Holbein’s extraordinary ‘Ambassadors’ | National Gallery

Holbein’s extraordinary ‘Ambassadors’ | National Gallery


Well, good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to the National Gallery and to this talk
on Holbein’s ‘Ambassadors’. I’m Susan Foister,
I’m Director of Public Engagement and also the curator here who’s lucky enough to have
Holstein’s masterpiece under her care. So I’m going to spend
the next 30 minutes or so talking about this
very extraordinary painting. But I don’t think I’m going to be able
to provide all of the answers, and of course I’ll be very happy
to try to answer any questions
that you may have afterwards. So this is a painting
that the National Gallery acquired back in 1890. It looked a bit different then. The background, that green curtain,
had been painted out, it was very dark. Other bits were not in
such clear condition as they are now, and nobody knew
who the two people here were. The painting had been in England for most of the 19th century, and in 1890 it was in the collection of the Earls of Radnor at Longford Castle. And they still own
the wonderful portrait of ‘Erasmus’ over on the wall just next to you there, which is on loan to the National Gallery. They still have a wonderful collection
at Longford, and if you’re interested in it
and its history and how you can buy tickets to visit it, then do have a look
on the National Gallery website because all the information is there. So in 1890, we were able
to raise enough money with some very generous gifts
to acquire this painting. And opinions differed as to who
these two men might be. Some people thought
that they might be English, the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt
was one hopeful suggestion. It was thought they might be
two young Germans. But nobody at the time thought that they might
actually be two Frenchmen, as we now know they are, and it wasn’t until 1900 when the art historian Mary Harvey published her wonderful book
on Holbein’s ‘Ambassadors’ – which is still a wonderful book
and I commend it to you – that the fruits of her research
were revealed, she was able to show
the painting’s history through collections in France and trace it back to the family
of this man, Jean de Dinteville, about who I’ll say more in just a moment. But let’s first of all come to the artist, Hans Holbein the Younger. The one thing that wasn’t in doubt
when this painting was acquired for the National Gallery was the artist, the famous Hans Holbein. And you can see here,
or you may want to come up afterwards and look very closely
at the painting to see it, it’s a little bit of a gloomy patch
but it’s definitely there, Holbein’s signature, in Latin, saying that Holbein painted this picture or was painting this picture in 1533. And it’s an unusually long
and elaborate signature for Holbein. He doesn’t always sign his paintings and when he does it’s often
a lot briefer than that. And I take from that that Holbein thought
that this was a pretty important picture to give his name to, and it is a most extraordinary picture in his work as a whole. Now, Holbein, as you may know,
was born in Germany, spent a number of years
working in Basel in Switzerland and then first came to England in 1526. And his Basel patron,
the humanist Erasmus, had recommended him to a number
of notable people in England, including the Archbishop of Canterbury
and Sir Thomas Moore. He stayed in England
for a couple of years. During that time, he worked for Henry VIII at the Palace of Greenwich, painting some spectacular paintings for a temporary entertainment tent. And then he came back again, and we know he was back by 1532, and then in 1533 he paints this extraordinary picture. And by this time, he was probably
back in full view of Henry VIII and almost certainly carrying out
some work for him. So his fame was already
well established in England. But he had never before tried a large life-size,
life-scale portrait of two people at full length. He was not the first artist in history to have made a full-length double portrait
like this of two men. There are examples we can trace back
into the 15th century. But Holbein had never done
anything like this before. It must have caused quite a stir
in London, but it seems likely that the painting
didn’t hang around and that this man, Jean de Dinteville, for whom it was painted, took it back to France with him, where it stayed until the end
of the 18th century, really pretty much hidden from view. And that in itself is
an extraordinary story, I think, of such a remarkable painting and yet mostly hidden from view for several centuries of its history. Well, Jean de Dinteville was
a remarkable young ambassador. He was sent as French Ambassador
to London five times in all, and in 1533 he was
on his second tour of duty, and he was pretty reluctant to be here. He wanted to be back home in France. He had a beautiful chateau,
the Chateau of Polisy in Burgundy just south
of the town of Troyes. And he was rebuilding it, he was improving it, he had lots of ideas, and fortunately for us,
he left a good deal of correspondence, so we can trace this 1533 tour of duty and what he felt about it. Unfortunately, what he doesn’t mention
in any of that correspondence is Holbein,
his relationship with the artist and the painting of this picture. We would love to know more about that but I think we can only speculate. So Jean de Dinteville
came to London in 1533 at the beginning of the year and was lodged in Bridewell Palace, which is on the east side
of the city of London and it’s where the ambassadors
were normally put. He was ill for much of the time. It seems he had something
very similar to malaria, so he was constantly ill,
it wasn’t just a cold or flu, though he did complain
