Like the two other images of Hanseatic merchants here and here, this portrait eliminates all references to the sitter’s activities in trade and commerce. Instead, it emphasizes his familial associations. The man holds folded gloves and wears a signet ring bearing the coat of arms of the Cologne-based Wedigh family (a black chevron surrounded by three green willow leaves), which partially reveals his identity. Holbein animated the still frontal likeness by slightly enlarging the man’s right eye and raising his right eyebrow. The inscription in the background states the work’s date and the age of its subject. Such refined lettering in Roman capitals had become a standard practice in Holbein’s portraiture by the early 1530s.
In addition to scholars, members of the royal family and Tudor courtiers, Holbein portrayed foreign diplomats and German merchants of the Hanseatic League based in London. The artist, who was born in Germany and spoke the language, seems to have developed a particularly close working relationship with his merchant countrymen. Based in the Stalhof, or Steelyard, on the north bank of the river Thames, members of the guild appear in seven surviving portraits painted by Holbein.
This panel is one of the finest and best preserved portraits in the group. Although the man’s name is no longer known to us, the coat of arms of the Cologne-based Wedigh family, visible on his prominently placed signet ring, partially reveals his identity. The frontal pose and direct gaze result in a strikingly forthright image. This approach differentiates portraits of members of the Hanseatic League from likenesses of Holbein’s English sitters, who seem to have preferred to be portrayed in three-quarter or profile views.
Image: bpk Bildagentur / Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin / Photo: Jörg P. Anders / Art Resource, NY.