Together Again 

Giles Ryan

© Copyright 2023 by Giles Ryan

Hans Holbein, portrait of Henry VIII,1536
Hans Holbein, portrait of Henry VIII,1536
Juan de Flanders. portrait of a young girl, 1496
Juan de Flanders. portrait of a young girl, 1496

This has happened before and now it happens again. A visit to a museum which was originally a private collection leads to something wholly unexpected. Three years ago, it was the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, where I saw Ghirlandaioís Portrait of a Young Woman and thought, how did this come to be here in Lisbon and not in Rome or Florence, or somewhere in Italy, or perhaps in the Louvre? And now, visiting the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, I find myself wondering the same thing, and this time itís a painting I would expect to find at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

I see it across the room at a distance of several meters, and yet I seem to feel its effect before I can begin to take in any detail. Can it be that a Holbein portrait draws one in, pulls one forward? The painting is Holbeinís 1536 portrait of Henry VIII. In his role as a court artist, Holbein painted Henry several times, but all the other surviving images of Henry are copies made from Holbeinís originals. It was a common practice then; courtiers wishing to demonstrate their fealty to the monarch commissioned other artists to make a copy of any portrait favored by the king and displayed this copy in their homes in anticipation of a royal visit, so that the king might see his own image on display. This painting here in Madrid is unique because itís the only surviving portrait of Henry from Holbeinís own hand. Itís commonly understood that this portrait was a preparatory study for a larger full-length portrait for which we now have only a copy because the original was lost in the great Whitehall fire in 1698.

Itís aa arresting portrait. Henryís clothing is rich in texture and depicted in great detail ó the fine silk and the intricate embroidery, and each hand showing a precious jewel. But all this is beside the point; itís his face that draws us in and we stare at him and he stares right back. He is forty-five years old and has already been injured in a fall from his horse, an injury that will plague him for the rest of his life and which, by some historical speculation, gave him a concussion from which he never recovered and which accounted for his increasing irascibility and unpredictable temper, a temper evident in his stare, almost a glower. The jeweled hat hides his increasing baldness, and the fullness of his face, the incipient jowls, have perhaps been minimized. Holbein knew how to flatter but not too much.

Holbeinís Henry VIII portrait makes a striking impression for another reason, a rather subtle reason which I would have missed completely if I had neglected the adjacent portrait along the wall with its  brief description card. This next portrait shows a young girl with red hair, a fresh complexion, and a serious mien, as if she were thinking of the afterlife, or perhaps simply contemplating a fate beyond her control. Scholars believe this is the work of Holbeinís near contemporary, Juan de Flanders. Itís his 1496 portrait of a young girl, Catherine of Aragon, aged eleven and already engaged to marry Arthur, Prince of Wales. Arthurís early death and Catherineís subsequent marriage to his younger brother, Henry, and their marital life of twenty-some years with its turbulent end in the most consequential divorce of its time is a tale that needs no re-telling here. But it may be noted that her Hapsburg uncle Carlos V, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, insisted on the legitimacy of Catherineís marriage to Henry. And so the juxtaposition of Catherineís portrait with Henryís here in a museum in Madrid is a statement that brims with wit and irony, because Henryís portrait was painted in 1536, the same year he ordered the execution of Anne Boleyn, the woman for whom he cast aside his Spanish queen.

How did these two paintings come to be here, next to each other? Fortunately, the provenance of both paintings is well established. Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza acquired the de Flanders portrait of Catherine from the Duque del Infantado in 1930, at the beginning of the Great Depression, a time when financial distress resulted in the sale and transfer of many works of art. As for the Holbein painting of Henry, this hung on the wall for many years at Althorp House in Northamptonshire, the Spencer family home. Then in 1934, Thyssen-Bornemisza acquired Holbeinís portrait of Henry when the 7th Earl of Spencer, needing cash, decided to sell some of the familyís art collection. Thus, these acquisitions were separate events, and we cannot confidently say they were purchased with the intent of hanging them together so that visitors familiar with the controversial marriage and divorce might contemplate Carlos V having the last word. But I like to think some Spanish curator with an impish sense of humor saw the possibility of making a statement. 

But surely some British patron of the arts must have seen the portrait of Henry as a work of national significance, a worthy candidate for the National Portrait Gallery. Has no one raised the notion of asking the Spanish authorities to intercede in recognition of its British patrimony and bring about its return? True, the possession of the Elgin marbles at the British Museum puts the British in a poor position to demand the return of a national treasure, but couldnít the British at least make a decent offer? Spain might not necessarily hand it back as a beau geste, but perhaps a financial inducement commensurate to its worth might bring about its return.

On the other hand, reflecting on the underlying unfortunate episode in Anglo-Spanish relations and Henryís ill treatment of the long-suffering Catherine, and in recognition of the rightness of Catherineís cause, perhaps the Spanish might prefer to have the last word and keep both paintings where they are, side by side. Politics, bitterness, arrogance and anger and a disregard for common justice may have torn these two lives apart, but these two paintings can place them where they ought to be ó together again. 

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