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100 Best Paintings in London

Text by Geoffrey Smith


Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions


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Hans Holbein the Younger: The Ambassadors (Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve) - 1533

London, National Gallery

This large picture, painted on oak, depicts two life-size figures. Standing to the left is Jean de Dinteville, French ambassador to England; on the right is his friend Georges de Selve, Bishop of Lavaur who acted at various times as ambassador to a variety of European states. Holbein was probably commissioned to produce this wonderful piece to commemorate de Selve’s visit to London in 1533, the date which also accompanies the artist’s signature on the lower left.

Dinteville’s right hand holds the sheath of his dagger which is inscribed with his age, 29, whilst the bishop rests his elbow on a book which reveals his age to be 25 by dint of a further inscription. From a twenty-first-century standpoint these two men have achieved considerable status at a surprisingly young age but one of the ‘messages’ implicit within the iconography of this composition is that life is short (as it so often was in the sixteenth century), that mortality could strike at any moment and that we should look to the church for hope of eternal life.

The mass of objects arrayed between the two friends point to the wide range of their interests. A celestial globe, other astronomical instruments, and a portable sundial are arranged on a Turkish carpet on the top shelf of the piece of furniture upon which they both lean. On the bottom shelf, there is a terrestrial globe, a lute with a broken string (a symbol of fragility), some flutes and two books. One of these is a treatise on Arithmetic and the other is a hymnal lying open and showing a composition by Martin Luther. Just visible at the extreme top left is a crucifix. Holbein is able to exhibit his unsurpassed skill in the flawless depiction of all these objects as well as the different textures of the sumptuous green wall-hanging in the background and the furs and silks clothing the two ambassadors. But, not satisfied with such tests of his powers, Holbein has created a very curious object for us to wonder at in the foreground. At first sight this seems to be some form of very large baguette which might have accidentally fallen to the ground. However, it soon becomes apparent that this is not a product of a French bakery but some form of painterly exposition. In fact it is a bizarrely elongated skull which when viewed from a point very close to the right hand edge of the picture (near de Selve’s elbow) reveals itself in its correct proportions.

The presence of the skull is in the tradition of the Vanitas still life, much in favour at this time. Objects, such as hourglasses and butterflies, were selected to remind the viewer of the transience of life. But perhaps the distortion of the skull also serves to show the viewer that the reality of the picture is no more than an illusion and that the meanings inherent in it are just as important as the glossy depiction of the corporeal world.

Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London

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Contemporary Works

1530 Lucas Cranach the ElderThe Judgement of Paris, Karlsruhe, Staatliche Kunsthalle

c1532 Correggio: Ganymede, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

c1535 Parmigianino: Madonna with the Long Neck, Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi

Further Paintings of Interest

Nelly O’Brien

Joshua Reynolds

The Arnolfini Portrait

Jan van Eyck

The Mérode Altarpiece

Robert Campin