Hans Holbein’s Ingenuity

28 June 2019, 10:00 - 17:00

Room S1, Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DT

Please email the Project Administrator, Anna Seecharan, to register your interest for this event, at ats52@cam.ac.uk. The event will be free to attend and refreshments will be provided. 



Alexander Marr (University of Cambridge)



This colloquium, which explores Hans Holbein's ingenuity, is part of the five-year ERC-funded project Genius Before Romanticism: Ingenuity in Early Modern Art and Science, based at CRASSH.

Friday 28 June

10:00 – 10:30

Arrival and coffee

10:30 – 11:45

Susan Foister (The National Gallery)

'Holbein’s Deceit'

11:45 – 12:00


12:00 – 13:15

Alexander Marr (University of Cambridge)

'Holbein’s Wit'

13:15 – 13:45


13:45 – 15:00

Jeanne Nuechterlein (University of York)

'A/symmetries and Im/precision in Holbein’s Drawn Designs'

15:00 – 15:15


15:15 – 16:30

Olenka Horbatsch (The British Museum)

'Holbein’s Design Drawings'

16:30 – 17:00

Concluding remarks and directions for future research

Susan Foister (The National Gallery), 'Holbein’s Deceits'

This paper will explore the strategies Holbein uses in some of his painted portraits to create ambiguity and deception.  It will examine the use of particular motifs, for example the development of the misleading shadow, and the establishment of various kinds of distortion.  These strategies will be placed in the context of what can be known concerning the reception of certain works, in particular their physical situation, and what can be inferred concerning the contemporary intellectual frameworks in which Holbein’s work would have been conceived and understood.


Alexander Marr (University of Cambridge), 'Holbein’s Wit'

This paper will consider early modern ingenuity (ingenium) via visual-verbal puns in Holbein’s portraits. These will be set within the context of learned wit and serio ludere, particularly Erasmian wordplay and certain topoi of mimesis, affording an opportunity to reassess Holbein’s treatment of the relationship between skill and artistic identity.


Jeanne Nuechterlein (York University), 'A/symmetries and Im/precision in Holbein’s Drawn Designs'

At first glance, Holbein’s ornamental design drawings appear extremely precise, an impression reinforced by their frequent employment of (partial) symmetries in their structure, whether two-fold, four-fold or six-fold. At the same time, when closely studied, these hand-drawn images contain numerous minute deviations from precision. Rather than flaws, such imprecisions—expertly handled—create a liveliness of effect, without detracting from the effect of precision. Moreover, Holbein’s use of abstract organic forms enables significant deviations from perfect symmetry, again without destroying the general effect of symmetry. This talk will investigate the specific nature of Holbein’s extant designs in comparison with other ornamental designs of his era, particularly in prints, in an attempt to define the parameters of his inventive practice.


Olenka Horbatsch (The British Museum), 'Holbein’s Design Drawings'

Hans Holbein the Younger provided designs for goldsmiths and other specialists at the court of Henry VIII for prestigious metal work, armour, clocks, jewellery, and furniture. Approximately 200 of his drawings survive in the British Museum and the Kunstmuseum (Basel), and they offer a valuable record of Holbein’s activities at court. The drawings range from fluid sketches to meticulously detailed studies and some are only known through copies. My talk considers this range of styles and functions, and I investigate the role of design drawings in the context of metalwork production.