The past decade has seen a definite resurgence of art historical scholarship on Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8 – 1543). Jochen Sander’s recent book contributes much to this reawakened dialogue. His primary goal is to analyze Holbein’s paintings created while the artist resided primarily in Basel in order ultimately to clarify questions of attribution and date. This period, specifically between the years 1515 and 1532, includes a brief sojourn in France (1523/24) and Holbein’s initial exploration of career opportunities in England (1526-1528). In addition to these journeys, Sander speculates that Holbein also traveled to the Netherlands before 1522 and to Italy sometime after the middle of the 1520s, either before or after his first trip to England.
Sander, Director of Paintings at the Städel in Frankfurt and teacher at the Albert-Ludwigs Universität in Freiburg im Breisgau, makes a compelling argument for examining this period in Holbein’s production. Despite the fact that this timeframe constitutes Holbein’s formative years, during which the artist seems to have experimented with a wide range of stylistic and aesthetic alternatives, scholarship on this period that focuses primarily on the works themselves remains underdeveloped. Instead, Sander maintains, scholars have directed their attention more to Holbein’s career in England and have produced heavily contextual studies, dealing with various cultural, artistic, and practical influences on the artist’s work, such as Humanism, the Reformation, Italian art, and patronage. Sander conjectures that scholars are hesitant to engage with this body of work because of its frustrating paucity of reliable documentation coupled with a bewildering plethora of stylistic manifestations. In addition, since much of the art produced contemporaneously was destroyed in the wave of iconoclasm that swept Basel in 1529, there is little material for scholars to employ comparatively, making the position of Holbein’s work within a larger artistic community difficult to situate.
Yet another reason why scholarship on Holbein’s Basel production is so thorny, according to Sander, is that a dense thicket of speculation and conjecture, grown wild within the large gaps left by inadequate documentation, has obstructed a clear view of what is actually known about the artist and his work. Sander’s secondary goal in his book is to eradicate this underbrush and its deleterious effects on scholarship by systematically differentiating between fact and fiction in the Holbein literature.
Indeed, the organization of Sander’s book responds directly to this goal. The introductory section includes a brief chapter explicating the rationale for and structure of Sander’s project, followed by a chapter on primary documentation, carefully delineating exactly what we can say with certainty about the artist as well as what still remains unclear. Sander quotes from these primary sources at length and often reproduces them in their entirety, yet another reason why this book is so useful. The documentary basis established in this chapter provides the foundation for the entire first section of the book, which is a critical look at what Sander calls “Holbein-Bilder.” With this phrase, Sander cleverly draws on the ambiguities of language, whereby he does not mean “pictures by Holbein” – i.e. works created by the artist – but instead is referring to “pictures of Holbein” – i.e. ‘knowledge’ about the artist produced by a historically long line of interested parties. This process of image-making begins already in the sixteenth century with Basilius Amerbach, author of the highly influential inventory of Holbein’s work collected by Basilius’ father, Bonifacius, and continues throughout roughly a century and a half of art historical scholarship produced since the mid-nineteenth century. Some of the issues tackled in this first section include: the power of collecting practices in reifying an artist and his oeuvre; the ways in which restorations of images (and opinions about the outcome of that restoration) influence subsequent scholarship; the roles of Italian and Netherlandish art in Holbein’s stylistic and technical vocabulary; and differentiating between works by Holbein and those produced by his father, brother, and other Basel painters.
The bulk of Sander’s book is taken up with the next section, in which Holbein’s paintings produced between 1515 and 1532 are analyzed. Sander proceeds chronologically and systematically. If it is available, Sander quotes from the relevant documentation, including the facts pertaining to patronage and original viewing context. In addition, Sander also includes detailed discussions about and extended quotes from art historical scholarship pertaining to the painting at hand, sorting out fact from fiction, and providing a most welcome history of each image’s interpretation. But Sander is first and foremost interested in the individual painting itself. Thus, discussions of content, patronage, context, and function remain decidedly and consciously secondary. This may also be due to the fact that, for some of the paintings, several of these issues remain undocumented, and thus discussing them would necessarily involve conjecture and speculation; certainly by this point in the book, Sander has made it abundantly clear that he views such activities as intellectually irresponsible at best. Sander’s focus on the individual paintings also brackets out, with some rare exceptions, the artist’s other work particularly in the print medium. Nonetheless, in so doing, Sander remains true to his primary goal – to clarify the attribution and dating of Holbein’s Basel paintings. In his introduction he states clearly how he plans on achieving this goal:
“So wird das jeweilige Bild zunächst auch in seiner Eigenschaft als materieller Gegenstand betrachtet und so hat die Beschäftigung mit ihm anfangs den Charakter einer quasi-archäologischen Annäherung. Von den auf diese Weise gewonnenen Erkenntnissen ausgehend, wird anschließend versucht, die künstlerischen Gestaltungsabsicht des Malers in der prozeßhaften Entfaltung der Bildidee und ihrer materiellen Umsetzung im jeweiligen Werk zu erfassen.”
[First of all, each image is observed according also to its nature as a material object, and thus the engagement with it initially has the character of a pseudo-archaeological encounter. Next, building on the insights gained in this way, an attempt is made to grasp the painter’s artistic form-giving intent as evident in the development of the visual idea as process and in the material translation of that idea in each work, p. 13.]
This quote succinctly yet powerfully characterizes not only Sander’s basic methodology but also his attitude toward the material itself.
What allows Sander to remain focused on the individual painting, and to remain true to the facts while thus avoiding speculation, is the technical data now available for Holbein’s pre-1532 paintings. Each one has undergone tests involving the use of x-rays, ultraviolet light, infrared photography and reflectography, and/or dendochronological examination. Thus Sander’s analysis of each painting includes a meticulous description not only of its composition but also of its material condition. In addition, Sander’s discussion of the data gathered from these scientific processes is extremely useful in understanding Holbein’s working method and style, and Sander adeptly uses these data, especially the underdrawings, to differentiate Holbein’s work from others’, and to clarify the genesis of individual works. Sander’s careful observations of these technical data not only allow him to further our understanding of Holbein. They also allow him to identify an artist most likely active in Holbein’s own workshop who continued to produce paintings in conscious emulation of Holbein’s style after the master left Basel for England in 1526 (the so-called “Venus-Painter”); and to sketch out an initial reconstruction of the oeuvre of a contemporary Basel artist, Hans Herbst.
The book concludes with a catalogue, in which each of Holbein’s Basel paintings is given its own entry with information on material condition, technical data, documented restoration, provenance, copies, archival sources, and bibliography. A separate bibliography of frequently cited sources follows, along with two indices: one for people, places, and works; the other for subject matter/themes of the works discussed.
With so much information at hand, it would be impossible for such an extensive work to avoid repetition in parts, and Sander’s book does not escape this fate. However, Sander and his editors may very well have made allowances for this, as they most likely did not envision most readers making their way systematically through the 504-page book from start to finish. Although he is mostly successful in refusing to engage in speculation, Sander very occasionally transgresses his self-imposed boundary, as in his brief – and undocumented – discussion of a possible trip to the Netherlands prior to 1522 and a hypothetical meeting there between Holbein and Quentin Metsys and/or Jan Gossaert (p. 161). In addition, some of his readers will include art historians who are decidedly less allergic to speculation than he, who might find that even the reading and evaluating of documentary evidence involves a degree of interpretation, which is – sometime less so, sometimes more – a speculative enterprise. But the book has so many important insights to offer – not just about Holbein and his work during these early and formative years, but also about the history of Holbein scholarship – that it should be regarded as a fundamental constituent of the art historian’s library.
Pia F. Cuneo
University of Arizona