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Text by Geoffrey Smith


Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions



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Hans Holbein the Younger: Portrait of Anne of Cleves - 1539

Paris, Musée du Louvre

On 12 October 1537, Queen Jane of England, the third wife of King Henry VIII gave birth to a son – an heir to the Tudor dynasty. But celebrations were short-lived. The birth had been difficult and twelve days later Jane was dead.

Within a week of the queen’s death enquiries had already begun to establish candidates for the dubious honour of sharing Henry’s bed. The search lasted for two years with at least nine women at one time or another making it on to the royal short list. At one point the shameless monarch demanded that five high-born French women be escorted to Calais so that he could make a choice. Not unnaturally, this disgraceful request elicited a tart response from François I who advised Henry that it was not the French custom to require women of aristocratic houses to line up like horses for sale.

During this extended period of marriage-broking the king’s painter, Hans Holbein was given the task of travelling back and forth across Europe to produce portraits of five of the prospective brides. The early favourite was Christina of Denmark, the young widow of the Duke of Milan. Holbein set off for Brussels in March 1538 where he was allowed only three hours to capture her likeness. Back in London he produced an exquisite full length painting from his drawings. Henry, it seems, was keen, but negotiations foundered, possibly over money but also perhaps as a result of Christina’s well founded worries regarding her continued health and safety.

In June, Holbein was off again, this time to Le Havre where Louise of Guise sat for him. In late August he was in Nancy and Joinville, in eastern France, in an effort to gain likenesses of Renée of Guise and Anne of Lorraine. A year later, in August 1539 Holbein was in the German duchy of Cleves where he produced this painting of Anne, the sister of the duke of Cleves, as well as one of another sister Amelia for good measure. The political and religious atmosphere was right at this moment for an alliance between Henry and this small German dukedom. Although the duke was not a Lutheran, neither was he of the ‘popish opinion’ – he was sitting in the middle, rather like Henry. Nor was the duke allied to either the Habsburgs or François, who was increasingly looking towards a Habsburg alliance, thus isolating England. So, having received favourable reports regarding Anne’s comeliness and having seen Holbein’s portrait, the match went ahead.

Anne arrived in England on 1 January 1540. Henry hurried to Rochester in disguise to take a look at his bride but was bitterly disappointed and considered reneging on his agreement to marry her. Backed into a corner, he commented to Thomas Cromwell (his chief advisor and an advocate of the match) before the wedding ceremony ‘if it were not to satisfy the world and my realm, I would not do that I must do this day for none earthly thing’. Cromwell soon lost his head.

The marriage was never consummated and soon declared null and void with Anne pensioned off to live in obscurity as the king’s ‘sister’. Could it be that some of the blame for this disastrous imbroglio might be heaped on Holbein’s head. Perhaps for once the unerring eye of the great portraitist (arguably the best painter of a likeness the world has seen) had been clouded by political expediency. Maybe he had been leaned on to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. But there is no evidence that Henry blamed his court painter. In 1541 he was engaged to paint a portrait of the king – an unlikely commission had he been out of favour. Furthermore, one of the envoys responsible for the marriage negotiations attested that the painting was ‘a very lively [lifelike] image’. The fact is that there had been warnings about the suitability of Anne as a consort for Henry. She spoke no other language than her own, she could not sing or play any instrument. These were seen as serious drawbacks. It is possible that it was these defects that had as much to do with Henry’s rejection of her as her looks which were certainly a match for Jane Seymour. Holbein painted the portrait of a perfectly agreeable but perhaps rather dull young woman. It seems as though that is precisely what Henry got.

Image: Wikimedia Commons


Contemporary Works

1538 Titian:  Venus of Urbino, Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi

1540 Bronzino:  Portrait of a Young Man, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Further Paintings of Interest

Self Portrait with Two Circles


Lodovico Capponi

Agnolo Bronzino

Equestrian Portrait of Charles I

Anthony van Dyck