Hans Holbein the Younger was one of the most celebrated portraitists of the sixteenth century. At an early age he won commissions to paint portraits of prominent merchants in Basel, and in later years he attracted powerful patrons in England, including Sir Thomas More. Holbein made several portraits of the great humanist and scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466/1469 - 1536). Shown in half-length three-quarter profile, his hands just visible between the fur cuffs of his coat, Erasmus is depicted as he appeared around 1530, when he was about sixty. Tufts of the sitter's gray hair poke out from beneath his black cap, deep lines mark the area around his mouth, and the skin shows signs of loosening below his stubbly chin, but the sensitivity and intensity of Erasmus's scholarly mind are still richly apparent in his piercing dark eyes. Holbein's close association with the humanist and scholar is reflected not only in these and other admiring portraits but also in the letters of introduction written on Holbein's behalf by Erasmus to his friends in England when the artist traveled there in 1526. It was through Erasmus that Holbein was commissioned to paint portraits of Sir Thomas More and his family. The white label painted at the upper left of this panel is a later addition, made some fifty years after Holbein's death when the painting was in the collection of John, Lord Lumley of Surrey and London.
Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466 – 1536) was the most famous Dutch humanist of his day. A noted theologian and classical scholar, he published new editions in Latin and Greek of the New Testament, and his sermons and satirical writings were widely disseminated. Although he was critical of the Catholic Church, he never officially joined Luther and the other reformers, preferring instead to work for change as a priest within the Church. Called the “Prince of Humanists,” Erasmus was widely admired, and portraits of him were in great demand throughout Europe.
Erasmus and Holbein were close friends who had become acquainted when both lived in Basel. It was there in 1523 that Holbein painted two important portraits of his friend, one of which is in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, and the other in the collection of the Earl of Radnor, Longford Castle, Salisbury. The latter portrait served as the model for subsequent images, which were produced in three different versions: a half-length view of Erasmus holding a book, either open or closed; a half-length figure with overlapping hands, exemplified by the painting from the Robert Lehman Collection discussed here; and a bust-length roundel of which the primary example is in the Kunstmuseum Basel. The Lehman Collection type, the most popular, inspired further copies, namely those from the workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder after 1535 and others by Georg Pencz dated 1536 – 37. While in the Arundel Collection during the sixteenth century, the Lehman portrait was engraved by Lucas Vorsterman, then exiled in England, and this engraving was copied later by Andries Stock in a print dated 1628 made in The Hague. This particular image of Erasmus also served as the model for a woodcut in Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia Universalis, the earliest German description of the world, published in Basel in 1550.
In the early twentieth century, information regarding the painting’s provenance came to light, linking it not only to England but also to notable figures in the entourage of Henry VIII. A label on the verso in an old hand (perhaps dating to 1530 – 50) read in translation, “Hans Holbein made me, John Norris gave me, Edward Banister owns me.” John Norris (Norreys, Norice), who first owned the panel, was believed to be a gentleman-usher to Henry VIII. Edward Banister was assumed to be the man listed as an usher in 1526 and the owner when the inscription was made. These personages were later identified as most likely being John Norris of Fifield, Berkshire, and possibly Edward Banister of Idsworth, Hampshire. This Edward Banister, younger than the one previously thought, was “a contemporary and near neighbour of Lord Lumley, whose extensive Sussex properties lay near Idsworth” and whose second wife was related to the second Lady Lumley. These identifications had the distinct virtue of providing a closer connection among the owners of the Lehman painting. In addition, Norris and Banister were related by marriage to various persons portrayed by Holbein in extant portraits. It would have been while the painting was in the collection of John, Lord Lumley, that it acquired its trompe l’oeil cartellino.
In light of the distinguished British provenance of the Lehman painting, scholarly discussion has largely revolved around the dates of its execution and arrival in England. Further questions have been raised as to its relationship to the other known versions. The portraits of Erasmus are generally divided into those produced during Holbein’s initial period in Basel (1519 – 24) and those made between 1528 and 1532, after the artist returned to Basel from his first stay abroad in England. While the Lehman portrait is ultimately based on the 1523 Longford Castle likeness, its portrayal of Erasmus as grayer and more wizened indicates that it must have been made during the later Basel phase. The fact that its support is linden wood, frequently used in German and Swiss territories at the time, also reinforces this conclusion; it is unlikely to have been produced in England, where Holbein habitually used oak panels.
The pounced underdrawing on the panel signifies that its design was transferred from a cartoon (full-scale drawing), that served as a model for multiple versions of the image. Its presence has raised questions regarding the authorship of the Lehman painting, which previously had been accepted by all major scholars of Holbein’s works. The panel has been classified as Holbein and Workshop(?), a copy after Holbein, and as inferior to the Basel version, which has been called Holbein Workshop(?). Of all the closest rectangular versions of comparable size, the one from the Walter E. Boveri Collection in the Kunstmuseum Basel has a few sketchlike underdrawn lines at the contour of the left side of the face and at the nose, while that in the Morgan Library & Museum in New York again shows pouncing but not in the same configuration of dots as in the Lehman painting. Clearly, the demand for this image was great, and methods of streamlined production, including the use of cartoons aided in efficiently meeting it. However, the evidence of a cartoon transfer does not completely rule out Holbein’s participation. The facility of the handling and the impressive deftness of execution on a small scale, most notably in the eyebrows, fur edging, and stubbly facial hair, argue for Holbein’s authorship. The preparation of the panel, transfer of the pounced design, and less impressive painting of elements such as the hands may indicate workshop participation.
How the Lehman painting arrived in England is yet to be determined. Erasmus may have felt the need to distribute such portraits to likely allies in order to promote dialogue between various factions of the Church. The portrait may have been sent to or ordered by John Norris, whose brother Henry was a favorite of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Or perhaps Holbein, seeing the advantage of advertising his abilities through wider dissemination of what had by then become the officially recognized image of Erasmus, may have brought several of these small portraits with him from Basel on his second trip to England. Whether the artist sold this painting or gave it away to members of the court, its first location cannot be readily deduced.
[2016; adapted from Ainsworth 2013]
Inscription: The white label painted at the upper left is a later addition made when the painting was in the collection of John, Lord Lumley.
John Norris, Windsor (d. 1564); Edward Banister, Windsor; probably Henry Fitzalan, earl of Arundel (d. 1580), Nonsuch Palace, Surrey; his son-in-law, John, Lord Lumley (d. 1609), Nonsuch Palace, Surrey, Lumley Castle, and London; Thomas Howard, earl of Arundel and Surrey (d. 1645); his wife, Alethea Talbot, countess of Arundel (d. 1645); Charles Howard of Greystoke; the Howards of Greystoke; J. Pierpont Morgan (d. 1913), New York (purchased from the Greystokes); his son, J. P. Morgan (d. 1943), New York and Glen Cove, Long Island. Purchased by Robert Lehman in September 1943 from the estate of J. P. Morgan through M. Knoedler and Co., New York.