Holbein’s Anne of Cleves (c.1539)

In the summer of 1539 Hans Holbein was sent by King Henry VIII to Düren to paint the portrait of Anne of Cleves whom the king was considering as his fourth Queen. He wanted to know what she looked like. The portrait, now in the Louvre, is unusually painted on parchment suggesting that Holbein did indeed paint the portrait while in Düren, not later in London from a sketch. As first and foremost an artist true to his calling (and not the king's), how did Holbein portray the Queen as an aspect of his own mind without upsetting the bloodthirsty and dangerous tyrant?

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Captions for image(s) above:

Holbein, Portrait of Anne of Cleves (c.1539) Parchment mounted on canvas. Louvre, Paris.

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Anne's hands are clasped at her waist but, if you turn your head, you will see what few but artists are ever likely to have seen before: a face formed from her joined hands looking up towards her head.

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Detail of the hands in Holbein's Portrait of Anne of Cleves

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The cheeks are chubby, the tip of the nose both pointed and ever so slightly bent, the eye formed by a precious stone, the chin possibly bearded. It may not be Holbein's own face (right) though I strongly suspect it is. It does not have to be for the portrait of the future Queen to become his self-image.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Detail of the hands in Holbein's Portrait of Anne of Cleves rotated
Right: Holbein, Detail of Self-portrait (c.1542)

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It could, for instance, be an image of the artist's son which Holbein had painted the year before. Although his son's nose was similar, his face is much less round. If it was his son, then Holbein would be suggesting that in creating the queen's portrait he had been re-born as a great master, as the next in line. Indeed that was Anne's job, once married, to produce an heir.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Detail of the hands in Holbein's Portrait of Anne of Cleves rotated
Right: Holbein, Detail from The Artist's Family (1538) Oil on canvas. Kunstmuseum, Basel

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Alternatively, it could be the portly king himself though no portrait survives in profile to match the form. In marrying the king, Anne was supposed to become his creative faculty, the royal womb. Everyone knew that was her function.

See conclusion below

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We cannot now know for sure who the hands were intended to resemble but I have no doubt that they are "a face". Conventional scholars rarely see such hidden images. Some believe that artists would not have concealed such matters from their patron; others that such methods are undignified. They could not be more wrong as the hundreds of examples on this website demonstrate. Even Holbein's divine hand in his well-known Dead Christ (1521) is his own, as I have already shown. One way or another, in forming a face from the queen's hands, Holbein has conveyed to other artists that an artist's mind is both royal and androgynous and that art is constructed from the unity of eye (vision) and hand (craft). Royalty, of course, is an esoteric symbol, used in alchemy and other spiritual disciplines, for the mind's purity. Remember both Moses and Buddha were royal princes.

Anne did not last long. Once she arrived, Henry was disatisfied with her looks. He married and divorced her within six months. His reaction to Holbein's portrait is unknown. We can only guess in that the portrait was executed, not Holbein.

Notes:

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 27 Feb 2013. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.