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This lot has been imported from outside of the UK … Read more PROPERTY OF A GENTLEMAN

Portrait of Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), half-length

Portrait of Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), half-length
oil on limewood panel
7 1/8 x 5 1/2 in. (18 x 14 cm.)
with inscription and monogram 'IO ECHYVS. I.V.D. AD' (lower centre, 'AD' in ligature; visible under IRR)
Private collection, Holland, since at least the late 19th century, and by descent.
Special notice
This lot has been imported from outside of the UK for sale and placed under the Temporary Admission regime. Import VAT is payable at 5% on the hammer price. VAT at 20% will be added to the buyer’s premium but will not be shown separately on our invoice.
Sale room notice
We are grateful to Dr. Bodo Brinkmann for confirming the attribution following first-hand inspection of the painting.

Please note that the identifying inscription over the parapet (legible under IRR) which mis-identifies Erasmus, refers to Johann von Eck (d. 1524), who was an opponent of Luther at the Diet of Worms, and not Johann Maier von Eck (1486-1543), a catholic scholar and theological opponent of Erasmus, as stated in the catalogue entry.

Brought to you by

Clementine Sinclair
Clementine Sinclair Senior Director, Head of Department

Lot Essay

This hitherto unstudied panel is a significant addition to the sequence of portraits by Hans Holbein the Younger, the most incisive portraitist of the sixteenth century in northern Europe, of Desiderius Erasmus, the outstanding humanist of the age.
Erasmus’ earlier movements testify to his central place in the intellectual world of his time and his increasing fame as a writer and translator, while his later migrations point to the fallout from the religious divides caused by the Reformation. His long, but intermittent, association with Holbein must be seen in this light, as discussed in the scholarship - most recently by Dr. Peter van der Coelen (‘Erasmus, Man of Images’, Holbein, Capturing Character, exhibition catalogue, Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, 2021).
Erasmus was born most probably in Rotterdam in 1466, and educated at Deventer. In 1488, he became a regular canon of the Augustinian church at Stein. A growing reputation as a scholar made possible his move to the Collège de Montaigu at Paris in 1495. In 1499, he was invited to England by Lord Mountjoy and taught at Oxford, before returning to Paris in 1500 and to the Netherlands in the following year; from where he went back to Paris and on to Louvain. Erasmus stayed in Paris again before setting out for Italy in 1506, where he travelled widely. In 1510, he went back to England where he initiated the teaching of Greek at Queen’s College, Oxford. He left England in 1514 and travelled up the Rhine by way of Strasburg to Basel where he remained for two years. There, he met the printer Johann Froben with whom a long working partnership was to ensue. Erasmus’ The Praise of Folly (Moriae Encomium) was published in 1511, followed by the Education of a Prince (1516) and a remarkable sequence of other books and translations. Given his literary fame, many sought the humanist's services, but because the views he had expounded were not consistent with either traditional religious doctrine or the opinions of protestant reformers, Erasmus decided to return to Louvain in 1516. His four-year residence there was punctuated by two brief visits to London and one in the summer of 1518 to Basel, where he worked on editions of two earlier works. Later in 1521, as official endeavours to stamp out heresy became more clamant, Erasmus returned to Basel, which seemed like a refuge from religious conflict. When Basel adopted Protestantism in 1529 and iconoclasts were given free rein, Erasmus, who remained loyal to the Catholic church despite his opinions on contentious issues such as free will, moved to Freiburg where he was welcomed by the Catholic University, and remained there until 1536. Indeed, despite an invitation to Brabant, he chose to return to Basel - probably to attend to publishing matters - where he died on 11 July of the same year.
Holbein II was the son of Hans Holbein I (1460/5-1534), who established himself as the outstanding painter of Augsburg from the 1490s. The son emerged as a painter of prodigious precocity, albeit in the style of his father, in his portraits of Jacob Meyer zum Hasen and his wife of 1516. Meyer was the burgomaster of Basel; thus, Holbein may have encountered Erasmus there before the latter's departure for Louvain. Undoubtedly, the artist knew Erasmus’ writing, since he decorated a copy of the Moriae Encomium for the Bâlois schoolmaster Oswald Geisshüsler - Holbein also painted a signboard for him in that year. Perhaps because he was an outsider, Holbein did not become a Master of the Basel Painters’ Guild until 1519. He was also an associate of Froben, his now damaged portrait of whom at Hampton Court has been dated about 1523 (Rowlands, no. 14). Erasmus had previously been portrayed in Antwerp in 1517 and 1519 by Quentin Massys, of whom he complained in a letter of 3 June 1524 to the printer Willibald Pirckheimer. Although with some reluctance, he posed for three portraits executed by a ‘very elegant [but unnamed] artist’, evidently Holbein, and had two of these sent to England. Froben, into whose house in Basel Erasmus moved on 15 November 1521, was evidently the link between him and the painter. Of the two portraits destined to England, one is clearly the Louvre picture, which represents the scholar writing in near profile (no. 1345); presumably executed after the Basel painting on paper laid on panel (Kunstmuseum, no. 310) - and which seems to have been retained by the painter’s family. In this latter portrait, Holbein depicted Erasmus writing, and the inscription is identifiable as the first sentence in the Paraphrase on Mark, which the humanist finished late in 1523 and had printed by Froben in the following year. For posterity, the definitive portrait of 1523 must be the more ambitious panel dated that year, on loan from the Radnor collection to the National Gallery, London (fig. 1). This established the pattern of Holbein’s subsequent portraits of Erasmus, including the panel under discussion.
