I am currently reading Alison Weir's excellent Henry VIII, a biography of the notorious (and, apparently, somewhat misunderstood) king of England. In it, Weir talks about Hans Holbein the Younger, an artist that Henry liked. Holbein painted many portraits of the Tudor elite and other noteworthy folk of Henry's court, like this portrait of Thomas More.
This was at a time when the Renaissance was just beginning in England, and up until this time portraiture was not particularly realistic. What I like about Holbein's portraits is that they seem to lifelike and realistic, compared to other portraits from this time. Part of Renaissance thinking was to emulate arts and letters of the "antique" (that is, Classical) world of ancient Greece and Rome. Holbein's work reminds me a lot of the realistic sculptures of the late Roman Republic, in that they aim for a mirror of reality and don't necessarily attempt to flatter.
In reading Henry VIII, I have really enjoyed looking up Holbein's portraits of the people discussed in the book, such as Henry's beautiful sister Mary, his friend Charles Brandon, Thomas Cromwell, Cardinal Wolsey, the Duke of Norfolk, and others. It has helped make them come alive for me, and think of them as people who really lived and breathed, rather than just dusty characters from history books. You can almost sense the pensiveness and angst in this portrait of More, who Henry greatly admired but later beheaded when More opposed the annulment of Henry's marriage to Katherine of Aragon to wed Anne Boleyn.
And from what I've read, the only good thing about Anne Boleyn is that she was Queen Elizabeth I's mom. That's about it. She seems like a pretty horrible person with a lot of sex appeal. This appeal is not evident in any of the pictures I have seen of her, but who am I to judge? I'm sure she had her moments.
To see some other cool portraits by Holbein, go here.