Museo Thyssen Bornemisza

Permanent Collection


Hans Holbein

Portrait of a Woman
ca. 1518-20
Oil on panel
23.6 x 17 cm
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
Numero de inventario
INV. Nr. 189 (1933.13)
ficha de la obra

© Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Hans Holbein the Elder was a German painter active during the first half of the 16th century and the father of Hans Holbein the Younger, with whom he worked on various projects. His most important commission was the decoration of the high altar of Augsburg cathedral, of which few elements have survived. His portraits reveal an interest in achieving a realistic likeness of the sitters’ features, as his surviving portrait drawings reveal, but this was not the genre in which he was most active. The present pair of oils has been the subject of debate with regard to the dating, composition and the identity of the figures. The fact that the woman is located on the left, which is an uncommon arrangement, and the different scale of the two figures, suggests that they were in fact independent compositions. On the basis of a detailed study, however, Isolde Lübbeke decided that the two works date from Holbein’s mature phase and pointed to other pairs of portraits by him that use this arrangement. The female figure is depicted in profile, outlined against a dark background that emphasises the flesh tones of her face. In the male portrait, Holbein depicts the figure in three-quarter length and filling almost the entire pictorial space. Both portraits reveal an interest in conveying the sitters’ physical features in a realistic manner.

More information about this Work

Hans Wertinger, an artist whose early activity remains largely unknown, may have trained in an Augsburg workshop or in Munich. The first available information on the artist dates from 1491 when he was made a citizen of Landshut. Between 1497 and 1499 he received various commissions from the Prince-Bishop of Freising for designs for stained glass in the city’s cathedral, while his first documented work, a panel with the life of Saint Sigismund, dates from 1498.Wertinger also received commissions from the Elector Frederick III of Saxony. He was a versatile artist who worked not only in mural and easel painting but also in miniature and illustration, producing designs for prints. In Landshut, Wertinger enjoyed the protection of Duke Louis X of Bavaria-Landshut and was named court painter to the Duke in 1518, the period when he was most active as a portraitist.

The identity of the present sitter and the date of the painting are known from a 17th-century inscription on the reverse of the panel which refers to the sitter’s name and identity: “Knight Christoph”, court jester to the Prince-Bishop of Freising, Count Palatine of the Rhine and Duke of Bavaria. The inscription may have been copied from one on the original frame (now lost) or have been at the lower edge of the painting, as suggested by Feuchtmayr, an idea not shared by Lübbeke. The panel is very probably the one that appears as number 3301 in an inventory of 1598 compiled by J. B. Fickler, in which it is recorded alongside other portraits of buffoons from the ducal collection.

Knowing the sitter’s identity enables us to understand the type of presentation that Wertinger used as well as the sitter’s pose. It should be mentioned that this is one of the first full-length portraits of this type known in German art. The buffoon poses outdoors in front of a low wall that divides the pictorial space with a landscape in the distant background. Knight Christoph is shown in more than semi-profile, looking to the left and wearing elegant clothes although there is a sense of disjunction between his strong, robust body and his aged face. Resting his weight firmly on one of his legs with the other in a relaxed position, Knight Christoph grasps the handle of his sword while his other fist is clenched, creating a similarity of gestures between the two hands. The upper corners of the canvas have discreet decorative elements that visually lead the eye into the composition, a device often found in Wertinger’s early works in which he included festoons, garlands, vine tendrils and decorative frames.

“Knight Christoph” was in the ducal collection in Munich and in the collection of Leonie Freiin von Boyneburgh in Wielfingerode. It entered the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection in 1934 from the Berlin art market.

Mar Borobia