Saturday, December 31, 2022

Art Eyewitness Review: Portraits of the Tudor Dynasty


Art Eyewitness Review:
 Portraits of the Tudor Dynasty

Reviewed by Ed Voves
Original photography by Anne Lloyd

The Tudor Dynasty has been holding court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art since early October 2022. The Tudors: Art and Majesty is a magnificent display of royal patronage of the arts during the Renaissance. The exhibition spans five reigns, 1485-1603, one of the most tumultuous eras of British history. 

When The Tudors: Art and Majesty closes at the Met on January 8, 2023, most of its treasures will be transported to the Cleveland Museum of Art and then to the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco. The concept of a traveling exhibition like this is worthy of Tudor court procedure. The Tudors were restless sovereigns, moving from one palace to another in a seasonal cycle of pleasure-seeking and political control.

Under Elizabeth I, the range of these journeys was extended to the country estates of the English nobility and the leaders of the Church of England. These visits or "progresses" by Her Majesty were more like military invasions. Elizabeth and hundreds of her court officials, ladies-in-waiting, guardsmen, grooms and servants would descend upon the selected country house in the expectation of being wined, dined, entertained - and obeyed.

Since every English aristocrat of standing might have the dubious honor of "hosting" Elizabeth and her court, it was imperative to be prepared. The first order of business was to commission a portrait of Queen Bess and keep it ready for prominent display when - and if - the occasion required.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Queen Elizabeth I (The Darnley Portrait), 1576

Very few country houses dating to the Tudor era exist today, many of them having been put to the torch during the English Civil War, 1642-51. But a large number of portraits of Elizabeth I have survived and an astounding number of these have been gathered together for display in The Tudors: Art and Majesty. 

Nicholas Hilliard, The Heneage Jewel, ca. 1595-1600

By my count there are a dozen portraits of Elizabeth I, in various media, on display in this remarkable exhibition. These form a mini-exhibit within the overarching Tudors: Art and Majesty, grouped for the most part in an imposing array in the final gallery. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Elizabethan portraits on view at The Tudors: Art and Majesty 

Portraits of the Tudor monarchs are a unifying thread throughout the exhibition. Several depict Elizabeth's formidable father, Henry VIII. Two of these are of outstanding merit, a small, but psychologically penetrating, oil study by Hans Holbein the Younger; the other is a full-length portrait by Holbein and his assistants.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Hans Holbein the Younger's Henry VIII of England, ca. 1537

Every member of the Tudor family has at lest one portrait on view in the exhibition with the exception of Lady Jane Grey, who was the great-niece of Henry VIII and nominated to the succession list by Henry and later by Henry's short-lived son, Edward VI. Lady Jane was indeed placed on the throne by palace intrigue - much to her reluctance - after Edward died in 1553. She only lasted nine days. A counter-coup ousted her in favor of Edward's Catholic sister, Mary. 

Lady Jane, the "Nine Days Queen" was beheaded before she could have her official portrait painted.

Portraits were hugely important to the Tudors as a sign of their legitimacy. Despite their vast power, the Tudors were never entirely secure on the throne of England. Henry VIII literally moved "heaven and earth" to get a male heir to succeed him. 

At the cost of severing England's ties to the Roman Catholic faith, Henry achieved his goal, as we can see in the portrait of his son and heir, the infant Edward VI by Hans Holbein the Younger. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Edward VI as a Child by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1538

This picture of chubby-cheeked health was an exercise in wishful-thinking. Edward was frail and sickly throughout his short life. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2022)
 Edward VI, attributed to Guillim Scrots, ca. 1547-50

Soon after he succeeded Henry VIII in 1547, Edward was painted again, this time by a Flemish artist named Guillim Scrots. Much less talented than Holbein, who had died in 1543, Scrots had the difficult task of making Edward appear to be much more healthy than he was. He therefore depicted the young monarch in profile, basking in the rays of the Sun - whose questioning expression rather undermines the ploy.

The Tudor monarchs, like most of the European dynasties of the time, commissioned portraits of their eligible princes and princesses for the "marriage market." Sending such portraits was the initial step in arranging marriages and military alliances. 

This brings us to one of the most fascinating paintings on view in The Tudors: Art and Majesty. Long thought to be a portrait of Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's ill-fated first wife, it has recently been established that the red-haired princess is Mary Tudor, sister to Henry VIII.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)  
Michael Sittow's portrait of Mary Tudor, ca. 1514

As befitted a Tudor princess, Henry's favorite sister was fondly known as Mary Rose. She was reputed to be the most beautiful princess in Europe, but her handsome looks proved to be less than a blessing. In 1514, Mary Rose was married to King Louis XII of France, an elderly widower in his fifties. Three months after the wedding, Louis suddenly died.  

