Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Erasmus of Rotterdam

Hans Holbein the Younger (German, Augsburg 1497/98–1543 London) (and Workshop(?))
ca. 1532
Oil on linden panel
7 1/4 x 5 9/16 in. (18.4 x 14.2 cm); painted surface 6 15/16 x 5 1/2 in. (17.6 x 14 cm)
Credit Line:
Robert Lehman Collection, 1975
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 953
Hans Holbein the Younger was one of the most celebrated portraitists of the sixteenth century. At an early age he won commissions to paint portraits of prominent merchants in Basel, and in later years he attracted powerful patrons in England, including Sir Thomas More. Holbein made several portraits of the great humanist and scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466/1469 - 1536). Shown in half-length three-quarter profile, his hands just visible between the fur cuffs of his coat, Erasmus is depicted as he appeared around 1530, when he was about sixty. Tufts of the sitter's gray hair poke out from beneath his black cap, deep lines mark the area around his mouth, and the skin shows signs of loosening below his stubbly chin, but the sensitivity and intensity of Erasmus's scholarly mind are still richly apparent in his piercing dark eyes. Holbein's close association with the humanist and scholar is reflected not only in these and other admiring portraits but also in the letters of introduction written on Holbein's behalf by Erasmus to his friends in England when the artist traveled there in 1526. It was through Erasmus that Holbein was commissioned to paint portraits of Sir Thomas More and his family. The white label painted at the upper left of this panel is a later addition, made some fifty years after Holbein's death when the painting was in the collection of John, Lord Lumley of Surrey and London.
Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466 – 1536) was the most famous Dutch

humanist of his day. A noted theologian and classical scholar, he

published new editions in Latin and Greek of the New Testament,

and his sermons and satirical writings were widely disseminated.

Although he was critical of the Catholic Church, he never officially

joined Luther and the other reformers, preferring instead to work for

change as a priest within the Church. Called the “Prince of Humanists,”

Erasmus was widely admired, and portraits of him were in

great demand throughout Europe.

Erasmus and Holbein were close friends who had become

acquainted when both lived in Basel. It was there in 1523 that Holbein

painted two important portraits of his friend, one of which is in the

Musée du Louvre, Paris, and the other in the collection of the Earl

of Radnor, Longford Castle, Salisbury. The latter portrait

served as the model for subsequent images, which were produced

in three different versions: a half-length view of Erasmus holding a

book, either open or closed; a half-length figure with overlapping

hands, exemplified by the painting from the Robert Lehman Collection

discussed here; and a bust-length roundel of which the primary

example is in the Kunstmuseum Basel. The Lehman Collection

type, the most popular, inspired further copies, namely those from

the workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder after 1535 and others by

Georg Pencz dated 1536 – 37. While in the Arundel Collection during

the sixteenth century, the Lehman portrait was engraved by Lucas

Vorsterman, then exiled in England, and this engraving was copied

later by Andries Stock in a print dated 1628 made in The Hague. This

particular image of Erasmus also served as the model for a woodcut

in Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia Universalis, the earliest German description of the world, published in Basel in 1550.

In the early twentieth century, information regarding the painting’s provenance came to light, linking it not only to England but also to

notable figures in the entourage of Henry VIII. A label on the verso in an old hand

(perhaps dating to 1530 – 50) read in translation, “Hans Holbein

made me, John Norris gave me, Edward Banister owns me.”

John Norris (Norreys, Norice), who first owned

the panel, was believed to be a gentleman-usher

to Henry VIII. Edward Banister

was assumed to be the man listed as an usher in 1526 and

the owner when the inscription was made. These personages were later identified as most likely being

John Norris of Fifield, Berkshire, and possibly Edward Banister of

Idsworth, Hampshire. This Edward Banister, younger than the one previously thought, was “a contemporary and near neighbour of

Lord Lumley, whose extensive Sussex properties lay near Idsworth”

and whose second wife was related to the second Lady Lumley. These identifications had the distinct virtue of providing

a closer connection among the owners of the Lehman painting.

In addition, Norris and Banister

were related by marriage to various persons portrayed by Holbein

in extant portraits. It would have been while the painting was in

the collection of John, Lord Lumley, that it acquired its trompe

l’oeil cartellino.

In light of the distinguished British provenance of the Lehman

painting, scholarly discussion has largely revolved around the dates

of its execution and arrival in England. Further questions have been

raised as to its relationship to the other known versions.

The portraits of Erasmus are generally divided into

those produced during Holbein’s initial period in Basel (1519 – 24) and

those made between 1528 and 1532, after the artist returned to Basel

from his first stay abroad in England. While the Lehman portrait

is ultimately based on the 1523 Longford Castle likeness, its portrayal

of Erasmus as grayer and more wizened indicates that it must have

been made during the later Basel phase. The fact that its support

is linden wood, frequently used in German and Swiss territories at the time, also reinforces this conclusion; it is unlikely to have been

produced in England, where Holbein habitually used oak panels.

The pounced underdrawing on the panel signifies that its design was transferred from a cartoon (full-scale drawing), that served as a model for multiple versions of the image. Its presence has raised questions regarding the authorship of the Lehman painting, which previously had been accepted by all major scholars of Holbein’s works. The panel has been classified as Holbein and Workshop(?), a copy after Holbein, and as inferior to the Basel version, which has been called Holbein Workshop(?). Of all the closest rectangular versions of comparable size, the one from the Walter E. Boveri Collection in the Kunstmuseum Basel has a few sketchlike underdrawn lines at the contour of the left side of the face and at the nose, while that in the Morgan Library & Museum in New York again shows pouncing but not in the same configuration of dots as in the Lehman painting. Clearly, the demand for this image was great, and methods of streamlined production, including the use of cartoons aided in efficiently meeting it. However, the evidence of a cartoon transfer does not completely rule out Holbein’s participation. The facility of the handling and the impressive deftness of execution on a small scale, most notably in the eyebrows, fur edging, and stubbly facial hair, argue for Holbein’s authorship. The preparation of the panel, transfer of the pounced design, and less impressive painting of elements such as the hands may indicate workshop participation. How the Lehman painting arrived in England is yet to be determined. Erasmus may have felt the need to distribute such portraits to likely allies in order to promote dialogue between various factions of the Church. The portrait may have been sent to or ordered by John Norris, whose brother Henry was a favorite of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Or perhaps Holbein, seeing the advantage of advertising his abilities through wider dissemination of what had by then become the officially recognized image of Erasmus, may have brought several of these small portraits with him from Basel on his second trip to England. Whether the artist sold this painting or gave it away to members of the court, its first location cannot be readily deduced. [2016; adapted from Ainsworth 2013]
Inscription: The white label painted at the upper left is a later addition made when the painting was in the collection of John, Lord Lumley.
John Norris, Windsor (d. 1564); Edward Banister, Windsor; probably Henry Fitzalan, earl of Arundel (d. 1580), Nonsuch Palace, Surrey; his son-in-law, John, Lord Lumley (d. 1609), Nonsuch Palace, Surrey, Lumley Castle, and London; Thomas Howard, earl of Arundel and Surrey (d. 1645); his wife, Alethea Talbot, countess of Arundel (d. 1645); Charles Howard of Greystoke; the Howards of Greystoke; J. Pierpont Morgan (d. 1913), New York (purchased from the Greystokes); his son, J. P. Morgan (d. 1943), New York and Glen Cove, Long Island. Purchased by Robert Lehman in September 1943 from the estate of J. P. Morgan through M. Knoedler and Co., New York.
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