about the English weather. He had to stay in England because 1533 was a really momentous year. Henry VIII had managed to divorce Catherine of Aragon and was going to marry Anne Boleyn
in May 1533. And of course this situation,
this political situation, the break with Rome, was causing tremendous trouble
and disquiet in Europe, and it was something that Jean’s master,
Francis I of France, was very concerned about. So it was a pretty serious year to be
the French Ambassador in London. So he was expecting to stay for the marriage,
for the coronation in June, and then he found he had to stay longer because Anne was pregnant with Henry’s heir at that time, of course he hoped
it was going to be a boy and it turned out in September
to be Queen Elizabeth I. But that meant that Jean had to stay on
even longer for the birth and Francis was going to be godfather
to that child. So he was in London
for the long haul then. He was miserable, he was ill,
he wanted to go back to sunny France and he somehow
had to keep himself occupied. He had to spend a lot of money as well,
he complained about that a lot. When he had to attend the coronation, he had to kit himself
and his followers out in new outfits and he had to hold a banquet
and pay for it. So he did have these diplomatic tasks, but the prospect of commissioning Holbein to paint this wonderful portrait must have really kept his spirits up for quite a long period. We don’t know how long
Holbein took to paint this picture, but there must have been,
as I hope to show you, an awful lot of thought that went into it, a lot of conversations
between Jean and Holbein that we can only now really imagine. Now Jean makes a big impression here, and I think part of that
is through what he is wearing, these wonderful pink and black clothes, these very fashionable clothes
that Holbein depicts him in. And this painting is not just Holbein showing off his compositional abilities, his abilities as a portraitist, but also his ability to render these wonderful textures
of fabric, that extraordinary pink satin sleeve, this lynx fur, and lynx was a very, very expensive fur, with these long hairs, and when you get to the edges of where
the fur overlaps, say, the curtain, you can see Holbein picking out
the individual long hairs, so you can get the sense
of the deep texture of that fur. Then there are lots of little details, for example the way in which
the slashings of the sleeve there are held together
with these tiny, little gold tags. And then this wonderful gold dagger
in its scabbard, which gives us one of the clues
in this painting to the identity of Jean, because there’s a number here
which relates to his age, it tells us that he’s in his 29th year, so he’s 28. And hanging from the dagger is this absolutely beautiful
representation of an enormous tassel. It’s blue and gold, and the way in which Holbein
has represented particularly the gold thread
of that tassel is in complete contrast
to this rather free way in which he has painted the pink satin
or the fur of the lynx. It’s immensely detailed, and he’s used a technique
in which he would have painted out the areas where the gold
was going to fall with glue, and then he would have put gold leaf
on top of the glue and it would have stuck to the areas
where the glue was and then been brushed away
from the other areas and you’re left with this extraordinarily
beautiful detailing of the tassel, using real gold leaf. Do come up and look at it
very closely afterwards. It really repays a lot of close study. Or go on our website and you’ll see not just the usual zooming images, but a link to a Google image
of this painting, which is something quite extraordinary,
and if you zoom into that, you will see details
that it is really almost impossible to see with the naked eye, even if you get
very, very close to the painting. So I recommend looking
at the Google image of this painting. All the information that we have
about this picture is there. So Jean de Dinteville is shown
standing at full length, and he’s pretty broad as well. In some ways, this representation
and even this double portrait is a dress rehearsal for Holbein’s
representation of Henry VIII at Whitehall Palace, a painting that he made in 1537,
but which doesn’t survive, it was burnt down
when the palace burnt down at the end of the 17th century. But we do have records of it, including Holbein’s original cartoon
for the left-hand side, which is on view next door
at the National Portrait Gallery, and again you see this full-length figure, very, very broad
with these broad shoulders, these padded, puffed shoulders. So, you know, perhaps Henry VIII
even saw this painting or perhaps a drawing, a sketch of it, and Holbein was then commissioned to make that image of Henry. It’s just a thought, but this is a very impressive image
of a man. Another rather extraordinary detail is up there on his hat. Now there are gold decorations there, but I don’t know whether you can see it, there is also a little hat badge
of a skull. And it was quite fashionable for people to wear hat badges
of various types in the 16th century and at the Tudor court
and the French court. But that little badge of a skull perhaps gives us a clue to something that was
of particular interest to Jean de Dinteville, as we’ll see. Now, Dinteville was
a very erudite, educated man. He was an important and trusted figure at the court of King Francis I of France. He had the care of the King’s youngest son a little while before he became
an ambassador. So he would certainly have been trusted to convey messages from the King of France to the King of England. But there was another messenger
who came to London in 1553, and this is the man on the right,
