Hans Holbein’s ‘Christina of Denmark’ | The History of the National Gallery in Six Paintings

Hans Holbein’s ‘Christina of Denmark’ | The History of the National Gallery in Six Paintings


Good afternoon, everybody. My name is Susan Foister, and I’d like to welcome you to this talk, which is on Holbein’s great portrait of Christina of Denmark. So, we’re going to spend
the next half hour exploring how this painting came to be made by Hans Holbein, one of the most famous artists
of the Renaissance, and there’s also quite an exciting coda about how this painting came to be in the National Gallery’s
collection today. So, Christina of Denmark, who was she? Well, we actually know
quite a lot about her, and quite a lot too about
how Holbein came to undertake the commission for Henry VIII
and paint her, which is quite unusual
for the 16th century, so we must make the most
of all the letters and documents that we have here. And in those documents,
there’s quite a lot of talk about Christina and her beauty. Now, she was a 16-year-old widow, and she’d had quite a hard life. Early on in her life,
she was born as the daughter to the King of Denmark in 1521, and when she was a small child the whole family had to flee from Denmark, Christian was introducing
the Protestant Reformation, not everybody agreed with that, there were some
quite brutal things going on, and he fled to the Low Countries,
to the Court of Brussels, to the relatives of his wife, taking his three young children with him, of whom one was Christina. So, she was, if you like,
a rather grand refugee as a child. Even in her childhood, living at the court, she was married, age 11, by proxy to the Duke of Milan. The marriage didn’t last very long because when she was 13 already she became a widow… …and she is wearing here
her black widow’s robes. So, she was talked about as a beautiful, 16-year-old widow at the court in Brussels, one of many women, many possible candidates for marriage to King Henry VIII. So, people got quite excited about her. They talked about the fact
that she had dimples which showed when she smiled… …that she had a lisp when she talked, which they said was very attractive, and that she was tall
for the average height at this time, and I think this is more or less
a life-size portrait, and the portrait, I think,
shows off her height and her beauty very well. Her hands are prominent. She was said to have
exceptionally beautiful hands as well. So, there was a lot of chatter
and a lot of excitement about this 16-year-old girl. So, she’s shown before us wearing these black robes, but they are extremely luxurious
widow’s weeds, if you like. She’s wearing the most beautiful
black satin coat, a full-length coat, it’s just falling in folds,
sort of rippling to the floor there, and catching the light, this is one of the
things that Holbein does so beautifully, a lot of people wore black at this time, but he really makes the most
of the contrasts and textures of different kinds of black fabrics. So, this was a very luxurious coat, made even more luxurious, as you can see, by the fact that it’s all lined with fur. You can see the collar and then the lining as he follows it
all the way down to the floor. So, she would have been
quite cosy in this robe. Underneath, she’s wearing
a plain, black dress, and this robe is just drawn together by some black silk ribbons, which you can probably just see there
at her waist. Under the black dress, she’s wearing a white chamois,
a white shirt, with a ruffled neck that you can see there and ruffled cuffs, which also you may just be able to see have a very fine line
of black embroidery at the edge, just showing off
those beautiful hands there. She’s holding buff-coloured
leather gloves, very fine leather, they would also
have been very expensive, and she’s wearing one single ring
with a red stone and that may be a ring
that signifies her mourning as well. So, by this time, she’s been wearing
mourning for three years. Her hair is virtually hidden underneath the black cap
that she’s wearing. You may just be able to see to the left that there’s a bit of a grey lining to it, and on the right-hand side
you may just be able to see, silhouetted, there are
two rows of trimming, which is probably a kind of
chenille velvet trimming to the cap. So, she’s wearing sumptuous, rich textures to make up her mourning clothes, and, of course,
those show off all the more the parts of her that we can see, her beautiful hands and her beautiful face. We can’t quite see those dimples,
but we can imagine those. I’m going to talk about
what happened in 1538 when this painting
was commissioned and painted in just a moment, but let me just tell you a bit
about Christina’s later life. She was always talked about
as the one who got away, because I may not be spoiling
the story for you entirely by telling you that
she didn’t marry Henry VIII although he was
very, very interested in her. And the story goes that she said,
well, if she had two heads, then she would willingly place
one of those at King Henry’s disposal. But, actually, we do have
a little bit more information than that, and I think we can probably assume that that was a pretty apocryphal story, because it is documented that what she did say
to Henry VIII’s ambassadors when she was asked her opinion
about marrying Henry is, essentially,
she didn’t have any opinion but she was the Emperor’s servant, and the Emperor was the Emperor Charles V, a key political figure in this time, and she was at the court of his aunt,
Mary of Hungary, and she was going to do
whatever he wanted. So, the feisty reply,
I think, unfortunately, we can discount. So, this 16-year-old beauty is represented here, and this was a painting made for King Henry VIII. I’m sure that I don’t need to tell you
that King Henry VIII had six wives. What’s key for considering this painting is that Christina potentially was there to be the fourth wife. So, Henry had divorced
Catherine of Aragon, he married Anne Boleyn,
that went very badly, that ended in her execution for adultery, and then he married Jane Seymour. Now, Jane Seymour was the person
who bore him the long-awaited son,
