Capturing Likeness, Constructing Identity

In the late summer of 1526, Holbein set his sights on England, bearing letters of introduction from Erasmus to prominent local figures. His journey first took him to Antwerp, the leading economic and cultural hub in the Netherlands, where he encountered works by artists such as Jan Gossaert and Quentin Metsys, also on view in this gallery.

Holbein reached London that fall. Highly skilled portraitists were rare in the country, and he had few rivals. During his first stay, which lasted until 1528, Holbein produced several large-scale likenesses in which he delineated facial features with incisive accuracy. The painter placed his sitters in splendid spaces, surrounded by carefully selected and realistically rendered still-life elements. Through his command of the medium of oil paint, he captured a sense of immediacy and illusionism, seductively rendering a wide range of textures—from flesh to fur.