The men who painted a reticent yet forceful mind

Even when Met was packed like a sardine can, visitors at Frick Museum can still walk leisurely with enough space and time to ponder. A lot of rooms inside the Frick Mansion are still kept as what they were like when Henry Frick was alive. Knowing that all these extraordinary art works were amassed through one man’s pocket and placed inside the magnificent building brings to the amateur collectors both awes and sour reminder of the heights to which the combination of fortune and passion can rise.

Of all the portrait paintings, one impressed me the most: Portrait of Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein, the younger.

Holbein’s sitters always enjoy relative flat light which allows their feature revealed with extreme delicacy. If one has just passed works by Rembrandt, Holbein’s works would look tremendously accurate yet lack of dominant power. (How can one pass Rembrandt without stopping and holding his breadth?) But that is who Holbein, the younger was: the supreme portrait master without bravura, flourish or facile virtuosity. He only pleases eyes of those who seek nothing of exaggeration, who would not be beguiled by affectations and mannerisms.

In the portrait of Sir Thomas More, one can instantly sense the extremely subtlety and accuracy of the modeling of the head. But the more time he can spare at studying it, the more he can conceive. A close look at the clothes will reveal how masterful Holbein’s handling of detailed accents was. The color of the velvet does not differ too much from that of the fur collar; but the texture of each material is dazzling true that one could almost feel the as silky of the velvet as fuzzy soft of the fur. But if one stands five feet away, nothing can distract him from seeing the character. All the accessories, stressed and related perfectly with one another, merge with the whole drawing, thus making the figure at the first glance formidable.

An appeal to the human beings is just one of the essentials of a masterpiece of portraiture. If Holbein’s careful selection of essentials which add almost a narrative sense of nobility and eminence is too forceful for the first impression, then his understanding of the beauty of human countenance and personality portrayed the truth of the sitter. True, one may feel the need to bend down his knees in front of the portrait, but NOT because of More’s rank or statute, but of his paramount deep thinking.

Here is the amazingly incongruity that have been layered down through Holbein’s skill, intelligence and heart. On the one hand, More looks almost unapproachable. Holbein chose the three quarter view and let More stare ahead without any hint of communicating. Thus viewers can sense the seriousness of the moment without the chance to disturb the contemplation of the thinker. On the other hand, Holbein showed the humanity side of the sitter with almost cruel accuracy of physical aging. Holbein’s observation was full of homely, tender feeling. He didn’t hesitate in registering the wrinkles and wears in More’s face with such delicacy. More’s unshaved face indicates he was not aware or did not care about his immortality image, nor did the painter want to flatter his sitter. In fact it is this sincere peculiarity that captured the unique quality of the character who preaches the world of harmony, orders and disciplines. More is not immortal: he was tired, worn at the moment, but nevertheless kept focused and concerned. Holbein, understanding and penetrating the strong mind of the intellectual, painted with equal mind-forcefulness and imbued More with radiating humane glow.

At the moment when he was to be beheaded, More said “I die … the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” I stood there long enough and tried to decipher his mind in vain. More’s eyes possess such tremendous fortitude and determination that nothing could bend or stop. In this painting, Holbein reached his peak with austerity and reticence that have not been surpassed. To some extent, Holbein painted not only his personality, but his tragic fate.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 – 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that “his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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