Painting Review – The Ambassadors

Following on from my previous post on the Visit a Gallery course task, this painting was one I went to see, room 4.

‘The Ambassadors’ by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533.

Hans Holbein the Younger, 1497/8 - 1543 Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve ('The Ambassadors') 1533 Oil on oak, 207 x 209.5 cm Bought, 1890 NG1314 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG1314
Hans Holbein the Younger, 1497/8 – 1543
Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (‘The Ambassadors’)
1533
Oil on oak, 207 x 209.5 cm
Bought, 1890
NG1314
http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG1314

I had to come back to this one because on the first pass through this room there was a big group of kids having a story time next to it and lots of mums with prams. It seems like its a busy painting though because even after they’d gone it was still constantly viewed by many people. I think its the skull curiosity or perhaps its also on a must see list somewhere?

The first thing I noticed is that its very large! Much larger than I’d imagined from seeing it on the internet. I think the list of dimension don’t really convey scale well (at least in my mind).
Things I noticed about standing in front of the painting – just a list of bullet points for now, first impressions before reading the caption:

  • The painting is a portrait of two men in front of a green drop curtain with a shelve between them filled with various objects. At the bottom of the painting there is a perspective warped skull.
  • The first thing I noticed about this painting was the man on the left’s face and bright pink vest.
  • Pink vest is wearing a Henry the 8th type get-up, very fancy, and probably fashionable at the time. You can see the gold bits and the fur on it. Also he’s wearing a big gold chain. He wants everyone to know he’s rich. The other guy is dressed very plainly in a floor length robe type coat and has a different shaped hat, his white collar looks religious?
  • The floor is interesting geometric patterns
  • I suspect all their ‘stuff’ on and under the table is to make them look like wealthy, well travelled and learned men of science. There’s lots of astronomy looking gadgets, musical instruments (on and under the table, there’s a second lute carelessly strewn under there), sheet music, a fancy looking rug or table cloth, a globe, books and various other odd things with sundials on them.
  • One of the strings has gone on the main lute.
  • There’s a Christ in the top left hand corner peeking out from the green back drop.
  • Brown robed guy looks nervous and uncomfortable, he seems to be gripping his coat.
  • The other guy (pink vest) looks at ease, puffed up with pride even, maybe its because he had two weapons on him and brown coat has none?
  • The surface of the painting is very smooth
  • The painting style is very realistic with amazing details, especially on the objects.
  • The skull seems to be only properly visible at a tall angle on the right. I’m not that short (5” 7) and I had to hold my phone higher than my eyes to see it with proper perspective (and take a picture – see below). I thought people back then were shorter? Perhaps this was hung closer to the floor originally?
National Gallery Caption for Hans Holbein the Younger, Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve ('The Ambassadors') 1533
National Gallery Caption for Hans Holbein the Younger, Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (‘The Ambassadors’) 1533

After reading the caption, I was pleased to be right about a few things. The timeline from the clothes fits Henry VIII and the second man is a Bishop. If this was a time of political discord between King and Church as the caption suggested, that might explain the Bishop looking uncormfortable. I must admit I didn’t notice the inscription on the dagger or the book which reveals their ages. The online description has slightly different information. For example, it also lists a bit more about the Bishop, that he acted on several occasions as ambassador to the Emperor, the Venetian Republic and the Holy See. It lists out some of the items on the shelf:

“The objects on the upper shelf include a celestial globe, a portable sundial and various other instruments used for understanding the heavens and measuring time. Among the objects on the lower shelf is a lute, a case of flutes, a hymn book, a book of arithmetic and a terrestrial globe.” (National Gallery, 2016e)

Also that the “Lutheran hymn book may be a plea for Christian harmony”.  I didn’t even realise it was a hymn book, the mathematics book was the only obvious one to me personally.

National Gallery Room 4
National Gallery Room 4
Skull detail from the side of Hans Holbein the Younger, Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve ('The Ambassadors') 1533, National Gallery
Skull detail from the side of Hans Holbein the Younger, Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (‘The Ambassadors’) 1533, National Gallery

The main photo I took was a pretty bad photo. I had to take a photo of it from one side because there were lots of people on the bench in front of it and I had to be behind that to get it all in. So I’ve used the downloaded version from the National Gallery website.

I bought a postcard from the gift shop and went back and compared the reproduction. The colours in the postcard have less yellow in the greens and his pink vest has a noticeably less luminous quality. Also, when looking at the right hand mans brown coat it looks a lot darker than the original. I took a photo of one in front of the other for my later reference. The downloaded reproduction (top picture above) seems the same as the postcard (probably what it was printed from).

Postcard comparison of Hans Holbein the Younger, Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve ('The Ambassadors') 1533, National Gallery
Postcard comparison of Hans Holbein the Younger, Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (‘The Ambassadors’) 1533, National Gallery

References (retrospective list):

Canal Educatif à la Demande (CED). (2013) ArtSleuth 6: HOLBEIN – The Ambassadors (final version) – National Gallery London [user-generated content online] Creat. http://www.canal-educatif.com 5 Oct 2013 At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8MR-sKVRPdg
(Accessed on 5 February 16)

National Gallery. (2016e) ‘The Ambassadors’,1533, Hans Holbein the Younger At: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/hans-holbein-the-younger-the-ambassadors
(Accessed on 4 February 16)

National Gallery Podcast. (2009) Excerpt from Episode 33 – Professor Philip Steadman and Louise Govier discuss ‘The Ambassadors’ {audio podcast, online} July 2009 At: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/hans-holbein-the-younger-the-ambassadors
(Accessed on 5 February 16)

National Gallery YouTube. (2010a) Excerpt from ‘Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian’ – Symbolism in Holbein’s ‘Ambassadors’ [user-generated content online] Creat. National Gallery, London 13 July 2010 At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ReF2O8rzpb4
(Accessed on 5 February 16)

National Gallery YouTube. (2010b) Excerpt from Making & Meaning: Holbein’s Ambassadors – Holbein’s skull – Part one [user-generated content online] Creat. National Gallery, London 13 July 2010 At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9KiVNIUMmCc
(Accessed on 5 February 16)

National Gallery YouTube. (2010c) Excerpt from Making & Meaning: Holbein’s Ambassadors – Holbein’s skull – Part two [user-generated content online] Creat. National Gallery, London 13 July 2010 At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mczs4muSUHc
(Accessed on 5 February 16)

Smarthistory. (2012) Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533 [user-generated content online] Creat. Khan Academy 2 April 2012 At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQZUIGzinZA
(Accessed on 5 February 16)

Stebbins, F. A.. (1962) ‘The Astronomical Instruments in Holbein’s “Ambassadors”‘ In Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 56, p.45 [online] At: http://articles.adsabs.harvard.edu//full/1962JRASC..56…45S/0000045.000.html
(Accessed on 7 February 16)

The Anne Boleyn Files. (2010) Holbein’s The Ambassadors: A Renaissance Puzzle? – Part One: Context At: http://www.theanneboleynfiles.com/holbeins-the-ambassadors-a-renaissance-puzzle-part-one-context/6516/
(Accessed on 7 February 16)

Wyld, M. ‘The Restoration History of Holbein’s “The Ambassadors”‘. National Gallery Technical Bulletin Vol 19, pp 4–25.
At: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/technical-bulletin/wyld1998
(Accessed on 7 February 16)

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