the future King Edward VI, but unfortunately she died
just a few days after giving birth to him in Autumn, 1537. So, immediately after that, Henry was on the lookout
for a fourth wife. So, he had his ambassadors scour
the courts of Europe. He wanted to know who was out there, and he had some ideas
about how to choose between them that seemed pretty odd
to some of the ambassadors. So, for example, he thought
it would be a very good idea to have a beauty parade
of potential candidates at Calais. So, Calais was, of course,
at this point under English rule, he thought it would be very easy for him
to come over by boat and enjoy this beauty parade and pick in person
who he thought might suit him. Well, that went down very, very badly
with the French Court, they were very scandalised by that idea, so that wasn’t going to work out. But, of course, in this period, this was an age long before photographs, so how was the King of England
going to get a good idea of who was sufficiently attractive, sufficiently beautiful, and sufficiently free of all kinds
of possible defects in order to marry the King and, perhaps, produce another heir? He had an heir,
but, of course, he needed the spare. So, a young 16-year-old bride seemed as though she might just be possibly up to the job. So, how was he going to get
a likeness of her? There’s quite a lot
of correspondence about this, and we know that there was
more than one pretty botched portrait that seems to have been sent
over to England. Now, the ambassadors had already seen her, they’d given him
these very good reports of her, her lisp, her lovely dimples, she was compared to a Mistress Shelton, who was one of the court beauties. So, there was tremendous enthusiasm, but they really wanted a good likeness and the portraits they were being sent they didn’t think were going to do the job at all for Henry. So, Henry turned to Hans Holbein, who, fortunately,
he had on his payroll at court, ready to carry out the bidding of the King and to be his court portraitist. And, in fact, through 1538 and 1539, Holbein was kept extremely busy by being sent to Europe to scout out and portray women who were thought to be
the potential brides for Henry. In the spring of 1538, he was sent to Brussels. Now, Holbein was, perhaps,
the greatest of all portraitists in Europe at that moment, so Henry was very, very fortunate to have him on his staff, as it were. Holbein was a German artist,
born in Augsburg at the end of the 15th century, so he was about 40
at the height of his powers when he was commissioned
to paint Christina. He had been working in England
since the 1520s, he came there from Basel in Switzerland, where he’d gone to make his fortune, but the prospects for an artist
turned really rather negative after the Reformation started there, so having spent a couple of years
in England in the 1520s, he came back to England,
he was back by 1532, and pretty much stayed over here in London until his death in 1543. And Henry VIII paid him
a substantial salary, £30 a year. Now, it’s not set out anywhere
exactly what tasks he was supposed to undertake
for that salary, but he was multitalented, he could design beautiful jewellery and goldsmiths’ ware for the court,
for example. We have many such drawings
that survive by Holbein. He could paint subject pictures,
religious pictures, and for Henry at Whitehall Palace, he painted an enormous life-size
dynastic portrait of Henry VIII, Henry VII,
and their two wives, Henry with Jane Seymour, who died just around the time
this great commission was completed. So, he could make really magnificent
full-length portraits. And having a full-length portrait
for a potential bride was really, really important. We have documents going back
to Henry VI’s time in the middle of the 15th century saying how very important it was when considering a potential bride to be able to see their whole figure, all of their limbs, after all they wanted to make sure
they weren’t lacking any of them. So, an authentic portrait
by a trusted artist was going to bring back
all of that vital information. So, a full-length portrait
was really important. And Holbein, by this time,
had really shown what he could do: portraits of Henry,
portraits of his family, and many portraits of people
at Henry’s court. Quite a number of these paintings survive. Of course here, you know we have Holbein’s
‘Ambassadors’ just right next to us, and there are also many beautiful drawings that Holbein made of people at the court
that survive today, most of them in the Royal Collection
at Windsor Castle, and they’re always worth a good look. So, Holbein was eminently qualified to carry out this commission, and the commission
is very, very well-documented in letters sent back
by Henry’s ambassador, Sir Philip Hoby. Now, Holbein wasn’t going
to be sent over to Brussels to take this portrait,
once it had been agreed, all by himself, he had to have
a trusted diplomat with him. We still don’t know very much about
Holbein’s language skills at this period. He was born a German, he would
have spoken German in Switzerland. We assume by the time he’d spent
several years working in England that his English was quite decent, but we really don’t know, but we have some very long letters
written by Sir Philip Hoby which tell us exactly what went on. So, first of all, of course, they had to
cross the English Channel in March. That took a few days, they got to Brussels on the 8th of March, and on the 10th of March Holbein was given
a sitting with Christina. And this is one of the most interesting
pieces of information we have about how Holbein made portraits, because we are told
that he had three hours with her, a three-hour space, they say. Unfortunately, because this commission
isn’t at all typical, we don’t know whether it was usual for him to spend three hours
with his sitters when he was making portraits or not. Neither do we know for certain what exactly he did
during those three hours. Now, I’ve referred to Holbein
making drawings of his sitters and the numbers of drawings that survive. And we have quite a few cases
