Saturday, November 15, 2008

Hans Holbein the Younger

Hans Holbein the Younger. Unknown Gentleman with Far Side Comics and Bong, 1534.

As I pass a cloudy weekend in New York City, enjoying the archives of Columbia University's Butler Library and watching flighty young co-eds flit from classroom to library to bar, I often take breaks to step over to the library's oversized art history textbooks to compare renderings of this fabulous Holbein painting, completed during Holbein's London Bong years, which began in 1526.

Holbein's deftness at capturing the nuanced characters of his subjects is on full display here – the gentleman, breaking momentarily from his reading of G. Larson's 1983 collection Beyond the Far Side, is caught in a moment of reverie, gazing confidently into the middle distance, perhaps watching the smoke curl into nothing (a subtle memento mori and one of Holbein's favorite devices during the London Bong period). It seems, sometimes, that Holbein delights as much in lovingly painting texture as he does in capturing his courtly subjects: the drapery furls dramatically; the gentleman's velvet coat verily shimmers, its Queensryche pin a dainty point; the bong's aquatic texture is brilliantly concieved. This painting is a joy.


luckyhole said...


Jan Peeters said...

I too find Larson's cartoons quite funny! It cannot be said that Holbein did not appreciate a good joke (or a clever use of anamorphosis)!

Hermann Wundrum said...

I can recall many late nights from my undergraduate years, arguing with friends about Holbein at our favorite bar: The Pickled Beat. Which did Holbein love more, single-paneled comics or full strips? The play of light and shadow on delicate textiles or the painstaking crinkle of a Peanuts cartoon clipped from the newspaper? Oh, sweet youth.

Jan Peeters said...

What I would have given to be present at those arguments, Hermann! My own young years were spent in despondency until that fateful moment when I chose to take my degree in Art History. As for Holbein – it is clear from his own style that he gleaned much from the economy of the single panel, with so much levity, tragedy, and composition masterfully wrestled into a rigid frame. His loose-limbed yet utterly trenchant portraiture betrays this, I think, as do his frequent nods to his inspirations (as we see in Georg's portrait's Easter Egg). A shame that we might never see another Holbein, that dear man.