Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Tale of Two Portraits – Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell

New York, Frick Collection, The Living Hall
(photo from 1927)
At the Frick Collection in New York, formerly the home of Henry Clay Frick and now a very intimate museum, visitors can walk through rooms that have been left much as they were when Mr. Frick died in 1919. However, one room has been left entirely unchanged, exactly as Mr. Frick left it, having supervised the hanging of the paintings himself. This is the Living Hall.

One of the walls is hung with three portraits by two Old Masters. The central painting is by El Greco, an imagined portrait of St. Jerome, dressed anachronistically as a cardinal. The other two are portraits painted by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Hans Holbein the Younger was born in Augsburg in southern Germany in 1497 (give or take a year, possibly). He was the son of Hans Holbein the Elder, a well-respected painter in the Gothic tradition, under whom (and other painters) he trained. In his early years he worked primarily as a painter of portraits in Basel, Switzerland. It was in Basel that he made several portraits of the great humanist, Erasmus of Rotterdam, which Erasmus used as gifts for his far-flung humanist friends. In his mid-30s (1526-1528) Holbein visited England, armed with introductions from Erasmus to his English friends. There, he painted several portraits and portrait sketches of the English humanist circle. Several years later, in 1532, he returned to England and remained there for most of the rest of his life, dying in London in 1543. He became the leading painter in England during this time and painted members of the court of Henry VIII, including the King himself. Indeed, most of the images that come to mind of Henry, his wives, his son and his courtiers come from the brush of Hans Holbein the Younger. And that brush painted with an almost photographic realism that has made Holbein one of the most respected of portraitists ever since.

Hans Holbein the Younger, Thomas More
German, 1527
New York,  Frick Collection

Here, in New York, two of Holbein’s English portraits sit facing each other across the fireplace – and what a pair they are! For here are

Thomas More, the humanist scholar, family man, author of Utopia, early proponent of equal education for women, lawyer, Lord Chancellor of England and martyr saint for refusing to accept Henry’s break with the Catholic Church;

Hans Holbein the Younger, Thomas Cromwell
New York, Frick Collection


facing him,

Thomas Cromwell, one of the architects of England’s break with Rome, engineer of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, and, eventually of More’s death.

Henry Clay Frick purchased the painting of Thomas More first, in 1912, and then, three years later, that of Thomas Cromwell. Therefore, it was he who decided to bring these two paintings together. He may have enjoyed the idea that he was bringing these two adversaries in life into opposition once again in his own living room. Since anyone seated on the sofa in the center of the room faces the fireplace, these are presumably the paintings that Frick himself chose to look at when seated, rather than at the many other masterpieces in the room (paintings by Titian, Giovanni Bellini, Gerard David; bronzes by Alessandro Algardi and Vecchietta and others; beautiful furniture by Boulle, etc.). You can see a current 360o view of the room on the portion of The Art Project (1) website that is devoted to the Frick (here).

Through the vehicle of Holbein’s paintings we can make a comparison between these two men, so fatally intertwined in life.

In the portrait of More,(2) painted during Holbein’s first visit to England in 1526-1528, the sitter is posed, seated before a backdrop of a green curtain, in full light. He is looking slightly to his left, not directly at the painter. He is dressed in an overcoat of what looks like black velvet, lined in brown fur (sable perhaps?) which also forms the broad coat collar, over an underjacket of deep red velvet, below which the edges of his white shirt can be seen. On his head he wears a black “Tudor bonnet” type of hat, with earpieces, which may be made either of velvet or sueded leather. Around his shoulders is a gold chain of office, formed of S-links, and from which hangs a golden Tudor rose.

On his left index finger he wears a gold ring with decorative engravings on the shoulders and a dark, bezel-set stone which may be black or a deep red, such as garnet. In his right hand is a piece of paper that appears to be a folded scroll. At this point in his life, More was about 48 years old, already a successful lawyer and judge, Utopia had been published, he had a high reputation among the learned of Europe and he was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a friend and confidant of the King. Within two years he would become Lord Chancellor of England, chief lawyer of the realm.

His face shows some of the effects of his hard work and probably late nights by candlelight (he is said to have written at night so as not to take time away from his family responsibilities). His hazel eyes are surrounded by dark circles and slightly red-rimmed. And the creases in the corners of his eyes, across the bridge of his nose and on his forehead suggest someone who may have had to squint a bit to see to read and write in dim light. Grey strands appear in his dark hair, some of which peeks out from under his hat, and there is at least an entire days stubble on his cheeks, chin and upper lip (something I find rather endearing). He appears to be a straightforward man, not entirely concerned with his appearance, perhaps a bit preoccupied with his thoughts and ready to speak his mind.

