Cleves, c1539 by Hans Holbein the Younger
watercolor on parchment mounted on canvas, 65 x 48 cm
Le Louvre, Paris
It is ironic that the wife Henry divorced because of her ugliness appears to us - almost five hundred years later - to be among the more attractive of his wives. But the changing ideals of female beauty cannot be predicted, and when she arrived in England in late December 1539, poor Anne of Cleves was dismissed by her future husband as a 'fat Flanders mare'. The night after their wedding, Henry publicly complained to his councilors that he was too physically repulsed by his bride to consummate the marriage.
Holbein was sent to Duren with orders to paint Anne, one of two daughters of the duke of Cleves. The year before he had gone to Brussels to paint Christina of Denmark; that portrait was beautiful and evocative, and much impressed the English court and its king. But Holbein's muse seemed to disappear in Duren. The portrait of Anne is pedestrian, rather bland; the artist is far more interested in her wedding gown and its elaborate embroidery than in her features or expression. There is no personality behind Anne's downcast eyes, quite unlike Christina's direct gaze which is both wry and engaging.
Holbein was clearly capable of much better work, and so the question must be - why did he produce such a lifeless portrait? Clearly, he was a court painter but he was also a diplomat. He had very little time to produce the portrait and had to show his prepatory sketches and the finished work to the duke of Cleves and his courtiers. If he felt a lifelike portrait of Anne would be unflattering, he would have felt pressure to change it - hence, the anonymous portrait he did produce. But he was also forced to consider his role as court painter to Henry VIII. Holbein knew that a misleading or false portrait would anger the English king. Forced into a diplomatic corner, the artist tactfully chose to create an unassuming portrait of a woman neither beautiful nor ugly, respectfully attired and with a modest gaze. He hoped to offend no one - but, of course, Henry VIII felt terribly deceived and Holbein would receive no more important commissions from the king.
In technical terms, the portrait is a testament to Holbein's genius with color and detail. The artist lavished great attention upon her elaborate dress. Its striking decorative mix of warm reds and golds is set against a solid dark green background which overwhelms the pale features of the sitter. Anne is essentially absorbed into the painting, unable to meet our gaze and engage us in contemplation. We can only wonder at her thoughts - and ponder Holbein's need to sacrifice art to diplomacy.