The Ambassadors (1533) is a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger. It was created in the Tudor Period in the same year Elizabeth I was born. As well as being a double portrait, the painting contains a still life of several meticulously rendered objects, the meaning of which is the cause of much debate. It also incorporates a much-cited example of anamorphosis in painting. It is part of the collection at the National Gallery in London.
Facts About Painting
ERASMUS INADVERTENTLY SPURRED HOLBEIN’S MOVE TO PRESTIGE PORTRAITS.
The Dutch intellectual introduced Holbein to his humanist circles, winning the artist commissions from members of the English court like council to the king, Thomas More, and Anne Boleyn.
THE AMBASSADORS BROKE FROM HOLBEIN’S ESTABLISHED STYLE.
Following in the footsteps of his father Hans Holbein the Elder, the Bavarian-born artist made his name by dedicating his talents to religious subjects like The Body of the Dead Christ In The Tomb. As he neared his 30s, Holbein was making a successful living in this oeuvre, but he still decided to take a chance on new subject matter. He traveled to England, then Switzerland, and back to London, expanding into more secular portraits.
THE AMBASSADORS PICTURED FRENCH DIPLOMATS AND FRIENDS.
The figure on the left side of The Ambassadors is Jean de Dinteville, the French ambassador to England. He was nearing his 30th birthday at the time of this double portrait. His friend and fellow diplomat Georges de Selve, pictured on the right, was only 25 at the time and had already served as the French ambassador to the Republic of Venice on several occasions.
THEIR AGES ARE INSCRIBED ON THE PAINTING.
Look closely at the dagger held by Dinteville, and you’ll spot a 29 on its ornate scabbard. Similarly, the book under Selve’s elbow has “25” written upon its side. These props were also employed as symbols of their character. The book signifies Selve’s contemplative nature, while the dagger declares Dinteville a man of action.
IT’S AS GRAND IN SIZE AS IT IS IN DETAIL.
Even on a computer screen The Ambassadors can impress, with Holbein’s attention to realistically capturing texture and minute details. But in person it has an even bigger impact, measuring in at 81.5 × 82.5 inches.
ON ONE LEVEL, THE AMBASSADORS WAS A STATUS SYMBOL.
Dinteville commissioned the piece to immortalize himself and his friend. Following the tradition of such portraits, Holbein presented them in finery and furs and surrounded the duo with symbols of knowledge, like books, globes, and musical instruments. However, the thoughtful painter also included symbols that pointed to the troubles these men faced.
A CLEVER WORDPLAY HINTS AT ENGLAND’S DISCORD.
In the middle of The Ambassadors, Holbein depicts a lute. But a keen eye will note that one of its strings is snapped, creating a visual representation of “discord.”
IT’S ONE OF THE MOST FAMOUS EXAMPLES OF ANAMORPHIC ART.
Anamorphosis is the depiction of an object in a way that purposely distorts its perspective, requiring a specific viewing point to see it properly. Examples of anamorphic art date back to the 15th century, and include a Leonardo da Vinci sketch known today as Leonardo’s Eye. If you look at The Ambassadors at an acute angle, the white and black smudge that cuts across the bottom of the painting becomes a fully realized human skull.
THE AMBASSADORS NOW LIVES IN LONDON.
The oil on oak portrait was made to hang in the halls of Dinteville’s home. However, The National Gallery has displayed Holbein’s mind-bending painting since 1890. For more than 125 years, it has been one of the London museum’s most prized exhibits.