The following is an analysis, comparison and contrast the work of German born Renaissance portrait painter of the sixteenth century English Court, Hans Holbein, with French Impressionist painter of the nineteenth century, Paul Cezanne. Although the subject matter is basically the same, Holbein’s portrait of Henry VIII and Cezanne’s Self Portrait provide very different experiences and evoke many different personal feelings.
The differences and, for that matter, the similarities are elicited through the artists’ use of color, light, shadows, composition and the way in which he chooses to portray his subject. The time and place of the paintings are also very significant.
Holbein’s Henry VIII depicts the opulence and elegance of the Court of mid-sixteenth century England. The subject has been arranged on the picture plane to show the clothing; rich silks and brocades, encrusted with jewels, fur and lace, representational of the elegance of the Court; the wealth of the times and the station of the wearer. The corpulence of Henry also attests to his wealth and indulgence in the “good life”. On the other hand, Cezanne’s Self Portrait brings the viewer closer to the subject, makes him feel more intimate with the subject, while the clothing is de-emphasized. The coat colors are dark, monotonous and lifeless, except for the area where the light falls naturally on the right shoulder.
Holbein has used rich reds, gold and purples, browns and blacks in the clothing which competes for the viewer’s attention to the face which reflects more of the light. The soft, fleshy tones of the face are repeated in the smooth, pudgy hands of the aristocrat. The gold engraving on the flat, green background, probably added later by the artist as was the sword, gives it even more importance and provides a rich contrast for the warm, light tones of the face and the numerous colors of the costume. The dark fur over the shoulders further emphasizes their bulk.
Cezanne’s limited background and lower foreground hues of blues and greens allow the viewer’s attention to be immediately drawn to the contrasting bright flesh tones of the face. The light falls on and emphasizes the right side of the face and penetrates the brown iris of the right eye. The background is very modest, and the artist may have added the simple wall design for compositional reasons.
Henry is portrayed in a rigid frontal view, as a powerful and dominating individual. There is very little three dimensional quality here….no real shadows. More than two thirds of the picture plane portrays great body bulk, both vertically and horizontally. The body shape is essentially the same shape of the head and face. The hat seems out of scale, almost as if the artist was so concerned with the body and head, that he forgot to leave space at the top of the picture plane for a more appropriate or, at least, a more suitable headdress consistent with the elegance and extravagance of the body costume.
A more three dimensional quality is given to Cezanne’s composition by the angled presentation of the face and right shoulder, but primarily by the visible rows of brush strokes, the majority of which seem to go in one direction; diagonally from upper right to lower left, except where differences in texture are brought out; in the hair and beard and in the folds of the coat and shirt. Also, the space left on either side of the subject gives the portrait a more three dimensional feeling, and gives it balance on the picture plane.
The artists’ objective, obviously, was to paint a likeness of the subject. However, the Henry VIII painting is more or less unrealistic, representational and unnatural in terms of believable human qualities; whereas, Cezanne’s portrait exhibits more emotional and personally appealing truths.
Art, A History of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, Volume Two, Third Edition, by Frederick Hartt, Paul Goodloe McIntire Professor Emeritus of the History of Art, University of VA. 1989.