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« Elsewhere | Main | Ten Things I Like About Being a Parent, II »

August 02, 2003

Pic of the Day


I was leafing through a book of Holbein portraits I own when I came across this picture of the French ambassador to the court of Henry VIII.

H. Holbein, Charles de Solier, Sire de Morette, c. 1534

Hey, talk about not making Ďem the way they used to. Can you imagine a portrait painted in the past, say, 25 years having the same kind of impact this one has? Is it just that people in the 16th century dressed better than we do? Is it that we no longer consider it socially acceptable to display weapons, even ceremonial ones, in our portraits? Has the whole notion of masculine authority been rendered culturally unacceptable? (Admit it, isnít this the ultimate artistic statement of the expression you used to see on grown-up menís faces when you went to retrieve your ball from their perfectly manicured lawns?)

Or is it simply an erosion in human dignity? This portrait actually has more expression than most of Holbeinís; he obviously considered a monumental presentation of the topology of the Ďcomposedí human face to be sufficient subject matter for serious painting. Why is it that we donít?

Anyway, thought youíd get a kick out of the old Frenchman.



posted by Friedrich at August 2, 2003


I dunno. He looks to me like a guy in the tavern I frequent.
No, not the bouncer.

Posted by: David Sucher on August 2, 2003 10:03 PM

Must be some tavern. Has he got the dagger, too?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 2, 2003 10:49 PM

That's a beautiful portrait.
Oddly enough, the current US ambassador to the Court of St James carries a similar facial expression in his official portrait. See
In modern state portraits (photos), we don't often see hands. Holbein's French ambassador's hands speak as a much as his face. One glove off, is he about to draw his dagger?

Posted by: valine craig on August 3, 2003 12:06 AM

Holbien did another portrait that had a rather strong impact on Henry VIII, which was that of Anne of Cleves. Some months after Jane Seymour (Henry VIII's third wife) died from complications in childbirth, his advisor Thomas Cromwell tried to get him fixed up with an international wife. Holbien was sent to Germany to do portraits of Anne and her sister. Partly based on Henry liking Anne's looks from the portrait, he agreed to the marraige. When she got to England, it turned out that Henry wasn't attracted to her. They went through with the ceremony, but not long after Henry had it annulled claiming it had not been consumated, which she also agreed to. Anne was made Henry's sister (paid off) and was only one of two wives to outlive him. More info at


Posted by: Harry Phillips on August 3, 2003 12:55 AM

It is a remarkable portrait. But I don't think the current ambassador's photo looks anything like it. The current ambassador just looks like an ordinary middle level bureaucrat. Maybe the Frenchman just had features more suitable to the portrayal of authority, or maybe he was a remarkable guy and really had authority. Wouldn't it be funny if in real life he was actaully a persnickety wimp??? Given what the painter apparently did for Ann of Cleves, its possible!!! I think the expression on his face is similar to what many men tried for when you were retrieving your ball; I don't think many men achieved it, which may be where the painter comes in.

Posted by: samantha c. on August 3, 2003 9:15 AM

"he obviously considered a monumental presentation of the topology of the Ďcomposedí human face to be sufficient subject matter for serious painting. Why is it that we donít?"

An interesting item and a more interesting question. My first thought, Zen thought, is that we do. My second, more considered thought, is that I don't really know enough to support that first thought.

More expansively, I think the answer lies in the fact that, for all our society's devotion to the cult of art, we don't really produce that much good art at all. We produce, indeed, a lot of junk. Robert Hughes is quite illuminating to read in this regard. One of the main reasons he gives, if I remember correctly, is that we don't really teach art in our art schools or classes. We don't teach drawing, the foundation of art. We teach the "right" of self-expression without teaching technique. As a result we have a lot of very bad art and very bad artists churning out a lot of dreck.

I live in Laguna Beach, a town that humps, pumps and dumps bad art on the rest of the world with a vengenance. The level of output would gag a rhino. But there's lots of wall space and little taste in Orange County and elsewhere so this little industry humms along quite nicely.

Another reason we don't have portraints like this anymore, it seems to me, is that we have so few men like this anymore.

Posted by: Van der Leun on August 3, 2003 9:54 AM

I don't recall seeing this Holbein before, so thanks for posting it.

As to its psychology: Ignore (if you can) the beard, the ballooning doublet and leg-of-mutton sleeves and concentrate on the eyes and the firmly set jaw. What's left is coldness -- the eyes of a Las Vegas pit boss or an IRS auditor in a bad mood -- and an impression of arrogance, or at the least an almost psychopathic firmness.