Georges de Selve. Now, as is the case with Jean, his friend, we’ve got a clue as to his age, which is just on the edge
of the book there. So, again, these are two young men in their 20s, Georges not yet quite 25, but he had already been made
Bishop of Lavaur, but he was actually too young
to be consecrated and to wear the bishop’s robes, which is one reason
why he may be portrayed instead wearing this absolutely sumptuous
fur-lined robe. You can see here
the outer facing of the fur that it must go all the way
underneath the robe. And the robe itself is made of this rather beautiful
browny, purply, silk damask, with this very, very large pattern on it. And the size of that pattern
is a good indication as to the expense of this fabric. So although it might look
at first sight quite sober dress, it’s very, very expensive dress. Now, what was Georges de Selve
doing in London? Well, we have some clues
because there are a couple of letters in which Jean de Dinteville
mentions his visit. He may have been in London
as early as mid-April, but we know by early June he’d gone, so it wasn’t a long visit. Jean says how wonderful it’s been
to have his friend Georges on this visit. It’s really cheered him up. But the motive for the visit
seems to have been kept secret. It was probably bringing another message from Francis to Henry VIII, but we may never know
exactly what message. We do know, though,
that Georges was very concerned with the breakup of Christendom with the split in Christianity between the Lutherans
and the Catholic Church and he would have been very concerned by Henry’s break with Rome. Now, the fact that we can narrow down the months for this visit to really the space
of about a month and a half means that we can also home in on when this painting must
have been conceived with Holbein. It must, surely, have been conceived
during those spring months when Georges de Selve visited London and Jean de Dinteville decided
that there should be a portrait which included them both. Perhaps he’d been thinking
of commissioning something much less elaborate
from Holbein, himself. But Georges’ visit
must have crystallised the idea of this double portrait
of the two friends together. What we don’t know is how Holbein went about
making this portrait. We do know that for portraits normally Holbein would make a drawing
of his sitter, and actually we have a large number
of those drawings, about 80 or so of them, they still survive, most of them,
in the Royal Collection. And in a number of cases,
we can match up the drawing of the sitter with the painted portrait. We can only assume that Holbein
made drawings of Jean and of Georges while he was here
so briefly as well, perhaps as studies
for the objects in the painting. But no drawings survive. Georges’ face is perhaps
not as animated as some of those that Holbein was painting
around this time. Maybe he didn’t actually have
very long with him. We just don’t know. And we don’t know how long
Holbein took to paint this picture, if he started planning it, say,
in April or May. He might have spent some months
painting it, but he did paint a number of other works
in 1533, we don’t know. There are some suggestions that he might have been working
quite quickly at times on this picture. There are certainly a couple of instances where we can point to him taking
what might seem to be shortcuts. So, for example, if we look
at the way this beautiful oriental carpet is painted, if you look at that closely, you’ll see he’s depicted the tufts of the carpet quite literally using a rather thick brush and dabbing with the ends
of the brush there to give the effects of the tufts, and between the tufts you can see a dark grey background. Now, that might be the substrate of the carpet
on which the tufts are woven, but it is also the ground of the painting. So we know that Holbein started off with this large panel made up
of a number of oak planks, and he covered it
with quite a dark grey ground. So when he came to paint the carpet, he already had something to work with and that suggests
he was working quite quickly. And again, with that green curtain
in the background, if you look rather closely at the pattern
in the background of it, and it’s all painted quite economically, there aren’t sort of many layers there, he’s laid out the pattern and then he’s made the folds over the top, so the pattern is actually quite
a flat pattern laid out first of all, and then he’s rather cleverly introduced
the idea of the folds of the curtain, which I think, you know,
is quite convincing, but again it’s a sign that he was,
perhaps, being very economical in the way that he approached this. Now, everybody wonders what these objects are doing
in the picture. You’re probably wondering the same thing. So, I need to tell you a little bit about the objects on the top shelf and the objects on the lower shelf. And then we’ll speculate a little bit about what they’re doing in the picture. The objects on the top shelf are all, if you like,
to do with heavenly bodies. And the objects on the lower shelf might be seen to have something to do
with the Earth, and you’ve certainly got
a globe of the heavens right on the top there and you’ve got a globe
of the Earth down there. Now, there’s a whole medley of instruments on that top shelf, which were used for telling the time using the rays of the sun, locating the sun and other heavenly bodies when you were wanting to work out
the time of the day, or obviously if you were somebody at sea, you would be wanting to work out
your location from the positions of the heavenly bodies. So there are lots of different types
of instrument here. We know Jean de Dinteville
was quite interested in instruments of this kind. In his letters, there’s a reference
