This book is part of the Colour Library series of great painters and paintings by the Phaidon publishing house. It follows the series's usual format and standards. This is a review of the 1993 second edition: the book was originally published in 1976.
The introductory extended essay is written by Helen Langdon. She remarks how "Holbein's sitters ... do not greet the spectator with gestures or turned heads; they do not impose their personalities upon us by any play of expression; rather they are characterized by an unusual stillness, precision and clarity." Indeed, it is the dignified posture of his subjects that strikes me most.
Langdon places Holbein in the context of artistic developments in the German Renaissance, noting the effects of the artist's immediate predecessors and his contemporaries, men such as Durer, Grunewald, Cranach, Altdorfer, and - of course - Holbein the elder. She goes on to chronicle Holbein's life and development, of his relationships with Erasmus, with More, and with Henry VIII. "To the English, unaccustomed to the wonders of Renaissance naturalism, the accuracy of Holbein's treatment of the still-life must have been startling." After Holbein's portrait of Christina of Denmark for Henry, "the pedestrian portrait of Anne of Cleves must have seemed inexplicable to court and king alike. ... few regal commissions came his way after the debacle."
For the English, Holbein painted "a series of immensely vital and immediately convincing personalities recorded without poetry and without flattery by an artist whose rigorous discipline and grasp of essentials allowed no sentiment to intrude." I could not help comparing them with photographs of stern and unsmiling members of a Soviet politburo, but then Holbein's epoch was also one where it was dangerous to betray certain sympathies. And yet the few pre-Reformation pictures reproduced in this volume hint at a different approach to portraying feeling in his paintings.
The selection includes both Holbein's original drawing and the painting of Richard Southwell which enables us to make a valuable comparison. The selection also includes some of his miniatures. The earliest of the forty-eight plates reproduced here dates from 1516; the latest 1543. The come from a wide variety of sources, but most the greatest number are from Basle (eleven) and the Royal Collection (eight). These convey the great feel for texture of Holbein's work, such as that of Erasmus's face, and of items such as carpets and drapery. Unfortunately, there are problems in the colouration of some reproductions, evident clearly for example between the main frame and the details of his `Passion of Christ'. And in the National Gallery's `Unknown Lady', the background as reproduced is more green than blue and the squirrel is black, not red.
So, in conclusion, this is a reasonably detailed introduction to the work of Holbein, and published at a very reasonable price.
I bought this at the same time as I bought another Holbein book (Hans Holbein the Younger: 101 Masterpieces by Maria Tsaneva) and it’s the exact opposite. Just larger than A4, 50 pages and wonderful colour. It’s printed by Phaidon Press and I have another book by them (Caravaggio) which is equally as good. There are 48 plates in the book with accompanying narrative and the quality is excellent. If you’re going to do a book on art then do it properly! I love it.