holbein and erasmus -- 10/13/23

Today's selection -- from Holbein: Capturing Character by Anne T. Woollett. The famed Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus fully exploited the promotional value of portraits, most notably the masterpieces of him painted by the German-Swiss Renaissance painter Hans Holbein:

“Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) was a celebrity in his own lifetime; some say the first in European history. The Dutch humanist's name was known from Scandinavia to Italy and from Spain to Poland -- among his fellow scholars, of course, but also by rulers, merchants, bankers, and artists. He was universally recognized as the ‘prince of letters,’ as the leading champion of the studia humanitatis, the renewed study of the classical humanities. Today, Erasmus is still a familiar name from history. He is perhaps best known as an advocate of peace and tolerance and, above all, as the author of the still widely read Praise of Folly. 

Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam (1523) by Hans Holbein the Younger

“Erasmus also has what is truly a familiar face, thanks first and foremost to the many portraits made of him during his lifetime, far more than of any of his contemporaries, save perhaps for monarchs such as Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor. It was, above all, Hans Holbein's masterpieces that established his image. ‘For us it is almost impossible to imagine Erasmus other than as he appears in his portraits by Holbein,’ wrote the great art historian Erwin Panofsky more than half a century ago, and nothing has changed since. The fact that Erasmus only allowed great artists to paint his portrait--Quentin Metsys and Albrecht Durer as well as Holbein--says much about his feeling for quality. Although the humanities were his primary focus as a scholar, he always looked with a very keen eye at paintings and sculptures, as his many surviving letters attest. By degrees he became convinced of the value of the image, realizing that it had an important part to play in education, in the church, and in the home. When images came under attack during the Reformation, he tirelessly defended their use and their usefulness.

“Erasmus must have been very well aware of the power of a portrait. He had his likeness painted for friends and patrons, and he exploited visual media--such as prints and medals-that allowed him to reach a wider public. Portraits played an important role in establishing the idea of Erasmus as a scholarly hero. Erasmus clearly created and promoted this image himself--in word but in pictures too. His process of building a reputation has been described as ‘self-formation,’ ‘self-production,’ and even ‘self-portraiture.’”

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Anne T. Woollett


Holbein: Capturing Character


J. Paul Getty Museum


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