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Family Drama

Meet the taste-making kinds and queens of the powerful Tudor dynasty
Cory Korkow, Curator of European Paintings and Sculpture, 1500–1800
March 1, 2023
Two portraits of elaborately dressed men in hats, jewels, luxurious fabrics.

LEFT: Henry VIII (detail), c. 1509. Attributed to Meynnart Wewyck (probably Netherlandish, active England c. 1502–25). Oil on panel; 38.1 x 24.8 cm. Denver Art Museum, Gift of the Berger Collection Educational Trust, 2021.29. RIGHT: Henry VIII (detail), c. 1540. Workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger. (German, active England and Switzerland, 1497/98–1543). Oil on panel; 239 x 134.5 cm. National Museums Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery, Purchased by the Walker Art Gallery in 1945, WAG 1350

Vanity is timeless, but in Renaissance England, painted portraits had not yet achieved the status they would attain of luxury commissions ubiquitous among the wealthy. Instead, tapestry series with glittering gold threads and monumental scale impressed houseguests, and silver objects operated like currency in the courtly gift-giving network that bound service to reward. Portraits served a practical function, at once documentary and aspirational, so for kings and queens, they were de rigueur. For each Tudor monarch, much was at stake in the creation of an official image—a declaration of authority, legitimacy, taste, and, yes, appearance.

Henry VIII’s transformation from freshly minted to seasoned monarch is conveyed by two portraits. Painted around 1509 just after he acceded to the throne, the first portrait shows the young king’s elegance underscored by his delicate features and graceful gesture holding the Tudor rose. The portrait’s northern European style with its compressed space, fleur-de-lis arch, and one hand resting on a ledge harkens to the previous century and close artistic ties between England and the Netherlands. 

Three decades later, the king’s cult of manliness demanded a portrait featuring his exceptional stature (he was quite tall for the period, at six feet and two inches) and his military prowess. Hans Holbein the Younger was responsible for perhaps this most recognizable image of a Tudor monarch (see the cover). The now iconic portrait shows Henry VIII swathed in cloth of silver and gold, weighted down with gold chains and jewels, and firmly rooted in a palace interior replete with rich textiles. The image of colossal Henry with his arms akimbo endures in collective imagination partly due to the replication of such official images of the monarch. These included prints and coinage, as well as copies of paintings hung in the galleries of wealthy courtiers anxious to display their allegiance to the crown. 

LEFT: Edward VI as a Child 1538. Hans Holbein the Younger (German, active England and Switzerland, 1497/98–1543). Oil on panel; 56.8 x 44 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.64. RIGHT: Edward VI c. 1547–50. Attributed to Guillim Scrots (Flemish, active 1537–53). Oil on panel; 58 x 68 cm. Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park, Warwickshire, United Kingdom. Photo: Compton Verney, Warwickshire, United Kingdom. © Compton Verney / Bridgeman Images

The image of Edward VI, Henry VIII’s son and heir, as the future king was cultivated from babyhood. Edward was a sickly child born to Henry’s third and favorite wife, Jane Seymour. Holbein’s wishful portrait shows Edward as much like his father was as possible—the stout picture of health—and the Latin inscription at the base reinforces the continuity between father and son. A gift from the artist to Henry VIII, the painting was itself a luxury good incorporating powdered gold paint and silver leaf. A portrait painted some years later embraces a less derivative iconography, showing delicate Edward in profile (the style of ancient coins) with a flower nodding in deference toward the young king, who would die only a few years later at the age of 15. 

Mary I 1554. Antonis Mor (Netherlandish, c. 1516–1576). Oil on panel; 112 x 83 cm. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, P21e22

Edward was succeeded by sisters who had a challenging balance to strike. Promoting their father’s legacy was critical to conferring legitimacy on their reigns, but relations between the king and his daughters had often been strained. Henry VIII had divorced Mary’s mother, Katherine of Aragon, causing a break with the Catholic Church, and he had condemned Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, to execution. As the first woman to rule England in her own right, Mary had to write her own playbook for queenliness. Mary’s early portraits forestall concerns about supposed feminine weakness and emphasize her sobriety and constancy. A staunch Catholic, Mary has a legacy of punitive violence, and her Spanish husband, Philip II, didn’t help make her any more likeable to English courtiers. However, in referencing earlier portraits by Titian and Raphael—artists much admired by her Hapsburg in-laws—Mary’s portrait by Antonis Mor was calculated to appeal on the continent more than in England, and multiple versions still exist. When Mary died without an heir after reigning for five years, the throne passed to her half sister, the Protestant Elizabeth, who cultivated her own carefully controlled portraiture with an unprecedented zeal. 

LEFT: Elizabeth I (The Hampden Portrait) c. 1567. George Gower (English, c. 1540–1596). Oil on canvas, transferred from panel; 196 x 140 cm. Private collection. RIGHT: Elizabeth I (The Rainbow Portrait) (detail), c. 1602. Attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (Flemish, 1561–1635/36). Oil on canvas; 128 x 101.6 cm. Reproduced with permission of the Marquess of Salisbury, Hatfield House

By the time Elizabeth became queen, the Tudor monarchy had overcome the charges of illegitimacy that had plagued her grandfather Henry VII. The queen’s most iconic portraits celebrate her singularity. From Henry VIII’s cult of masculinity grew Elizabeth’s cult of virginity—the key to maintaining both her and the nation’s independence. In one of the earliest surviving portraits of Elizabeth as a princess, she holds a carnation between her fingertips—an allusion to her marriageability. Decades after she had rejected many suitors and refused to yoke England with another nation and its ambitions, The Rainbow Portrait presents the queen’s inviolable body resplendent with light. The disembodied eyes and ears that adorn her cloak evoke the culture of surveillance employed by Elizabeth to keep abreast of political and social intrigue. 

The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England presents luxurious tapestries and plate, intricate book illumination, and tour-de-force sculpture. These are brought to life by dozens of portraits in which Tudor monarchs tell you who they are. They are joined by portraits of the courtiers, servants, and visiting diplomats who carved out space for themselves in the orbit around these monarchs who were nothing without their subjects. Visit the exhibition in the Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation Exhibition Hall through May 14, 2023.