Alisa M. Carlson is a PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin, where she primarily studies the German Renaissance. Her dissertation examines the portrait drawings of Hans Holbein the Elder (ca. 1465-1524), an important Augsburg painter, draftsman, and designer. Here, she writes about a special work by Holbein featured in the Blanton’s current exhibition, ‘Imperial Augsburg.’
The Blanton’s current exhibition, Imperial Augsburg: Renaissance Prints and Drawings, 1475-1540, features a remarkable drawing by Hans Holbein the Elder (ca. 1465-1524), Portrait of a Woman. This work from the National Gallery of Art is one of only three drawings by Holbein in American collections (one of the others is on the back side of this sheet). The rest of his roughly 200 drawings are preserved in European museums, mostly in Berlin and Basel. Over 160 of Holbein’s drawings depict individuals from Augsburg and southern Germany. Presumably, he often carried a small sketchbook with him, so that he might take portraits and studies of anything that interested him. Only one of his sketchbooks remains bound, giving us some idea of the format with which Holbein worked.
The quantity of Holbein’s portrait drawings suggests that taking portraits of people he knew or met was a regular part of his artistic practice, if not a preoccupation. He drew portraits of some of the most wealthy and influential people of Augsburg, such as Jakob Fugger der Reiche (literally, “the Rich”). The affluent and powerful are subjects we would expect from an aspiring artist trying to make connections and advance his career. Not as predictable are Holbein’s portraits of less prominent people, including women and children. These subjects are underrepresented in Renaissance portraiture in general. Most of Holbein’s portraits are of men who are identified by name with inscriptions on the drawings or whose professions can be deduced from their clothing. Their roles in Augsburg society were varied and clear. Roles for women and children, however, were limited to the private, domestic sphere. Therefore, Holbein’s portraits are important resources for us to gain a broader understanding of southern German society.
The technique that made it possible for Holbein to record so many likenesses in his sketchbooks is silverpoint, a fine line drawing technique in which a silver rod or wire is dragged across a surface prepared with gesso or primer. For this technique, Holbein had to prepare each page of his books with a ground. To make the ground, lead white and animal bone were burned in fire until turning ashy and then pulverized by hand into a fine powder. This powder was combined with a mixture of animal skin glue and water and applied to each page with a brush in several thin coats. On some of Holbein’s drawings the brushstrokes of the ground are evident, and occasionally we can even see a stray hair from his brush embedded in the ground. Once dried, the resulting ground had a granular surface, which was essential for the silverpoint to create visible marks. The tool’s contact with the granular ground had a subtle abrading effect on the point, so that silver particles were left behind creating the marks. With time these silver particles also reacted chemically with the ground, oxidizing into the soft, dark-brownish grey marks so distinctive of the medium. Mastering silverpoint involves a considerable amount of practice and experimentation, for the only way to erase marks is to scrape off the ground.
Silverpoint and other metalpoints are unlike any other drawing medium. This unique method results in delicacy of handling and subtle styles of drawing. The delicacy of silverpoint also makes it useful for small scale drawings like Portrait of a Woman. This drawing is exemplary of Holbein’s refined technique. His meticulous use of the tool is evident in the fine, light lines and marks and faint, linear shading of the folds of her head cloth. Holbein later emphasized certain features by using a tiny brush and ink around the eyes and white highlighting on the nose and cheekbones.
This and Holbein’s other portraits of women inform us about expectations for women in Renaissance Augsburg. For instance, adult women in his drawings feature a head covering, known as a wimple, which all married women were required to wear by social custom and by law. It was considered improper for married women to show their hair in public, because hair was associated with attractiveness and sexual availability. The only adult women who displayed their hair in 16th-century Augsburg were prostitutes. While Holbein’s drawing celebrates the dignity this woman has earned by dutifully conforming to her prescribed role as a respectable wife, it also reminds us of the limited personal and professional options for women in Renaissance society.
Drop by the Blanton before January 5, 2014 to view Portrait of a Woman and experience in person Holbein’s refined silverpoint technique, delve into the complex layers of his subject, and discover the Renaissance humanism portrayed in this unique work that continues to captivate us through the ages.