to an oval compass, which is probably an instrument rather along the lines
of one of those depicted here. We don’t know if he owned
any of these instruments. But, somebody else who may have been involved
in the discussions around this painting was a man called Nicholas Kratzer,
who was a German and who was the astronomer
to King Henry VIII. And he was a friend of Holbein, Holbein painted his portrait in 1528, and interestingly it includes
several of these instruments. The painting is in the Louvre, you can see it there
or you can look for it online, and if you compare it with this painting, you will see the similarities
between the objects. So, they may or may not be
exactly the same objects, but they seem to be variations on a theme. And we can speculate that Nicholas Kratzer may have been
involved in the conversations between Jean de Dinteville and Holbein about what to represent here. So, next to the sphere of the heavens,
showing a number of the constellations, you’ve got a little
cylindrical dial there, you could hold it up with its string, you’d have to be outside
where the sun was shining. Mysteriously,
this appears not to be outside but there are shadows reflected here and then it would give you an idea
of the time of the day. If you needed to know
which month was being referred to, there are two possibilities here: one is April which would fit in quite well with what we know
about Georges de Selve’s visit, and another would be August. When you actually start
to try to lock down what these instruments might be saying about dates and about times, actually you get into
quite a lot of difficulty. With this polyhedral dial there
with a little compass on the top, it’s actually set for different times,
not radically different, but different times in a morning, 9:30, 10:30, for example. So it’s not evidently meant to show
anything accurate. When you look at these quadrants up here, there are various inaccuracies about the way in which
they’re represented, a few unexpected features. On the right-hand side here is a very elaborate instrument
called a torquetum, and we know that Nicholas Kratzer,
the astronomer, was interested in these instruments and he may have tried to build one. This is a wooden instrument
like the others, and he may perhaps have had one, certainly people at the French
and English courts would have been interested
in these instruments, which go back to ancient Greek astronomy, and in the Renaissance
people were very interested in trying to recreate them and how they might be used, again in relation to the position
of the heavenly bodies, telling you the time
in more elaborate ways. Now, some people
have theorised and speculated that there are a lot
of hidden meanings here and that one can be very precise
about dates and times. I’m not convinced
that’s absolutely the case at all. I think what is more interesting
is the disparity and the inaccuracies here. Are, for example, the times
meant to be shown deliberately out of joint, for example? Certainly what was going on in Europe at this time and in London was very concerning. Now, I think there may also
be intended to be a bit of a division between left and right in the painting, as far as the objects are concerned, in particular related to two
of the objects on the lower shelf, because this earthly globe which is placed
right next to Jean de Dinteville doesn’t just tell us that Europe is there,
well it’s upside down, but it is there, and England and Ireland
are at the lower part because it’s upside down. It shows us France, sure enough. Paris is located. But also located, really pretty much in prime position
in the middle, is Jean de Dinteville’s
own Chateau of Polisy. So that’s very, very clearly spelt out and he’s saying, I think,
“That’s what I own. That’s where I live usually.” So I don’t think it’s accidental
that it’s right next to him. There is a very interesting aspect,
though, to the way that Holbein has portrayed
some of these names. Paris is there, spelt not with a “P”,
but with a “B” – Baris. And that’s perhaps a clue to the way
that Holbein spoke French. One of the mysteries is how well
Holbein actually spoke English, and how he and Jean de Dinteville
actually communicated. I think that’s going to remain mysterious. On the right-hand side here, near to Georges de Selve, is a hymnbook. And what’s interesting
is this is a Lutheran hymnbook. So, it shows you two pages with hymns in the German language. It’s a Lutheran hymnbook and that may be
a deliberate reference to Georges de Selve’s interest in trying to bring together
this split in Christendom. In 1529, it seems, he had actually spoken
at one of the European meetings, the Diets, called by the Emperor Charles V
to address this issue of the split, and his speech was later published and in it he pleads for the Christians
to come together once more. So this, perhaps,
may be a reference to that. What’s particularly interesting about it is that it looks like
a very accurate rendering of a book, and in many ways it is,
but when you compare it to the original on which it’s based, you find that those two hymns are not in those consecutive places
in the hymnbook. They’ve been deliberately placed,
deliberately chosen, from different places in that hymnbook,
and they are put together, and one of them says, “Come, Holy Ghost”, so that maybe is a bit of a plea
for reconciliation. And the other is Luther’s rendering
of the ten commandments, which was something, after all, that both the Lutherans – the Protestants
– and the Catholics still had in common. So maybe that’s what it’s doing there. Above it is this beautiful rendering of a lute in perspective. I think Holbein is showing here, as with his beautiful rendering
of Dinteville’s clothes, that he can do something quite difficult
