vol. 2, colorpl. 77, as "Portrait présumé de Luc Horebout"; refers to the background as dark blue-green.
Basil S. Long. British Miniaturists. London, 1929, p. 215.
Heinrich Alfred Schmid. Hans Holbein der Jüngere: Sein Aufstieg zur Meisterschaft und sein englischer Stil. Tafelband, Basel, 1945, p. 32, no. 86, ill., as in a private collection, Paris; calls it a portrait of an official of Henry VIII and dates it about 1532–35.
Paul Ganz. The Paintings of Hans Holbein. London, 1950, p. 244, no. 80, pl. 120.
"List of Gifts and Bequests of Mr. and Mrs. Harkness." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 10 (October 1951), p. 85, as "Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap (Luc Horebout?)," a miniature by Holbein.
J. W. Goodison and Denys Sutton inFitzwilliam Museum Cambridge: Catalogue of Paintings. Vol. 1, Dutch and Flemish; French, German, Spanish. Cambridge, 1960, pp. 203–4 nn. 2–3, under no. 537, date it about 1534 and refer to it as the original of the copy in Cambridge, which they date to the second half of the eighteenth century; reject the identification of the sitter as Lucas Horenbout, noting that John Parker died in 1529 and therefore cannot be the man represented with his wife, Susanna Horenbout, in the Vienna roundels of 1534.
Hans Werner Grohn inL'opera pittorica completa di Holbein il Giovane. Milan, 1971, p. 103, no. 91, ill. p. 102, as whereabouts unknown; assigns it to Holbein's workshop and dates it about 1534; calls it the bottom of a box whose lid has been lost; mentions the proposed identification of the sitter as Lucas Horenbout.
John Rowlands. Holbein: The Paintings of Hans Holbein the Younger. Oxford, 1985, pp. 96, 141, no. 52, pl. 85, rejects the identification of the sitter as Lucas Horenbout, as well as the identification of the sitters of the Vienna roundels as John Parker and Susanna Horenbout.
Katharine Baetjer. "British Portraits in The Metropolitan Museum of Art." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 57 (Summer 1999), pp. 5–7, ill. (color), dates it about 1534; believes that the picture originally had a lid, relating the work to a portrait of Philip Melanchthon (Niedersächsisches Landesgalerie, Hannover) that still has such a decorative lid, and also to the two roundels in Vienna.
Mark Evans. "The Pedigree of the Portrait Miniature: European Sources of an English Genre." Hans Holbein und der Wandel in der Kunst des frühen 16. Jahrhunderts. Ed. Bodo Brinkmann and Wolfgang Schmid. Turnhout, Belgium, 2005, pp. 244, 251 n. 156.
Susan Foister. Holbein in England. Exh. cat., Tate Britain. London, 2006, pp. 41, 49–50, 175, no. 43, ill. (color), dates it about 1532–35; agrees that it probably originally had a painted lid.
Maryan W. Ainsworth inGerman Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1350–1600. New Haven, 2013, pp. 138–39, 302, no. 31, ill. (color).