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

At the National Gallery in London, you’ll find both Hans Holbein the Younger’s double portrait, “The Ambassadors” as well as “Portrait of Pope Julius II” by Raphael. These are – on the surface – very different paintings by very different artists. Sure they both rely on a conspicuously green background but aside from that... you probably wouldn't call them similar. Yet there are uncanny, maybe even unlikely, similarities between not just the paintings but the painters themselves, which make contrasting them an interesting exercise.

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

It's a real treat that we have these particular artists painting such similar, albeit innocuous, subject matter; because they have so much in common once you get past superficial differences in temporality and technique. Apart from one being German (Northern) and the other Italian; and one operating in the high Renaissance and the other very 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. This transmits huge opportunity and advantages most artists cannot fathom. Hans Holbein The Younger, as evidenced by his name, was the son of Hans Holbein the Elder. The Elder was one of the masters of the German Gothic. From a young age Holbein would have inherited not only his father’s name but also, very likely, an aptitude and desire to follow his vocation. His father trained him (and his brother) from early childhood to be adept artists. Similarly Raphael was the son of a successful 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. In the same way today's young artists cannot compete with the sheer magnitude of studio-hours that the apprentice system provided young artists in centuries past, the handful of artists whose fathers were artists had a similar advantage.

Both Raphael and Holbein were apprenticed very young (around aged 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 accomplished, dues-paying Masters in their own right (the equivalent of graduate degree holders) while still in their teens. So in terms of raw ability, background, and genetic-artistic history… these two guys are almost perfectly matched in every way. Raphael and Holbein would provide "Rumble In The Jungle" level excitement if they went toe to toe.

They each, also, go on to form large workshops; creating prints and paintings and taking portraiture and religious commissions from only the most esteemed patrons. They each eventually travel (Raphael to Rome and Holbein to London) to be recognized for their prodigious talents, and are given the highest profile jobs in their respective kingdoms (Raphael is the darling of the Pope and decorates the Vatican, and then Holbein becomes the favorite of King Henry XIII and paints all the great royal Tudor portraits).

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 equally-widespread works of Erasmus of Rotterdam. They are both hugely respected, internationally, in their lifetimes.

They both change the paradigm about an artists’ place in the social structure… elevating themselves from craftsmen to the penultimate creative geniuses of their eras. So they plainly had things in common. But there are differences as well…

Perhaps the most major difference between the two artists is the level of detail that each puts into their work. Because Holbein is a descendent of the German Gothic style he delights in putting a TON of detail into everything he renders. That’s expected from the 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 Holbein's father passed down to young Hans, Raphael has grown to artistic maturity surrounded by the harmonious compositions of the masters of the Italian Renaissance. His style favors beauty and the idealization of forms; rather than the 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 centimeter is meant to impress. It is 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 also accurately painted. There is detail even in the detail. This is not how an artist typically sees; this is how a camera sees. Hyper focus. Everything sharp.

Each and every thread is meticulously rendered here in a way that almost no other artist would approach it. It's painful how precise this is.

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 in a different way. 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; his fluidity and ease with composition; and his strengths as a colorist are unquestionable and obvious.

Raphael loved to draw. He transferred his drawings to other surfaces, and painted over 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 actually look at them; because he paints and draws the way people actually see. His tassel does contain details, but they’re the kind of details he could reasonably observe while sitting (probably standing, actually) several feet away from his subject. It is a believable amount (see the detail below); enough so we can easily recognize it as a tassel; made of strands of red and gold silk. 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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