in which we’ve got a drawing and then we’ve got the portrait, so we know that he needed the drawing in order to make a painted portrait. In the case of Christina,
it seems really unlikely, I think, that Holbein would have
crossed the Channel in the March gales, in an open boat, with a panel this size, this is a big oak panel. It’s surely much more likely that he took
several sheets of paper with him, his coloured chalks,
his inks that he liked to work with, and that he made
a series of drawings of Christina, which were then
going to serve him very well in making the finished portrait. We don’t know that for certain,
this is surmised, but I think that that’s very likely. So, what might he have done
in his three hours? Well, I think he would
have absolutely made a drawing of her face,
that was going to be pretty vital. And I think it’s no accident that he’s showing her full face
looking directly at us. Now, that’s not the case
with many of his other portraits, people are shown slightly to one side,
slightly to the other side, but I think Henry wanted to see
as much of that face as possible. So, he wanted a full-face drawing there, and he probably would have worked that up on a piece of paper that was coated
in a pink watercolour, so that’s the case for most
of the drawings that survive that Holbein made in the 1530s. He would select, we think,
a piece of paper covered in a pink shade that would approximate
to his sitter’s complexion. That was a way
of sort of speeding things up, he had these ready-prepared sheets, so he would say,
“Yep, this light pink, perhaps, here, is the shade that I need.” Then he would have set to work probably with black chalk
in the first place, and added, perhaps, some red chalk for those beautiful red lips and brown for the brown eyes that she has. And in a number of his portrait drawings, he also makes notes in black ink, notes to himself, notes usually in German, and they’re colour notes usually. So they might be,
there’s one drawing of a man in which he says
the eyes are a little yellowish. It doesn’t sound terribly nice. There are other drawings in which he talks about
the colours and textures. Often he says this bit
is to be black velvet, this bit is to be black satin. The drawings that survive are usually head-and-shoulders drawings,
not much more. So, we can imagine
a head-and-shoulders drawing of Christina, perhaps with some notes on her eye colour, perhaps with some notes on
the black satin robe that she’s wearing, but he wouldn’t have worked
much of that detail up in a head-and-shoulders drawing. What he may also have made is a costume drawing, and we do have one or two very beautiful,
quite detailed drawings that he made of women
when he first came to England, perhaps because
he was trying to understand the style of dress which was different
from the style in Switzerland. And perhaps with Christina, he would have made a drawing of that type. We have one drawing
in which he shows the woman from the back and from the front, so he can completely understand
the style of dress that she’s wearing. So, he may have made
a costume drawing of Christina. And, in one or two cases, we have detailed drawings of hands. And it’s my surmise
that because Christina’s hands are so prominent in this composition and because she was supposed
to have such beautiful hands, that he did make a drawing of her hands. So, I think he would have made
these drawings in the three hours
that he had allotted to him, and then he would have taken
all those drawings back with him on the boat,
back to the court in London. Now, what is really interesting is that ambassadors report
from the London Court on Holbein’s return, which says that Henry
was immediately delighted with what Holbein had brought back. Now, I think that couldn’t
possibly have been a full-length painted portrait,
there just wouldn’t have been time. I think he must have seen
some really beautiful drawings, and he was so overjoyed by what he saw that we’re told he set musicians
to play all day long. So, there was a tremendous celebration. But, of course, this could not last, because the marriage plans fell through, Christina did escape with her head, and the next year Henry went on
to marry Anne of Cleves, and we know that didn’t work out
too well either, but I will say that I don’t think
that that was because Holbein misled Henry. If you look into what may have gone wrong, it was more to do
with the clothing that Anne wore, the languages, or lack of languages, there were many things about her
that Henry didn’t like. Holbein kept his head, it was Thomas Cromwell
who lost his over that marriage. Now, Christina went on to have
quite a long life, she lived until 1590, and she did actually marry again, she married the Duke of Lorraine, but unfortunately for her,
that marriage didn’t last long at all. The second husband died
very shortly afterwards, so she was plunged into mourning again, and although there were plans
for her to marry a third time, and, in fact, she even came over
to England again to pursue those plans, though it wasn’t to an Englishman,
they fell through and she spent the rest of her life living quietly in Europe, away from the hurly-burly
of the English Court. Now, what happened to this painting then I think is very, very interesting. So, Henry was thrilled with whatever
Holbein brought back for him, probably drawings. But he was, we think, particularly pleased with this portrait because he kept it,
he kept it in his collection, and that’s unusual, there don’t seem to be
other paintings by Holbein that he kept, but this one can be identified. And I think that some of the reasons why he was so entranced and beguiled
by this portrait, we can see here, just looking at it, Holbein has so cleverly, I think, given the impression
that she’s just slightly moving and moving towards us, and he does it so subtly by the way in which
he situates her in space. You can see there’s a shadow
on the right-hand side. Is there a doorway somewhere there?
We don’t know. Holbein often uses this
very ambivalent blue background, sometimes it suggests the sky, rather than the kind of panelled rooms that you would surely have found
indoors in palaces. And then on the other side, you can see her shadow
