Sir Thomas More (1478–1535) sat for this portrait at the height of his political career, shortly before he was promoted to lord chancellor, the highest-ranking office in Tudor England. Like his friend Erasmus, More was a prolific scholar, but Holbein presents him as an authoritative statesman, prominently adorned with a gold livery chain— a symbol of his service to the king. The S-shaped links might stand in for the motto “Souvent me souvient” (Think of me often), while a Tudor rose at the center is the traditional heraldic emblem of England. The portrait displays Holbein’s ability to render colors and textures—from More’s graying stubble to the opulent fur trim of his coat and the lush, voluminous red-velvet sleeves of his doublet.
Erasmus was a close friend of Sir Thomas More and had stayed at the More house in Chelsea during his visits to London. A lawyer, scholar, and a powerful counselor to the King, More was Holbein’s most important supporter during his first visit to the British Isles. Upon his arrival in England, the artist carried letters of introduction from Erasmus to More in the hopes of using this personal connection to gain work in London and at the Tudor court. More introduced Holbein to several important courtiers who all commissioned portraits from him, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Warham, Royal Astronomer Nicholas Kratzer, and Sir Henry Guildford and his wife, Mary. Mary Guildford’s portrait is on view in the gallery to your left.
This is the canonical portrait of one of the key figures in sixteenth-century England. More is depicted in a three-quarter view, similar to Holbein’s favored pose for Erasmus. The man’s imposing form fills nearly the entire panel. The fairly dark palette of More’s fur-lined velvet robe and the green drapery behind him heighten the focus on the sitter’s face and intent gaze. The astonishing realism of Holbein’s portrayal extends to More’s salt-and-pepper whiskers.
Besides the painting of Thomas More is a copy of his most famous book, Utopia. Although divorce was legal in More’s Utopia, he did not support Henry VIII’s desire to separate from the Roman church so that Henry could divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, to marry Anne Boleyn. Henry saw this as treason, thus leading to More’s fall from power and execution in 1535.
The Frick Collection. Photo : Michael Bodycomb