Welcome/Artist Search Top 30 Most Popular Artists Monthly Features Art Museum Sites Worldwide Fine Art Links More About Us The Most Efficient Ad Targeting in the World Popup Glossary of Art-Related Terms

Feature Archive
November, 2000

Notorious Portraits
By John Malyon
 Overflattering Portraits I: Napoleon
 Overflattering Portraits II: Van Dyck and Holbein
 Grotesques and Horrors
 Illness and Deformity
Read the first part of this article from last month
Overflattering Portraits II
Napoleon may have been among the most hardboiled of art patrons, but he was hardly the first to sketch out his requirements with great specificity.

Every sitter wants to be shown in the best light, of course, and it was not uncommon for patrons of high standing to expect the kind of flattery they received in every other aspect of their daily lives.

As a result we find Agnolo Bronzino painting the Genoese admiral Andrea Doria as Neptune, Barthélémy Prieur sculpting King Henri IV as Jupiter, and Joseph Chinard presenting Madame de Verninac as Diana the Huntress.

Indeed, Jean-Marc Nattier had a small industry producing mythological portraits, fuelled by rich young and not-as-young women anxious to be depicted as Hebe, Diana or a middle-aged Vestal Virgin.

And even here we cannot escape the ego of Napoleon: Antonio Canova separately sculpted Napoleon and his sister, Paulina Borghese, both naked. Napoleon was represented as Mars, and his sister was coincidentally portrayed as Mars' sister (and lover) Venus.

Then there were the donors - pious patrons anxious, for reasons beyond my ability to fathom, to be painted into the background of Biblical scenes. There's the Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints and Donors, which is quite a crowd scene (especially compared to these days, where visitors would be limited to "immediate family only"). And there's St. James of Marche with Two Kneeling Donors, in which either the donors are about 9 inches tall or St. James is a 50-foot giant. There are many other examples to be found in the Artcyclopedia title search, under "donor" and "donors".

The court painter Antony Van Dyck was one of the most celebrated and sought-after artists of his time. He was a great talent, but his success was no doubt largely due to his glamorous and idealized perception of his patrons.

Van Dyck is particularly notorious for "stretching" the truth, flattering his sitters by showing them as disporportionately tall. The National Gallery of Washington has this to say about the spider-like proportions of his Portrait of Marchesa Balbi: "Her skirt and lace ruff disguise legs and a neck half again as long as any conceivably normal proportions."

It's true that flattering one's sitters makes them happy and harms no one. Usually. But Hans Holbein the Younger's desire to please his patron had unintended consequences.

Portrait of Anne of Cleves Henry VIII (I bet you can see where this is going already) lost wife number 3, Jane Seymour, shortly after she gave birth to his sickly son Edward. By 1539 he was anxious to remarry, and his advisor Thomas Cromwell was anxious for him to make a political alliance with the Protestant Duke of Cleves. The Duke had two unmarried sisters, Anna and Amelia, and Cromwell dispatched Holbein to Cleves (in modern-day Germany) to paint their likenesses.

Holbein's Anne of Cleves is a great portrait of a reasonably attractive woman. Holbein does not have a reputation for flattering his sitters, but in this case Anne was suspiciously posed straight-on, a common trick used by portraitists to deal with challenges such as long or oddly-shaped noses (one suspects a nose problem because there is another portrait of Anne in three-quarters view which x-rays show to have been overpainted in order to shorten the nose). In any event, Henry was very happy with her appearance, and proposed marriage without ever having met her in person.

When Henry ultimately met his wife-to-be, he was stunned at how plain she was, and referred to her as a "Flanders mare". There were other obstacles as well, of course: Anne could not speak any English, Henry had become grossly overweight (it was said that you could fit three large men into one of his suits, although I doubt this was a frequent custom), and he was paranoiac and tyrannical, very possibly due to the effects of tertiary syphilis. The marriage went through, but was apparently never consummated and was soon annulled. Anne fared better than most of Henry's wives, receiving some property as a settlement and also accepting the slightly bizarre honorary title of the "King's Sister".

The political alliance, designed to protect England from invasion by countries under Catholic rule, was also a failure. England suddenly found itself at risk of being dragged into a war between the Duke of Cleves and the Holy Roman Empire.

In the aftermath to this fiasco, Thomas Cromwell was beheaded. Holbein escaped from the incident unscathed, and died three years later of the plague. Henry died of a long illness seven years and two wives later.

Continue to next page: Grotesques and Horrors


This article is copyright 2000 by John Malyon. Please do not republish any portion of this article without written permission.

John Malyon can be contacted at jmalyon@artcyclopedia.com