- Holbein and England
Susan Foister's new book attempts to prune a dense thicket of misunderstanding that has accumulated around a central figure of Renaissance art. Articulate and diplomatic, its author is more inclined to speak broadly of ill-founded ideas than to cite particular works chapter-and-verse. (The strategy is admirable: much of the tangle comprises a quite incredible mass of gibberish. And though such writing is, as Folly might say, a happier vein of craziness because the author simply jots down whatever pops into his or her head, it demands the patience of Job.) Despite such scholarly generosity, hers is nonetheless a corrective enterprise: "In later centuries . . . Holbein's name . . . became divorced from the tradition of painting, design and decoration which had formed him, and from the English context in which he had flourished and produced much of his greatest work. This book has aimed to reconstruct the latter, while demonstrating why Holbein should be included in any construction of the former" (269). To that end, five chapters provide information about Holbein's working methods and his patrons, contemporaneous English ideas about painting, the place of decorative work in Holbein's oeuvre, his pictures as they pertain to the Reformation, and, of course, his portraits.
The greatest strength of this book is its meticulousness: Foister treats primary sources with the utmost care. Her descriptions of paintings, prints, and decorative work draw our attention to technical processes and to representational detail in pictures that are often so familiar as to have become virtually invisible. And, as one would expect from Yale University Press, the production of the book itself lends to this: though a few details are less crisp than one would want, the overall quality of the reproductions is unimpeachable.
Yet with respect to her argument, such attention to detail also is problematic: engaged now with one issue, now with another, Foister risks losing the forest for the trees. In chapter 1, for instance, we move rapidly from Holbein to the role of artifice in his work, thence to England as a land of professional opportunity, and thence to patronage. While this vaguely recapitulates the structure of the book, that vagueness is troubling, for it allows particulars to come unmoored from a larger argument and become their own justification. Perhaps this is why the book occasionally seems less a reintegration of Holbein and English taste into a broader context than a reintroduction to the artist in a primarily English context accented by Continental touches.
I suspect Foister's argument would have benefited in particular from greater attention to cultural patterns. For instance, her goal of aligning the sixteenth century with European intellectual and visual culture would have gained much from a fuller discussion of the broad interest in naturalism. The theme of lifelikeness is addressed as a focal point of contemporaneous taste on four occasions. Yet nowhere does the cultural weight of mimesis receive detailed discussion. Instead, we read that Holbein's seemingly naturalistic portraits are in fact quite contrived, [End Page 245] frequently for political or social reasons. We read of Holbein comparing himself to Apelles in the 1523 portrait of Erasmus, but largely in passing. We read of anamorphic projection in The Ambassadors, but not of the paradox it generates (as Peter Parshall noted, one must "un-see" the portraits in order properly to see the projected item). And we are told that Holbein was an adept imitator, but the crucial subject of imitatio never comes into play.
Fuller attention to issues such as these would have helped Foister in three ways. First, it would have allowed her to demonstrate an important continuity of early and late interests on the part of a painter whose career is often narrated as if he simply appeared in the English court amid a puff of smoke. Second, it would have provided evidence of an important continuity of interests among Holbein's patrons, both on the Continent and in England. Third, it would have allowed Foister to demonstrate that...