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Painting: Miss Hervey in the footsteps of Holbein's "Ambassadors"

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"The Ambassadors" (1533), by Hans Holbein. The National Gallery, London / AKG

Published in 1997 by Derek Wilson in English, Hans Holbein's last major biography was subtitled "Portrait of an Unknown Man". It was not saying a lot. Yet we owe it to Holbein, besides a Dead Christ (preserved at the Kunstmuseum in Basel), which almost drove Dostoevsky mad, some portraits of Erasmus, who was his friend, and of King Henry VIII, of which he was the official painter, at the end of his life .

But when was it, by the way? Already, his date of birth is uncertain: Hans the Younger would be born in Augsburg, Germany, in 1497 or 1498. He grinds himself in Basel where he arrived in 1515, then, the city passing the Reform, which drives his clientele to England where Erasmus recommends him to his friend Thomas More. For a long time we have been so indecisive about the date of his death: following Karel Van Mander, his first biographer who was writing at the beginning of the XVIIe century (1604), we kept the year 1554, until, in February 1861, in the archives of St. Paul, the writer William Henry Black found his will . The exact day of his death, however, remains unknown. We just know that his last wishes were carried out by the goldsmith Hans of Antwerp on November 29, 1543.

Miss Hervey records public and private libraries. She follows the picture, from her making in London in 1533 until her return to the 19th century.e century

Just as enigmatic as its author, the large painting titled The ambassadors is kept at the National Gallery in London. Two men standing, on both sides of a shelf loaded with objects, and surmounting a strange shape floating above a tiling inspired by the one of lâ € Westminster Abbey, which psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan described as a "phallic ghost". But he was 76 at the time of the publication of this text, this being able to explain it … It is in fact of a cranium disfigured according to the procedures of the anamorphosis. To reconstitute it, you can either insert between the eye and the painting, according to a precise angle, a glass tube where the image is reformed, or move to the right side. of the painting where the perspective allows to see the image of the cranium. However, in this case, we no longer perceive the characters, which is not trivial: death and life close, without contemplating together.

A model of investigation of the history of art

When the painting entered the collections of the National Gallery in London in 1890, we knew the author, Hans Holbein the Younger, but not the subject. The identity of the characters in particular remained vague. Names were spoken of, of the nobility of the Tudor times, but a bit haphazard. And if it's something the English love to solve, that's the riddle.


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