reflected against the wall. So, you get a very clear sense of how he’s situated her in space. But although, as I’ve said,
it was really important to show her full face so Henry got
a very good view of what she looked like, Holbein has just very, very slightly
set her at an angle to the left, so, I think, she seems to move,
it’s suggested, on the diagonal, from that corner of the room,
perhaps coming through a doorway, over this way, where she
casts a shadow on the ground. So, to my mind, it seems as though she’s just about to glide
through space towards us, and I think that’s a very beguiling
and seductive way of presenting the 16-year-old widow. So, Henry kept this portrait,
he hung onto it, and it was in his inventory
of his possessions after his death. And then, it seems,
it was really fought over by some eminent people
in 16th-century England. At one time, it was owned
by the Earl of Pembroke, then by Lord Lumley, who had
a famous collection of paintings, including many works by Holbein, then in the 17th century it passed into the collection
of the Earl of Arundel, who confessed his weakness
for works by Holbein. Then it descended in his family for several centuries, before ending up in the collection
of the Dukes of Norfolk. And it came on loan
to the National Gallery in 1880. It was on loan here for 28 years. And, in fact, it came as
a tremendous shock to many people when, in 1908, the Duke of Norfolk first proposed
he was going to sell this painting. Most people assumed
the National Gallery owned it, but we didn’t. Now, the Duke of Norfolk, I think,
sometimes gets a little bit of a bad press about his motives
for selling this painting. There were a lot of aristocratic
owners of pictures at this period, the end of the 19th century,
the beginning of the 20th century, who were starting to sell off
their paintings. And there were some
very wealthy collectors in America, particularly, at this time who were only too pleased to acquire them. Legislation had been passed
which made it easier for aristocrats’ assets to be released
and many people took advantage of this. Now, when the Duke of Norfolk came to talk to the Director of the National Gallery,
Charles Holroyd, in 1908, what he said was that he felt that by selling this painting he could do a great deal of good
with the money. He wasn’t after the money for himself, but for his own charitable enterprises, so I think it’s worth just noting that. And he gave the Gallery notice that he wanted to sell the painting. Well, fast forward a year, and he told the Gallery
that he was selling the painting in April 1909… …that he had a buyer for the painting, that he was selling it
to the dealers Colnaghi’s for £60,000, and the Gallery had only a couple of weeks to try to match that some of money, so ensuing panic. How was the Gallery going to find
what was an enormous sum of money to buy this beautiful painting by Holbein? They didn’t quite know. At that time,
you could call on the government to give you a grant
for the purchase of paintings. I mean, I think today our equivalent is
the very generous Heritage Lottery Fund, but we were lucky that
the National Art Collections Fund had been set up six years earlier, and they were extremely keen to try to help to raise money. So, there was a public campaign and there was the controversy
about acquiring this picture in the press that we’re perhaps familiar with today. “Why should we bother to acquire a painting by a foreign artist?” “Why should we bother to acquire
a painting of a duchess?”, one newspaper said, “We have plenty of English duchesses
of our own to look at. We don’t need to look
at this one as well.” So, it was a very public controversy
and a very public campaign. And things moved on very, very quickly, because while money
was still being raised, news came in that the painting
had been sold again and the price had gone up, it was now over £70,000, and a deal had been done so that the painting
was going to end up in America, and the buyer was going to be
the famous Henry Clay Frick. If you’ve been to the Frick Collection,
you’ll see his two Holbeins, ‘Thomas More’ and ‘Thomas Cromwell’
facing each other across the fireplace, and he aimed to add this painting to them. So, everybody was really up against
this final deadline and the Art Fund, as they’re now called, were in there with their public campaign, receiving very generous donations, but they were up against
a weekend deadline. Now, what actually slightly worked
in everyone’s favour over here was that there was a bank holiday and they didn’t realise
on the other side of the Atlantic that there was a bank holiday, which just gave us a little bit more time, and it was felt publicly by many people that this painting must be seized
from the Americans and there’s a wonderful cartoon
in which Uncle Sam is shown dragging Christina
out of the frame of this picture. Henry James wrote a play
called ‘The Outcry’ because there was an outcry about this. Now, at the very, very last minute, what happened to save this painting was that an anonymous woman stepped in and gave £40,000 to contribute to the total that the Gallery needed
to save this picture. It was said to be a very large portion of her personal fortune, but we do not know to this day
who she was. Her identity has been kept
completely secret because she gave the money on condition that nobody would ever know who she was. Now, even today
with freedom of information, people have challenged this
and asked who was she, but we and the Art Fund
have kept absolutely silent, I don’t know her identity. There’s been a lot of speculation, it’s interesting, I think,
that she was apparently a woman, she was on holiday at a spa in Germany
when she decided to offer the money, but many people who were keen on what later became
the cause of women’s suffrage were very enthusiastic
about saving this painting, so possibly it was a woman
who was allied to those interests. I don’t think we shall ever know, but we just have to heave
a huge sigh of relief and say a very big thank you to the anonymous benefactor who ensured that we can see this painting today
in the National Gallery. Thank you.

