Tudor & Elizabethan Painting

Some of the most famous Elizabethan works of art are miniature paintings. Miniatures came from the tradition of illuminated manuscripts and from Renaissance portrait medals, a revived classical form. It is said that the foreign artist Hans Holbein, instructed Nicholas Hilliard, the British miniature painter, in the technique. Almost a dozen miniatures by Holbein survive. Similarly, Holbein popularized the full-length portrait.

Hans Holbein (born Augsburg, 1497/8, died London 1543) was the son of the painter and goldsmith Hans Holbein the elder. Holbein the younger traveled in 1514 to Basel as a journeyman and worked for Johannes Froben, the printer of Sir Thomas More's "Utopia" (1518). He also designed the title page for Luther's German translation of the Bible (1522) and 51 woodcuts for his series "The Dance of Death," published in Lyon. His major religious paintings date from the 1520s, early in the Reformation.

Erasmus introduced Holbein to Thomas More. Holbein painted More and his family in a group portrait 1526-27, destroyed in 1752, and known today in the form of copies. After he settled permanently in England in 1532 Thomas Cromwell helped Holbein gain royal patronage.

At Whitehall Holbein depicted Henry VIII with his parents and his third wife Jane Seymour. Henry VIII also asked Holbein to paint a portrait of Anne of Cleves (1539/40).

The Ambassadors" of 1533 is a full-length double portrait by Holbein of the French Ambassador Jean de Dinteville and the Bishop Georges de Selve. An anamorphic skull between the two figures functions as a "memento mori" (Latin, reminder of death).

Shakespeare alludes to a painting of this kind in "Richard II" (II.ii.18-20) when Bushy refers to "perspectives, which rightly gazed upon, Show nothing but confusion- eyed awry,/ Distinguish form."

Many of the famous portraits of Elizabeth were painted by Nicholas Hilliard. Hilliard (c. 1547-1619) the son of an Exeter goldsmith, was appointed Court Miniaturist and Goldsmith c. 1570. While he traveled in France c. 1577-78, he acknowledged Holbein in the pamphlet "The Arte of Limining," stating, "Holbein's manner of limining I have ever imitated, and hold it for the best." He also advocated copying the engravings of the German artist Albrecht Dürer and recorded a conversation when the Queen sat for him, stating she preferred to be seated in the "open alley of a goodly garden." Hilliard noted, "for the lyne without shadows showeth all to good judment, but the shadowe without lyne showeth nothing." In contrast, Italian artists favored shading or chiaroscuro.

Hilliard produced miniatures painted on vellum or ivory or card. The miniatures often functioned like lockets or cameos. Many of the larger court portraits of Elizabeth were based upon Hilliard's miniatures and portraits.