The Radnor picture may well be that which Erasmus sent to his old friend William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, which he assumed in a letter to him of 4 September 1524 would already have been delivered. Holbein left Basel to travel to London on or after 29 August 1526, bearing letters for Erasmus. His patrons in England included Warham and an even closer friend of Erasmus, Sir Thomas More, who clearly did his best to secure him patronage in court circles, if not as yet from King Henry VIII himself. Holbein returned to Basel by 29 August 1528, when his acquisition of a house there is documented. The prototype of Holbein’s next portrait of Erasmus is the brilliant small roundel at Basel (Kunstmuseum, no. 1662.324), which is usually dated about 1532 (fig. 2). This was clearly based on the Radnor portrait, although the eyes are marginally more open. Holbein no doubt saw Erasmus, who had visibly aged in the preceding years, between the time of his own return to Basel in the summer of 1528 and the scholar’s very public departure on 13 April 1529; and given the proximity of Basel to Freiburg, where both Holbein and his father had worked, it cannot be excluded that he met Erasmus there before his own departure for England by July 1532. Signs of increasing age are palpable: the tighter nose; the diagonal furrows above the upper lip and contractions in the cheek and jaw; the more deep-set eyes; and, not least, in the whiteness of the hair.
The type was followed, but somewhat enlarged, for a half-length format portrait, as seen here. The esteem in which Erasmus was held no doubt stimulated a demand for small portraits of him, which Holbein would evidently have found it financially convenient to supply: when he acquired an additional house in Basel on 28 March 1531 for seventy guilders, he contracted to pay in seven annual instalments, suggesting that his resources were strained; a shortage of work no doubt encouraged the artist’s decision to return to London in the following year. The best known example of this small, half-length type is the picture now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Lehman Collection (fig. 3), which must have been in England at an early date as it bears the Lumley cartellino. The Lehman picture is generally attributed to Holbein, but workshop participation has been suggested: the evidence of pouncing establishes that it was based on a cartoon. Erasmus’ proper right eye is perhaps slightly awkwardly set, and there is more than a hint of stubble.
Four other versions are recorded by John Rowlands (Holbein, The Paintings of Hans Holbein the Younger, London, 1985, pp. 135-6, under no. 34, (A)-(D)). It is with the best two of these (A and B, respectively Kunstmuseum, Basel and Rothschild Collection, Paris), which are distinctive by the inclusion of a parapet that masks the hands - that the present work directly corresponds. Stephan Kemperdick in fact considers the Basel portrait to be superior to the one in the Lehmann collection and ‘the finest of the known versions’ (S. Kemperdick, in the catalogue of the exhibition, Hans Holbein the Younger – the Basel Years, 2006, no. 149), and its close relationship with the panel here under discussion has been attested to by a direct physical comparison between the two works, conducted in Basel in July 2022 (by kind permission of Dr. Bodo Brinkmann; fig. 4). The limewood supports are virtually identical with each other and have been prepared in the same way with a narrow barb visible around all sides. Examination of infra-red reflectography images of the two works reveals further similarities in the preparation, with drawing lines demarking the edge of the chin, the mouth, the line of the nostrils and the eyelids of the subject in both cases (fig. 5). There is no evidence of pouncing as employed in the production of the Lehman portrait. An identifying inscription added over the parapet of this work is clearly legible under IRR (Infrared Reflectography) but has since been overpainted. As well as using the monogram of Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), the inscription curiously mis-identifies Erasmus, apparently referring instead to Johann Maier von Eck (or Eckius; 1486-1543), a catholic scholar and theological opponent of Erasmus. Traces of the original light green paint, as seen in the parapet of the Basel version, can still be made out.
The two pictures share striking affinities too in terms of their handling and precise execution. The treatments of the fur-lined coat and cap are virtually indistinguishable. In the face, we see slightly more detail in the Basel Erasmus, in which the wisps of white hair that protrude from the cap, the eyelashes and the stubble appear more sharply defined. However, this can partly be accounted for by the condition as the uppermost glazes are less perfectly preserved in the ‘new’ picture. This version and that at Basel otherwise seem to be pari passu in quality and, indeed in key passages arguably more subtle than the Lehman panel, in which Rowlands considered: ‘at least the painting of the head’ to be of autograph quality, as have some more recent scholars. There is thus a persuasive case for attributing both the Basel panel and that now offered at least in part to Holbein himself.

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