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Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of Henry VIII, 1540, oil on panel (Palazzo Barberini, Rome). Please note: there have been questions raised as to whether this painting is by Holbein or his workshop, or perhaps a later copy; recent research suggests that it is an original Holbein.

Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.
Video transcript
(piano music) - [Voiceover] We're in Rome at the Piazza Barberini, and we're looking at one of the most famous portraits of Henry the VIII by Hans Holbein. - [Voiceover] King Henry the VIII, king of England, on the occasion of his marriage to Anne of Cleaves. - [Voiceover] A marriage that was purely political, and was his fourth. - [Voiceover] In a long series. - [Voiceover] (laughs) Yes, the portrait is a perfect expression of power. - [Voiceover] Of authority. - [Voiceover] Absolutely. It's a rectangular painting, slightly vertical, but it's almost square. - [Voiceover] He himself is almost square. -[Voiceover] His body is almost a perfect square, it's true. - [Voiceover] And he fills out the frame, - [Voiceover] Frame, yeah, yeah. the entire shape of the panel. - [Voiceover] Look at that horizontality of those shoulders, it's almost absurd. Of course part of it is his costume, but nevertheless, there's a sense of his absolute presence. - [Voiceover] His face is completely frontal, but his shoulders are slightly tilted back so he's a little bit off center and almost seems to be slightly moving forward toward us. - [Voiceover] So there's a little animation in the body, but the face is absolutely static, and he looks directly at us. - [Voiceover] He rules us. - [Voiceover] The date is written in gold letters, horizontally again, above the shoulders really emphasizing... - [Voiceover] His eyes. - [Voiceover] Yes, emphasizing his eyes, because as we read across those letters, we read directly into his eyes, so a really interesting way of focusing our attention. - [Voiceover] His clothing, beautiful details of the gold stitching, and embroidery, and the jewels, fur, but I almost read that circular necklace around his chest, and then the circular form completed above his head, almost like a halo. - [Voiceover] Oh interesting, two arcs that really do frame his face. - [Voiceover] You know, he has this almost sense of being divine in a way, - [Voiceover] It's interesting. or drawing on that tradition I think. - [Voiceover] The white of the feathers, of the hat, and then the gold, and the white of the pearls certainly support that. - [Voiceover] And the way this white fabric, this white cotton fabric, kind of puffs, or silk, it's just fabulous. - [Voiceover] It is. - [Voiceover] The surface is so animated. - [Voiceover] Just since we're talking about the geometry of the painting, and you had pointed out the arc of the hat, and the arc of the necklace, that arc is continued again by his arm and his belt. - [Voiceover] Right. - [Voiceover] So this is real riven in the sense it's set up across the surface of the painting just in a purely formal way. - [Voiceover] And a kind of balance between circular forms and the rectangular forms. - [Voiceover] Even his beard and his chin actually continue that as well, and to some extent his eyes, but I think you pointed to something else which is really interesting. The background is this simple deep aqua, against which the tones of the flesh are beautifully contrast, but the face itself is a broad plane just like the background, and it's so beautifully offset against the almost absurd complexity of his wealth, of his taste, and his authority represented in his garment. - [Voiceover] The man who tames his clothing in a way. He's in control of his kingship, clothing represents that authority. - [Voiceover] He's clutching with his right hand his gloves, but he's got his thumb hooked around the belt that actually holds his scabbard, and you can see the handle of his sword and its sheath just at the bottom right of the canvas, and so there's that threat that is never too far away. - [Voiceover] Yeah, you said canvas, but this would be on a panel, right? - [Voiceover] Oh it's panel, yes. - [Voiceover] So it would be oil and panel. - [Voiceover] Yeah, and actually you can tell it's a panel, because there's a kind of rigidity to the surface. - [Voiceover] And we know we're in the north here, we know we're coming from that northern tradition, because of just the way that he's painted all of those tiny details. - [Voiceover] Well, that fascination with the nearly microscopic, and you can see that in the brocade, absolutely, you can see that in those large jewels, in the silk that is pulled through, absolutely. - [Voiceover] What fun. (piano music)