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Attributed to Hans Brosamer (c. 1506-1554)

Portrait of a Woman c. 1522-27

Oil on canvas | 54.7 x 49.3 cm (support, canvas/panel/stretcher external) | RCIN 402866

King's Closet, Windsor Castle

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  • This portrait, and its pair, is signed ‘HB’ and for this reason they have been attributed to Hans Brosamer, who seems to have used ‘HB’ as his signature. Hans Brosamer was probably born in Fulda, in the dukedom of Hesse, and died in Erfurt in Thuringen. No documentary evidence for the artist survives. He produced paintings and many engravings and woodcuts as single works or book illustrations. A series of paintings dates from the 1520s with the characteristic HB monogram. Only one painted portrait, that of Chancellor Johannes von Othera of Fulda (1536, private collection, Switzerland) is signed with his full name. Other artists, such as Hans Baldung Grien, used HB as their signature, making assessment of Brosamer’s work problematic. The earliest of his series of printed jewellery designs in the Kunstbuchlein (‘little art book’) can be dated to 1536. Inscriptions on engravings dated 1542 and 1545 establish that he worked in Fulda. A woodcut, which can be dated to about 1546, is signed by Brosamer as from Erfurt and confirms his presence in that city. He may well have worked in other centres such as Nuremberg. He produced woodcut illustrations for various books by Martin Luther published by Hans Lufft - for example, Luther’s Bible, printed in Wittenberg (1550), and Catechism (1550), published by Weigand in Frankfurt am Main.

    Brosamer may have trained in Cranach’s workshop in Wittenberg c.1515-c.1520, and subsequently travelled to Nuremberg to paint portraits such as Hans Pirckel (1520, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). His Man in a Fur Hat of 1522 (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam), was clearly influenced by Cranach’s very similar one in the Kunsthalle, Bremen, 1514. Kühnel-Kunze has distinguished two periods in Brosamer’s early career: in the first, c.1520-22, when Brosamer was strongly influenced by Cranach and Wittenberg, the date and signature are almost always placed centrally above the sitter’s head; in the second period, c.1522-9, the date is moved to the side, as here. It is clear that the present portraits relate closely to the latter series; they show how the influence of Cranach’s expressive lines is still apparent in Brosamer’s work, but also how this trait is softened and made more sober, perhaps to accommodate the taste of the patrons. Another group of woodcut illustrations and paintings of religious and mythological subjects and portraits, many of Nuremberg sitters and predominantly women, is signed ‘HB’ with a griffin head and dated c.1528-c.1550, and is more in the style of Cranach than those without the griffin signature. This group could thus indicate that the Hans Brosamer changed his style again, or there may have been a Hans Brosamer the Elder and the Younger, or the later works could be by an entirely different artist.

    There is a strong relationship between the depiction of jewellery in all these paintings - for example, the rings on the fingers of the woman here – and the designs for jewellery and goldsmith work in the woodcuts. The woman’s hands are in almost exactly the same position as those in the portrait of Katharina Merian (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), which at one time had the date 1524 inscribed on the back of the panel. Katharina is modelled in the same way as the present portrait, with an emphatic line for the mouth and upper eyelids, and clearly defined eyes. The woman in the present portrait wears a linen coif or Steuchlein worn by married German women. Apart from the gold rings her most expensive clothing is her Goller or partlet. This short cape worn over her chemise seems to be made of a cut silk velvet or possibly a brocatelle, with an edging of blue silk velvet. Her blue apron (rather than white) suggests that she, though affluent, was not one of the most wealthy members of the civic elite.

    The portrait has a more subtle and less schematic effect than Brosamer’s other portraits of this date, partly because of the medium. The technique of pigment mixed in a glue or gum medium on a linen canvas sized with glue but with no true ground layer seems to be a unique survival in the body of work given to Brosamer. It is rare for paintings in this technique to survive at all, since the support is delicate and the paint layers are fragile. It is also unusual for paintings of this type to remain unvarnished. The pigments such as azurite and red ochre are of a very high quality. At least three types of yellow were used in the Portrait of Woman: orpiment, lead-tin yellow and an organic yellow (possibly a rare example of saffron). The bright blue underlayer and first versions of the figure was followed by a yellow-green background layer (azurite mixed with orpiment) and final adjustments to the figure, visible in X-radiographs. The monogram has been reinforced in orange over traces of gold and there is evidence that there were longer inscriptions in gold now lost. The consecutive letters IERES (or, less likely, IEBES) are discernible under high magnification. The typography of these letters can be found in other portraits attributed to Brosamer - for example, Wolfgang Eisen (1523, Kunsthalle Karlsruhe) or the Portrait of S. Haller (1528, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh).

    Sir Robert Walpole presented the portrait and its pair to Queen Caroline as portraits of Holbein and his wife by Holbein himself. The Queen was particularly keen on acquiring works by Holbein, having instigated the purchase of his portrait of Henry Guildford. The pair were engraved by Bartolozzi in 1798 as a self portrait by Hans Holbein and a portrait of his wife. Professor Heinrich Alfred Schmid attributed them to the Basel artist Hans Bock the Elder (c.1550-c.1624), to whom they were ascribed by Collins Baker in 1937. Subsequently Dr Fritz Grossmann attributed them to Hans Brosamer, an attribution first published in The King’s Pictures exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1946-7.

    Catalogue entry adapted from The Northern Renaissance. Dürer to Holbein, London 2011

    Presented to Queen Caroline by Robert Walpole

  • Medium and techniques

    Oil on canvas


    54.7 x 49.3 cm (support, canvas/panel/stretcher external)

    75.6 x 69.6 x 5.3 cm (frame, external)

  • Alternative title(s)

    Portrait of a Lady of Basle

    Portrait of Holbein's wife