19 thoughts on “Hans Holbein’s ‘Christina of Denmark’ | The History of the National Gallery in Six Paintings

  1. A wonderful presentation about an equally wonderful painting, I often spend time in front of this on my weekly visits to the gallery and knew nothing about the anonymous lady who helped us to keep it here. I for one am for ever grateful that she did so.

    Thank you

  2. This picture captures more magic for me than the Mona Lisa in Paris does. It's marvellous and I really enjoyed the talk too.

  3. cómo me ha gustado! Cuánto he aprendido! Thank you very much for this video, for your "delicious" explanations! I'd love to visit THE GALLERY London ASAP again and again

  4. How amazing that this benefactor decides to spend a good portion of her fortune anonymously. How can someone be so selfless and passionate about one piece of art? It's wonderful, but just beyond my selfish scope of understanding

  5. Excellent presentation. Can anybody please tell me which is the other painting on the wall, next to Christina? The colours in that painting are so attractive.

  6. The ring "may" signify her mourning? I would expect an expert at the National Gallery to definitively know this.

  7. A really good lecture, as always. People interested in Holbein might like to know that the drawings he worked from were traced by using a camera lucida; this is how he achieved such verisimilitude in the short amount of time given him by his stters. Then, after tracing the drawings onto his panel (the heads in the paintings are exactly the same size as the heads in the camera lucida drawings), the figure was painted from his imagination (and from his knowledge of the planar structure of a face). This, by the way, is why he had colour notes on his drawings: he didn't paint from life.

  8. It’s worth noting that Christina was wholly opposed to marrying Henry from the outset, especially given that his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, the woman from whom Henry’s divorce brought about the Reformation, was in fact Christina’s great-aunt.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *