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A Tale of Two Tassels - Raphael and Holbein in The National Gallery, London

March 3, 2017

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A Tale of Two Tassels - Raphael and Holbein in The National Gallery, London


At the National Gallery, in London, you’ll find many great paintings by many great artists. Don't worry though... I’m only about to focus on two of them. Hans Holbein the Younger’s double portrait, “The Ambassadors” and “Portrait of Pope Julius II” by Raphael. These are – on the surface – very different paintings by very different artists. Yet there are uncanny similarities (between the paintings and the painters), as we shall see shortly, which make contrasting these two works an (extremely) interesting exercise for us, as observers.


Both paintings contain elaborately gilded, decorative, silken tassels. And it is these tassels which I’ll be focusing on. They’re about the same size and painted in the same medium, presumably (based on the final paintings) from roughly the same distance. 



It’s awesome we have these particular artists painting such similar subject matter. I say “particular artists” because they have so much in common once you get past the superficial differences. Apart from one being German and the other Italian; and one operating in the high Renaissance and the other nearly in the baroque… you would be hard-pressed to find two artists whose ‘artistic DNA’ have more in common then Holbein and Raphael.


Both artists are the sons of successful artists. Hans Holbein The Younger, as implied by his name, was the son of Hans Holbein the Elder. The Elder was one of the great masters of the German Gothic period. So we can say with confidence that from a young age Holbein would have inherited not only his father’s name but also his vocation. His father would have trained him since infancy to become an accomplished artist. Similarly Raphael is the son of a painter. His father, Giovanni Santi, was the court painter to the Duke of Urbino. He too would have trained his son from a very early age. The competitive edge that starting your training earlier gives artists is massive. 



Both Raphael and Holbein were apprenticed at a very young age (around 10), no doubt already having mastered the basics of draftsmanship that most of their fellow students would spend subsequent years struggling with. Both Holbein and Raphael shortly thereafter became accomplish masters in their own right (the equivalent of degree holders after grad school) while still in their teens. So in terms of raw talent, ability, background, and genetic and familial history… these two artists are almost perfectly matched in every way.


They also each go on to form large workshops, creating prints and paintings and taking portraiture and religious commissions from the most esteemed patrons. They each eventually travel (Raphael to Rome and Holbein to London) and are recognized immediately for their prodigious talents and given the highest jobs in their respective kingdoms (Raphael becomes the favorite of Popes and decorates the Vatican, and Holbein becomes the favorite of King Henry XIII and paints all the royal portraits in England). They even mirror one another as propagandists for the prevailing religion of their courts; Raphael for the Catholic Church by creating religious works on canvas, in fresco, on tapestries and in prints that were widely sold… and Holbein for Protestantism in his illustrations for Martin Luther’s bible and the works of Erasmus of Rotterdam. They are both respected internationally in their lifetimes.


They both change the paradigm about an artists’ place in the social structure… elevating themselves from craftsmen (akin to leather tanners or stone masons) to the penultimate creative geniuses of their eras. So they plainly had a lot in common. But there are differences as well…


One major difference between the two artists is the level of detail that each puts into a painting. Because Holbein is a descendent of German Gothic he puts a TON of detail into everything he draws or paints. That’s expected from the German Gothic style: detail for the sake of detail. German Gothic eschews the simple in favor of the complex, and so does Holbein’s painting. 


Raphael meanwhile, is every bit as consummate an artist and draftsman, albeit in a different way. Unlike the love for ornate complexity which father passed down to son in Holbein’s work, Raphael has grown to artistic maturity surrounded by the harmonious compositions of the masters of the Italian Renaissance. Raphael himself is widely considered to be at the very epicenter of the High Renaissance; along with Da Vinci and Michelangelo. His style favors beauty and the idealization of forms; rather than the oftentimes harshness of reality. 


Fortunately, in his portrait of Pope Julius II, Raphael has included a tassel of about the same size (and made of the same materials) as the tassel in Hans Holbein’s double portrait. Comparing the approach each of these great artists took in rendering their tassels speaks  to how each looked at the world, and approached their own art, as artists.


Let’s start with the obvious. Holbein’s painting, The Ambassadors, is a tour de force of hyperrealism where every inch is meant to impress. It is a double portrait packed with detail; but not the sort of detail that an artist sees while standing at his easel... more like the sort of detail that a camera ‘sees.’ 



Of all the descriptive bits in the painting, and there are so many it boggles the mind, the most astonishing to me is the tassels held in the hand of the figure on our left. Holbein’s tassel is unyieldingly precise in it’s rendering. Not only is each strand delineated, never de-focusing or losing it’s sharpness... but the micro-strands comprising each strand, are accurately painted. You just have to stop and say, “Holy shit!” to yourself, once you notice the level of attention. There is detail even in the detail. This is not how an artist typically sees; this is how a camera sees. Hyper focus. 


Each and every thread is meticulously rendered in a way that almost no other artist would approach it.

Although The Ambassadors is considered a ‘double portrait’ it blatantly incorporates virtuoso still-life painting; details like the globe and the open book are every bit as technically accomplished as the best still-life paintings of their era. Even still, the tassel stands out as a tour de force of absolute perfection. 



Several galleries over, and around the corner, the museum keeps the portrait of Pope Julius II, by Raphael. Raphael’s painting is also a tour de force, but strictly of portraiture. It’s a very important painting. It’s been admired for centuries and has been the touchstone for major works by important painters like Velasquez and Francis Bacon. So it’s well known, and in looking at it, we can see why Raphael is so acknowledged in the history of Western art. His supreme competence as a draftsman and colorist are unquestionable.



Raphael loved to draw and he drew by hand, then transferred his drawings to other surfaces, and painted what he’d already drawn. Therefore the objects in his paintings – I suspect – look a lot like they would if you or I were to look at them; because he paints and draws the way people see. His tassel does contain details, but they’re the kind of details he could observe sitting (probably standing, actually) several feet away from his subject. It is a believable amount; enough so we can easily recognize it as a tassel. But compare a close-up of his tassel, to a close-up of the tassel in the Holbein, and suddenly Raphael’s looks as if it was hastily scribbled! It wasn’t… but the contrast between the two is startling.


Raphael has purposely depicted the scene as he sees it: psychologically and literally his painted focus is the Pope, so that’s the most focused part of his painting. Secondary objects (like the tassels) are painted the way he sees them from a few feet away. The result is very natural. 


Holbein, also situated with his easel several feet from his subjects, paints everything as if he’s poring over it with a magnifying glass; holding it an inch from his face. Every stitch is painted with photographic precision. It’s no wonder they theorize about him using optics… but that’s a whole different topic, for a whole different blog post…


Anyway. I hope you enjoyed this comparison as much as I did! Thanks for reading. 



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