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This portrait is one of the very few pictures Holbein painted for himself without being commissioned to do so. Unfortunately, it is no longer in its original state, the figure painted on paper have been cut out and pasted on a panel, another hand has filled in the background.
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In the picture, Holbein’s wife wears an expression of deep sadness, and the life of Elsbeth Bizenstock was in truth marked by worries and sorrow. Married to a tanner at a very young age he was already a widow at 22.
In the early 16th century, this kind of intimate family portrait was still uncommon. It had been developed by the wayward Venetian genius, the contemporary of Holbein, Lorenzo Lotto of images of the Holy Family. In Lotto’s family portraits husband and wife turned to each other with affection and comfort their children. Lotto’s picture glows with domestic harmony and happiness.
In Holbein’s portrait, Elsbeth is alone with her children who turned to the right as if searching for a missing presence, the presence of Holbein himself.
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The Masterworks series is a treasure trove of art. Each ten-minute program focuses on an individual painting, with a rich visual survey accompanied by an authoritative voice-over commentary. The selection of works, from galleries on both sides of the Atlantic, covers a broad spectrum of art from the earliest European masterpieces to contemporary works, introducing the unfamiliar and rediscovering the well-loved.
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