Now, compare him to Thomas Cromwell in the opposite painting, dating from Holbein’s later residence in England (1536-1543). At first look they seem very similar, although there are some obvious differences. Unlike More, Cromwell sits at a table which is covered with a green cloth, on which rests a book, some papers bearing red seals, a quill pen, and two other objects I can’t identify. Thus, he is somewhat farther back in the visual plane than was More. The background is busier as well, being sharply divided into horizontal areas of light and dark which themselves have distinctive patterns. Cromwell is silhouetted against the back of a paneled bench, which stands in front of a wall covered in what appears to be dark blue damask. Note that the material appears to be tacked to the wall midway up the wooden object we can see at the far left of the picture, possibly a paneled window embrasure, as the light appears to come from that direction. There is some sort of surface, covered by a reddish fabric with black figuring that is probably a carpet, on which rests a partially seen scroll.

In dress Cromwell seems very similar to More. Again there is the black furred overcoat and black hat; although in Cromwell’s case the underjacket is also black. Unlike More he does not wear a chain of office, but like More he wears a patterned gold ring on his left hand. The ring bears a prong-set creamy blue cabochon stone, possibly an opal, agate or aquamarine. In his left hand he also holds a small folded note or scroll. His right hand is held unseen beneath the table.

At this point in his life, 1532-1536, Cromwell was also 48 years old and was well on in his rise to power. He had managed the Parliamentary actions which had begun the separation of the English church from unity with Rome, made it treason to resist and had gained control over church properties throughout England. He was made Master of the Jewels and Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1532. In 1534 he became Henry’s chief minister and was instrumental in gaining passage of the Treasons Act and the Act of Supremacy, acts that made it a crime punishable by death to deny that the King was sole head of the church in England and in 1535 he was appointed “Vicar for Spirituals” which gave him authority over all of England’s churches and monasteries, which he began to plunder for the Crown and convert for Protestant-style services.

When we look at Cromwell’s face we get a very different impression of a man than we did from More’s portrait. Cromwell is turned farther to the left than More was turned to the right, and, thus, gazes out of the picture to a greater degree than More did, so we see less of his eye area. But that is not the only difference. Whereas More seemed outwardly directed, Cromwell seems more closed, more indrawn, less ready to engage the outside world. His mouth and chin seem clamped closed and slightly truculent. His up drawn eyebrows and forehead crease suggest not so much concentration as a reflection of a skeptical attitude to the world. The overall impression is of a cold, grim, determined and somewhat pitiless man, not surprising, perhaps, for someone who had orchestrated the destruction of, not only several individuals, but of the religious culture of an entire nation to satisfy the vanity and fears of a single individual. (3)*

It was during the period in which Holbein would have worked on this portrait of Cromwell that More suffered his fall from the King’s “good grace”, his imprisonment for refusing to accept the Supremacy, his trial for treason and his eventual execution by decapitation. He died on July 6, 1535. In 1886 he was beatified and in 1935 he was canonized. He is the patron of statesmen and politicians. His feast day, which he shares with Bishop John Fisher, another victim of Henry and Cromwell, is June 22nd.*

Within five years of More’s execution Cromwell too would “fall from grace” over Henry's dissatisfaction with the Cromwell-arranged marriage to Anne of Cleves and Cromwell's increasing inclination toward more extreme Protestant reform.  Cromwell would pay with his life. He was beheaded on July 28, 1540.

* Update 2021:
For a discussion of the portrait bust of Saint John Fisher, which is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, see The Tale of the Third Portrait

© M. Duffy, 2011 with updates 2017 and 2021

1. The Art Project is a collaboration between Google and 17 major art museums, 12 European and five American, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum, Museum of Modern Art and the Frick Collection. (The other American participants are Washington DC’s National Gallery of Art and the Freer Gallery.) Its purpose is to make high resolution, detailed pictures of selected works of art available for viewing online.

2. One of the high resolution images chosen by the Frick Collection for the Art Project is the Holbein portrait of St. Thomas More. You can see all the details I mention for yourself by referring to the picture at http://www.googleartproject.com/museums/frick/sir-thomas-more-10

3. Some additional reading on Cromwell’s character may be found in a book review (of a fictional account of Cromwell’s life, by another novelist who writes about the period) from the  Daily Mail at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1219158/Prince-Darkness-The-truth-Thomas-Cromwell.html

* Addendum:  Following the production and airing of the PBS adaptation of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall one is tempted to observe that it is More whom Mark Rylance resembles, rather than Cromwell. Indeed, if one were to look for a contemporary person who resembles Cromwell, Vladimir Putin comes to mind.

You might also be interested in this blog "Supremacy and Survival"