'I think to myself “why did Holbein paint it?"'

Portrait of the Artist’s Family, about 1528/29, 30in by 25in, by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/98– 1543), Kunstmuseum, Basel, Germany. Bridgeman Images.

Anna Chancellor says:
‘I can hardly bear this painting–it punched me in the solar plexus when I first saw it. It’s an unbelievably modern portrait in a way, so human. I feel that the faces are all so familiar. I think to myself “why did Holbein paint it?”. The figures look so distraught, but perhaps the painter is so involved in the situation that he doesn’t even notice–apparently, he was away from his family a lot. The wife really interests me; she’s almost got a squint, but then there’s her décolletage–she’s sexy as well. And you can see that the young boy in profile bears the responsibility of his fatherless family. Is this painting Holbein’s apology to them?’

Anna Chancellor stars in South Downs/The Browning Version at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London SW1, from April 19 to July 21.

Art critic John McEwen comments:
‘Holbein’s wife, Elsbeth Binsenstock, is shown with their children Philipp and Katharina. Until this picture broke with convention, portraits proclaimed the eminent social status of sitters. Holbein, son of a distinguished painter, was of sufficient importance for his family to be worthy of such formal recognition. Instead, this portrait reveals nothing that could indicate social class or position. On the contrary, his wife looks far from her best, and the children are allowed their own unglossed individuality.

In addition, the pose is endearingly protective. That it is painted on paper complements the informality. At some date, the figures were cut out and glued to a wooden panel. Recent analysis supports the theory that quite a lot of the original composition is missing, the boy possibly a kneeling figure looking towards his father at an easel. This interpretation fits with the suggestion of a religious reference —the Madonna and Child painted by St Luke, patron saint of artists. Elsbeth was a widow with a son when she and Holbein married.

In 1526, Holbein visited England, staying as a guest of Thomas More on the recommendation of their mutual friend Erasmus of Rotterdam, whom Holbein had often painted in Basel. Holbein returned to Basel, his adopted city, in 1528, then went back to England for good in 1532. He was appointed Henry VIII ’s Court painter in 1536, and died in London seven years later. In his will, he left provision for the care of two illegitimate children born in England.’

This article was first published in Country Life, April 4, 2012