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The Tudors

Renaissance England's art and majesty
Cory Korkow, Curator of European Paintings and Sculpture, 1500–1800
December 22, 2022
A portrait of Henry VIII

Henry VIII c. 1537. Workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger. Oil on panel; 239 x 134.5 cm. Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool, Purchased by the Walker Art Gallery in 1945, WAG 1350

England was a thriving home for the arts during the volatile Tudor dynasty. Fueled by political intrigue, inspired by romantic and spiritual fervor, art created for the Tudor court was among the most sophisticated in the world during the period. The Tudors leveraged fine art to legitimize, promote, and maintain their reigns after Henry VII’s precarious seizure of the throne in 1485, which established the Tudor monarchy, through Henry VIII’s six tumultuous marriages and bid for authority over the church and its coffers, during Edward VI’s brief boyhood reign and Mary I’s legacy of sectarian violence, and concluding with the death in 1603 of the self-styled Virgin Queen Elizabeth I, the most powerful woman England had ever known. Three generations of Tudor monarchs navigated religious schisms against a backdrop of constantly shifting political relationships with mainland Europe. France was in turn courted, cajoled, and repelled by England as the Tudors deployed symbol-laden works of art to impress the rival French king and communicate important political messages.  

Tudor monarchs understood the diplomatic and propagandistic value of art and wielded cultural capital on an unprecedented scale. They depended on a web of agents extending far beyond England and even Europe to orchestrate lavish tapestry series, commission portraits that played key roles in marriage negotiations, and import luxury goods. A vast network of celebrated and highly skilled foreign artists, including many religious refugees, were key to enabling the Tudors to compete on an international scale and rival the courts of Europe. Florentine sculptors, German painters, Flemish weavers, and French wood-carvers contributed to a truly cosmopolitan court. At the same time, the Tudors nurtured local talent, and it was during this period that a distinctly English style began to emerge. 

The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England builds on the rich holdings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and brings together more than 90 loans from illustrious institutions including the British Royal Collection, Rijksmuseum, Folger Shakespeare Library, Victoria and Albert Museum, National Museum of Denmark, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent. The exhibition captures the breathtaking scope of the finest artistic production of the age, from intricately wrought armor, rare furnishings, and glittering tapestries woven with gold to portraits of sumptuously attired courtiers and precious illuminated manuscripts. Join us for the first exhibition in the US to trace the transformation of the arts in Tudor England with a provocative selection of objects that bring the drama of the age to life. 

The painting: A Party in the Open Air: Allegory on Conjugal Love

A Party in the Open Air: Allegory on Conjugal Love c. 1590–95. Isaac Oliver (c. 1565–1617). Watercolor and body color with gold and silver on vellum laid on card; 11.3 x 17.4 cm. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, (KMS6938)