That was understandable in a French ambassador to England; the kingdoms had been at war off and on for hundreds of years. I'm not sure, but I think the King of England still claimed territory in France in that period. It wouldn't do to send a dweeb for face time with Henry VIII, the man who had given the finger to God's CEO in Rome and ordered the headsman to dispose of his wives who'd passed their sell-by date.

If this portrait represents the face of masculine authority or "human dignity," I'm glad we've turned down the volume. Too bad we've gone into the opposite end zone, with chronologically adult males who read comic books and passionately debate the merits of competing brands of ice cream.

Posted by: Rick Darby on August 3, 2003 11:06 AM

Kent Williams "Blood", Frank Miller's "Sin City", and Dave McKean's "Cages" are adult worthy comic titles (to name only a few) ... and Ben & Jerry's is obviously the best.

Posted by: pinky on August 3, 2003 5:06 PM

No,damn it, Haagen Dasz ...

Posted by: Rick Darby on August 3, 2003 7:18 PM

You guys better cowboy up or your DNA ends with you.

Posted by: Van der Leun on August 3, 2003 10:32 PM

"If this portrait represents the face of masculine authority or "human dignity," I'm glad we've turned down the volume. Too bad we've gone into the opposite end zone, with chronologically adult males who read comic books and passionately debate the merits of competing brands of ice cream. "

Seriously, that's a very cogent observation. I don't know that, however, we've really turned down the volume. Events seem to call different kinds of men to the foreground. That doesn't mean they go away in the meantime.

Robert Kaplan's Empire Wilderness has an extended examination and report on the state of the American core military culture contrasted to the civilian culture of the late 1990s.

At the time the book was written, the military -- and the kind of man it represents, attracts, and creates -- was in something of an eclipse. That is obviously much less so today.

Posted by: Van der Leun on August 3, 2003 10:47 PM

"I'm not sure, but I think the King of England still claimed territory in France in that period."

Well, that's one way of putting it.

The English Kings had - till that point - always claimed parts of France (the Normans were French after all). After the marriage of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine they had control of large parts of France, which they progressively lost (except for a brief period at the start of the Hundred Years' War) until the reign of Mary I with the final loss of Calais. Henry VIII himself had campaigned in 1513, although they'd been at peace since 1514 when Henry's sister married - and promptly killed from 'over-exertion' - Louis XII. Spain was the greater threat by this stage though.

More contentious though is that the English Kings claimed the CROWN of France. From Edward III at the start of the Hundred Years' War until (comically) George III, who gave it up after the French Revolution (after which there didn't seem to be much point). Hence the fleur-de-lis on their coat-of-arms throughout that period.

Posted by: Russell on August 4, 2003 7:56 AM

I am very interested that you blogged about this, because I spent an hour plus in a room full of similar potraits in Tate Britain in London (that's London, England, UK) the other week, while sy young companion completed her art-work, and I couldn't help noticing how completely weird and unlike anything modern whatsoever they all were.

All but one picture showed the sitter staring absolutely deadpan at the camera. Um, painter. It's not just the men who had authority: even women with their tops (symbolically) falling off used to have that terrifying penetrating gaze. Something to do with sitting frozen for weeks on end, I'm sure, but it contains a message as well. "Go away, you insignificant commoners: I'm important!" perhaps.

And then you get those odd little smiles, like on the Mona Lisa, occasionally occurring.

I suppose the main reason why those portraits had impact was, having impact was their whole raison d'etre, and what the sitter was paying to be turned into: a Person Of Impact. I'm no Marxist, but power-justification must have been an important part of the politics and PR of the old class structure.

These days we know everybody is a human being. Then, the King was still supposed to be half-divine, and those around him reflected in the glory. We're not as scary now, but we can have fun. I think that's good.

Posted by: Alice Bachini on August 4, 2003 11:00 AM

Nice job with the fur and fabric too.

Alice's comment reminds me of a musing I return to from time to time. If part of what art used to do was glamorize and "sell" (if you will) the rulers and the powerful, maybe what contempo popular art is doing is glamorizing and selling ... well, us. (Ie., producers and consumers both, in a much more leveled-out kind of world.) To ourselves. Which can be pleasing (democratic, fun) but also hall-of-mirrors bewildering.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 4, 2003 1:35 PM

Splendid stuff. How come we don't see so much of this sort of art posting at 2 Blowhards any more?

Posted by: James Russell on August 5, 2003 6:02 AM

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