Mary Rose was left in an intolerable position - an eighteen year-old widow, with no children and thus no standing in French court politics. Because of her youth and beauty, Mary Rose retained some value as a bargaining "chip" for Henry to use for another marriage-alliance. But she was a strong-willed Tudor and determined to take charge of her own life. Defying Henry's rage, Mary Rose married her secret lover, the Duke of Suffolk.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)  
Michael Sittow's portrait of Mary Tudor, and, at right, Mary's Book of Hours, created by the Master of Claude de France, ca. 1495-1500

In a nice touch, the Met's curators re-united Mary Rose's portrait with her prayer book, displayed side-by-side in the exhibition. This is very appropriate, as Mary Rose was very devout and opposed Henry's break with Rome. She died of natural causes in 1533, before being forced to take the oath of allegiance to Henry as Head of the Church of England. 

Mary Rose Tudor secured her personal freedom by marrying the man of her choice. Another Tudor queen achieved unparalleled political power by remaining unwed and independent. This was, of course, Elizabeth I, the "Virgin Queen."

Elizabeth's portraits reflect her decision to remain unmarried. Initially, while there were diplomatic moves to secure a suitable husband for her, Elizabeth's features remained fairly close-to-life on her early portraits. The Darnley Portrait, painted in 1575 by an unknown, probably Flemish, painter and The Hampden Portrait (1567), by the English-born George Gower, are notable examples of early, accurate likenesses of Elizabeth.

Ed Voves, Photo (2022) 
 Elizabeth I (The Hampden Portrait), attributed to George Gower, 1567

As Elizabeth's reign progressed, a cult of the "Virgin Queen" was instituted to  promote a unified, Protestant culture in England in opposition to the Papacy and Roman Catholicism. Traditionally, there had been great reverence in England for images of the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, but this now was supplanted by extreme manifestations of patriotic loyalty, verging on idolatry, for Elizabeth. Little room remained for Holbein's style of portrait painting - majestic to be sure, but also astutely revealing of the inner self of his subjects.

A sense of humanity began to drain away from the facial features of Elizabeth, especially following the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Over and over again, a strange, sharp-featured doll's face emerges from under a bejewelled red wig and extravagant lace collars. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Gallery view of The Tudors: Art and Majesty showing Queen Elizabeth I (The Ditchley Portrait), by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, ca.1592

The very fabric of Elizabeth's gowns was laden with symbolic representations. On the skirt of the Hardwick Portrait, dating to 1598-99, an astonishing array of embroidered land and sea creatures testifies to the expansion of English power under Elizabeth.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Detail of the Hardwick Portrait of Elizabeth I. Attributed to the Workshop of Nicholas Hilliard, ca.1598-99
Interestingly, a dragon is prominently displayed on the Hardwick Portrait skirt. Dragons were associated with India during the 1500's. 

Plans were under discussion for organizing an English merchant company to trade with India around the time this painting, attributed to Nicholas Hilliard, was created. The East India Company received its charter from Elizabeth I in 1600, the first step towards British rule of India during the 1800's. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 The Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I.
 Attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, ca. 1602

The process of transforming Elizabeth into an Icon of State culminated with the 1602 Rainbow Portrait. It is a surreal, unsettling work. The doll's face has been discarded for a human likeness, but not one that really resembled the elderly Elizabeth. This is not merely an idealized portrait but is, rather, the image of a "Fairie Queen" as the poet Edmund Spensor called Elizabeth. 

A coiled snake, supposedly representing wisdom, appears on one sleeve of this mythological Elizabeth who wields a rainbow in her right hand. A bizarre motif of eyes and ears is stitched on to Her Majesty's gown. Sovereign over land, sea and sky, able to see all and hear all, such is "Glorianna."

A year later, the Virgin Queen was dead. 

The last of the Tudors left no direct heir. The Scottish king, James Stuart, did have some Tudor blood in his veins. Equally important, James had a brilliant, handsome and charismatic son, Prince Henry Frederick. The English government swallowed their pride and invited James - and by extension young Prince Henry - to take the crown.

