Holbein’s cheek surgery via paintbrush

Conservation of the 1533 portrait of Derich Born by Hans Holbein has found that Holbein started with a much fuller face before shaving Derich’s cheekbones to their current prominence.

Derich Born was a merchant from Cologne who in partnership with his brother sold military equipment to Henry VIII in the 1530s. At the age of 23 when the portrait was painted, he was the youngest member of the London Hanseatic League, living in the walled Hanseatic community of the London Steelyard. In 1541, the Born brothers got into a dispute with the Duke of Suffolk over payment due for a shipment of lead. To ensure the powerful duke did not target the Hanseatic association in revenge, Derich and his brother were expelled from the community.

Holbein made seven portraits of the most prominent Steelyard members. They are all depicted as wealthy, but not in an ostentatious way, without the flashy clothes and luxurious surroundings of his other subjects at the Tudor court. Sitting against a backdrop of fig vines, Born wears an embroidered silk chemise and a black satin doublet covered with a fur-lined robe. He wears one gold ring on his index finger. The garb is opulent but restrained as was the style among the wealthy merchants of Cologne at that time.

His elbow rests on a stone balustrade that is engraved with a Latin inscription that translates to: “If you added a voice, this would be Derich his very self. You would be in doubt whether the painter or his father made him. Der Born aged 23, the year 1533.” This was Holbein’s response to renown humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam’s eulogy of Albrecht Dürer as the greatest contemporary artist, greater even than the Greek master Apelles because Dürer was able to convey extraordinary naturalism without color. Holbein is proclaiming his own skill at conveying the life-like appearance and very character of his sitter. He doesn’t use a lot of colors either.

Holbein certainly worked for the high praise he gives himself. Conservation after the portrait was loaned to the Getty for its Holbein exhibition in 2021 looked under the surface, using X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy and infrared reflectography to reveal changes to the shoulders, head and cap, but it was the right contour of the face that he returned to repeatedly, redrawing it three times to give Born ever-more chiseled cheekbones and turn him from a chubby-cheeked youth into Daniel Day-Lewis.

The painting never did go home to Cologne with Bron. It was acquired by Charles I. The Earl of Arundel acquired it after the king, either by gift of the king or after the garage sale of the Royal Collection thrown by Oliver Cromwell after the king’s execution. It was acquired again by Charles II from the Arundel collection in 1666 and has been in the Royal Collection ever since. The newly-conserved portrait is now on display in the new exhibition Holbein at the Tudor Court, in Buckingham Palace. The exhibition runs through April 14, 2024,

3 thoughts on “Holbein’s cheek surgery via paintbrush

  1. Friends,

    Tarting up a painting to flatter a subject was not uncommon in Renaissance art, and probably still goes on today. Burgundian court painter Rogier van der Weyden was notorious for this. Compare his portrait of Anthony, Bastard of Burgundy, to a slightly later example by Hans Melming. The portraits are about five years apart, and people do age, but really that much? You can see both portraits on Wikipedia by searching “Bastard of Burgundy”.

    Mungo Napier, Laird of Mallard Lodge

  2. Place names like “Steelyard” or “Cannonstreet” might be coincidence, but at least some of the “military equipment” possibly come from southern Germany, as well as the funds. Emperor Charles V. pledged the entire ‘Little Venice’ –what would become “Venezuela”– from 1528 to 1546 to the Welser family.

  3. Just had a bit of a DEJA VU: Ages ago, when I was doing civil service in liver transplantation, I met a surgeon Born –whose first name was either Greg or Georg– in his end-twenties. Even if I remember a resemblance, I was unable to find traces of that guy, who by now should be considerably older.

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