Erasmus (1466/9 - 1536) was one of the most famous writers of his day and one of the most admired humanist scholars. In this portrait the artist has tried to surround the sitter with items which reflect his interests and profession. This idea was developed further in Holbein's 'The Ambassadors'. A Latin couplet on the book on the back shelf, perhaps by Erasmus himself, praises Holbein's skill: 'I am Johannes (i.e. Hans) Holbein, whom it is easier to denigrate than to emulate.'
This painting is not available for reproduction
David Starkey: I brought you here because arguably this is the most important portrait in England. It’s where portraiture actually begins. This is a portrait by the great German painter, Hans Holbein, of the great Dutch classicist scholar, Erasmus. And he is the man here who connects England to the ancient world. At the beginning of the 16th century we nowadays tend to draw our inspiration from our ideas of the future; then they drew them from the past. He connected England to the world of Greece and Rome and he found this extraordinary young man, this painter who can do two things. The first is, he can produce this amazingly realistic rendering. Look at that and you’ve got the sense – if you look very finely up there, you can see Latin inscription up there on the shelf, which is ‘it is easier to mock than to imitate’. This is perfect. There’s never been a more realistic painting... it’s better than photography.
Down here, there is another inscription. It is ‘the labours of Hercules’. This is Erasmus’ translation into Latin, a new translation of the new testament of the bible, and what Erasmus is doing here is presenting himself to us through the eyes of a great painter, and he’s doing it in a new kind of way.
Realism is new. We think realism is boring. It’s photographic. Nobody had ever been represented like this before. But at the same time, he’s using words to tell us about himself, about his ideas, about his work, about his actual very soul. And what we’ve forgotten... we’re used now to painting very simply as a kind of – how can I say without being too rude – as a railway siding medium. As something that’s been shunted off outside the main culture. Then it was central. It was as central as television, it was as central as computing, it was as central as apps, everything that we’re familiar with. In order words, you didn’t just get images by themselves, you got them with words. This is the power of the 16th century – it’s painting image with words. And this is where it’s invented. This is I would argue – it’s even more extraordinary – it’s not just inventing the portrait, the realistic portrait, it’s inventing the very idea of personality itself.
Miranda Hinkley: Well, what better perhaps display of personality than van Dyck’s portrait of Charles I on horseback?
David Starkey: It’s not, it’s rubbish. Charles, as we’ll see when we go and look at it, is all bluster. He is bandy-legged, he couldn’t walk until he was 8, he couldn’t talk until he was 6, and he is represented as a great knight, a hero on horseback. This is Tony Blair, it’s Gordon Brown, it’s Alistair Campbell, it’s pure, pure spin. It’s a great painting – as a representation of an individual, rubbish. When we left the Holbein, I was a little bit abusive of van Dyck. Now clearly it’s unfair. You look at this picture – the image of the horse, the image of this wonderful, romantic English landscape. It anticipates Constable. It’s painterly, it’s beautiful. As a portrait of Charles... well... Charles is a little man. If you want to get a sense of the contrast of Charles with say, Henry VIII, go to the Tower of London and look at their suits of armour. You see pictures can lie. Suits of armour can’t. Because a suit of armour is like a suit. It’s made to measure. And Charles is this little bandy legged man. And here he is put romantically on horseback. Charles had never jousted; he’s shown in jousting armour. He was a hopeless military commander; he’d only got to look at a battle to lose it. And yet here he’s presented as a knight, as a St George, as a romantic hero and it’s false, false, false. And this is I think the thing we’ve got to understand with van Dyck. Van Dyck is brilliant at covering up people’s deficiencies. Holbein is brilliant at revealing their qualities. And there are two fundamentally different traditions of portraiture in England.
One descends with Holbein and it finishes up with Lucien Freud. Another descends from Van Dyck and its best it’s Singer Sergeant; at its worst, it’s a László. It’s painting as decorative, and the individual is buried, is inundated with – look round the room – silk, satin, velvet, columns, thrones, crowns, images, everything that conveys status, not personality.
From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Forty Eight, October 2010