All signs pointed to future success. The legacy of the Tudor dynasty, a strong Protestant England, now loosely united to Scotland, seemed assured, provided Prince Henry succeeded James.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, by Robert Peake the Elder, 1603

The final work of art, on view in The Tudors: Art and Majesty, is a magnificent portrait of Prince Henry as he draws his sword to deliver the coup d'grace to a wounded stag. It was painted in 1603, soon after his father assumed power as King James I of England. 

The future promise, which seemed so certain with this fascinating portrait of a model Renaissance prince, never transpired. 

In 1612, Prince Henry fell ill from typhoid fever and died. His brother Charles, whose character was a dangerous mixture of obstinate stubbornness and irresolution, tried and failed to create a Renaissance Arcadia when he was crowned King of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1625. The English Civil War and the Puritan Revolt under Oliver Cromwell followed in due course, with the execution of Charles I in 1649 as the ultimate result.

When Prince Henry perished, the last vestiges of the Tudor dynasty died with him, leaving only a few, rare talismans of their glory to hang on museum walls. The fact that so little remains of the lost world of England during the 1500's, makes The Tudors: Art and Majesty a truly "once in a lifetime" museum experience.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Gallery view of The Tudors: Art and Majesty exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Like the monarchs of the fabled dynasty it celebrates, The Tudors: Art and Majesty will not be soon forgotten.

Text and photos: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                        Original photos: Copyright of Anne Lloyd, all rights reserved

Introductory Image: Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Detail of The Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Queen Elizabeth I (The Darnley Portrait), by an Unknown Netherlandish Painter, 1576. Oil on canvas: 44 1/2 x 31 in. (113 x 78.7 cm) National Portrait Gallery, London.
Nicholas Hilliard (British, 1547-1619) The Heneage Jewel, ca. 1595-1600. Enameled gold, table-cut diamonds, Burmese rubies, rock crystal, and a miniature on vellum: 2 3/4 x 2 in. (7 x 5.1 cm) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Anne Lloyd, photo (2022) Elizabethan portraits on view at The Tudors: Art and Majesty, Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Hans Holbein the Younger's Henry VIII of England, ca. 1537. Oil on panel, 11 × 7 7/8 in. (28 × 20 cm) Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid (191 [1934.39])

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Edward VI as a Child by Hans Holbein the Younger,  1538 Oil on panel: 22 3/8 × 17 5/16 in. (56.8 × 44 cm) National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (1937.1.64)

Ed Voves, Photo (2022) Edward VI, attributed to Guillim Scrots, ca. 1547-50.  Oil on panel: 22 13/16 × 26 3/4 in. (58 × 68 cm) Compton Verney  Art Gallery and Park, Warwickshire, U.K.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Mary Tudor, Later Queen of France and Duchess of Suffolk Michel Sittow (1468–1525/26) ca. 1514 Oil on panel, 11 5/16 × 8¼ in. (28.7 × 21 cm) Gemäldegalerie, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (GG 5612)

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Gallery view of The Tudors: Art and Majesty showing  Michael Sittow's portrait of Mary Tudor, and, at right, the Book of Hours of Mary of England, Queen of France, created by the Master of Claude de France, ca. 1495-1500, with additions: 1514. Tempora on vellum: 5 3/8 x  3 3/16 x  9/16 in. (13.7 x 9.7 x 1.5 cm).  Bibliotheque Municipale de Lyon.

Ed Voves, Photo (2022) Gallery view of of The Tudors: Art and Majesty, showing Elizabeth I (The Hampden Portrait). Attributed to George Gower, Oil on canvas: transferred from panel: 77 3/16 × 55 1/8 in. (196 × 140 cm) Private collection. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Gallery view of The Tudors: Art and Majesty showing Queen Elizabeth I (The Ditchley Portrait), by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, ca. 1592. Oil on canvas: 95 x 60 in. (241 x 152 cm) National Portrait Gallery, London. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Details of the Hardwick Portrait of Elizabeth I, ca.1598-99. Attributed to the Workshop of Nicholas Hilliard. Oil on canvas: 91 7/16 × 66 1/4 x 1 7/16 in. (232.3 × 168.3 x 3.7 cm) National Trust, Hardwick Hall, the Devonshire Collction.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) The Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I. Attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, ca. 1602. Oil on canvas: 50 3/8 × 40 in. (128 x 101.6 cm) Marquess of Salisbury, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, U.K.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, with Sir John Harington on the Hunting Field, by Robert Peake the Elder, 1603. Oil on canvas: 79 1/2 × 58 in. (201.9 x 147.3 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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