to show this lute in foreshortening. One of the things that may not be
completely obvious until you come close to the lute though is that there’s something wrong. One of the strings has broken. If you look at the edge
of the lute just there, you may be able to just see that
curving broken string, like a single hair, at the edge of the lute. So this lute is not in perfect harmony. That one string is broken, and perhaps that too has a meaning. There’s a case of flutes here,
more musical instruments. But one of them, it’s been noted,
is missing, so is that, again, a reference
to some lack of harmony? We don’t know. Over on this side is an arithmetic book. It’s propped open
with this set square there and there’s a pair of dividers behind, so measuring and geometry
is very much to the fore here, earthly measurement as opposed
to the celestial measurement on top. And the page that’s been chosen
here in this book is interesting. This is a very accurate rendering, again, of a page from a German arithmetic book by somebody called Peter Apian. And the page here is all about division. It’s about methods for division. Again, is this a reference to the division in Christendom at this time? We don’t know for sure. But one thing I think
we can be absolutely certain of and that is the presence of two more objects in this painting which take it into
a completely different dimension. And by that I mean this object here and the semi-hidden object top-left there. This object puzzled people
for many, many years. In the 19th century, one of the curators working
at the National Gallery, who was quite a Holbein expert, puzzled over it and concluded
it was a fishbone, a cuttlefish bone, he thought. Well, it is bone, he was right about that, and the painting wasn’t in the excellent
condition it’s in now today. So this is much more visible and if you stand to the right-hand side of the painting, it suddenly snaps into perspective. It’s a distorted representation
of a human skull. This is a technique that was known
in the 16th century. Leonardo da Vinci was interested in it. Later on, there were books published
telling artists how to make these
distorted representations. If you go next door
to the National Portrait Gallery, you will see an extraordinary portrait
of the future King Edward VI distorted, in its original frame,
and that’s interesting because that frame has at one side a space for a sort of
telescopic viewing device. So we know how that painting was viewed. This is not the original frame
of this picture, this was made for it
at the National Gallery, and we don’t have any information on how this skull might have been viewed. So you might have been asked to step away and view it from this side, or you might have been presented
with a little glass cylinder, and if you stepped back from the painting and looked directly at it
using the glass cylinder, again, the skull would snap
into its correct perspective. Undoubtedly, producing
this convincing image of a skull which moves when we move and has been distorted
in this extraordinary way is a great feat for an artist, and we don’t know exactly
how Holbein did it. Some of the instruction books
would tell you how to square up a drawing
and then copy it square by square. We don’t know whether
that’s the method Holbein followed or whether he may have used
some more sophisticated method, perhaps illuminating a drawing and throwing a shadow on a wall
is one suggestion. But it is extraordinarily convincing. It’s a tour de force. And, of course, it may just relate to that little skull hat badge
that we saw at the beginning of Dinteville’s own emblem and own interest in this. Now, there’s one place in Holbein’s work
where we can find an image of a skull with two full-length figures
on either side, and it’s the very last woodcut
in Holbein’s famous series of ‘The Dance of Death’, in which death is triumphant finally. So Holbein may have got the idea
from that composition. We can perhaps imagine him showing
Jean de Dinteville his idea for that. And there were many paintings
in this period in which people wanted to be shown with a skull as a reminder of the fate that befalls everybody, and if you’re proud enough
of your appearance to have yourself painted, it was often good to have that reminder,
“well you’re not around forever”, you don’t want to be accused
of being, perhaps, too vain, so the skull might be included
in that way. But Holbein, of course,
has gone much further. He has hidden this reference to a skull. Sometimes you get skulls
on the backs of paintings, he has hidden this
on the front of his painting in clear view
– it’s an extraordinary feat. And I think we’re meant to relate it
to what we can see top-left, and I think it’s deliberately
partly concealed there. It’s a silver crucifix,
seen from the side. And for Christians,
that, of course, was a reference to the hope of salvation, again something that united
all Christians at this time. So I think in experiencing this painting, you were meant to go from experiencing
the sense of mortality that befalls everybody, no matter how magnificently dressed
or well-educated, it comes to everybody, but then there is the hope of salvation
and ultimate resurrection, according to the Christian doctrine. So, I think in a way it’s very difficult to sum up
what Holbein is doing here. But I think he has added
a sense of an extra dimension to a portrait of these two young men
and these extraordinary objects. It’s rather like the famous quote
from Hamlet, I may get this slightly wrong but
I think it’s Hamlet who says to Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth
than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” And I think, in a way, that’s what Holbein
shows us here, in paint. Thank you.

39 thoughts on “Holbein’s extraordinary ‘Ambassadors’ | National Gallery

  1. and i have been lucky enough to see this painting in its proverbial flesh.
    depending on how one feels and depending on the state of oneself – whether hung-over, jet lagged – so to speak -i've never flown so can not inform you how trhat feels – the picture will impart different things, divers aspects of itself to you… you may even be of a mind, like myself, to stand to the side of the skull – and look askance at the optical illusion. the skull does seem incongruous, ill-conceived – an after thought. pretty amazing image, for all that.
    yes… a very entertaining piece.
    a parody of pathos – bathos: Definition: triteness or triviality of style

  2. It has always struck me odd that there would be a large undefinable shape so prominent in the image. Why would part of the painting only be visible from an obscure angle? Simply a technical challenge? What did the ambassadors think of this mutated skull splashed across the bottom of the image? Does anyone know of another painting with a similar distorted and embedded image?

  3. Brilliant detailed talk without notes! For best view of the skull visit: 'amazing illusion in 4K The Ambassadors'. KAN

  4. What a stunning painting and such a carefully planned one as well. For such an early creation date it really is superior to most other paintings of that time that still looked very medieval and lacking in detail. It is also fascinating how these scientific instruments were so simple compared to our digital ones and still so advanced mathematically and astronomically at the same time.

  5. Time travel exists: for almost 40 minutes, we were transported almost 500 years ago in time.

    We learnt a little about European mores, culture, art, mathematics, science, religious views – and philosophy.

    Some 300 years after Holbein painted Ambassadors, another artist – a poet – would challenge our view of the world asking us to 'Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.'

    I remain humbled by my gaping lacunae of art history knowledge, and I am grateful to Susan.

    Hinc lucem at pocula sacra.

  6. Literate people watching this who actually appreciate art :The lady is lovely… I love the video…
    My dumb arm: SHUT UP! I AM LOOKING FOR THE 'S'

  7. @The National Gallery, what can you say about the infinity-symbol (lazy 8) on the table cloth between the globe and the astrolabe? 5:20

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