Has Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen discovered a Holbein?

Portrait of Desiderus Erasmus, c. 1530, panel 35,4 x 26x5 cm, private collection
Portrait of Desiderus Erasmus, c. 1530, panel 35,4 x 26x5 cm, private collection

A five century-old portrait of Erasmus was recently sold at an auction in Paris. This is the first original portrait of the humanist scholar to be discovered in the last 150 years. Researchers agree that the painting is of an exceptionally high quality and that it was made during Erasmus’ lifetime. The work clearly stems from the hand of a great master. Experts think that it originates from the circle of Hans Holbein the Younger or that it may have been painted by Holbein himself.
The collector who has purchased the portrait is lending it to Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. The museum will be presenting the discovery to the public for the first time together with fourteen other portraits in the exhibition Images of Erasmus.

It is extremely rare for an early sixteenth-century painting of such high quality to be offered at auction. The exceptional level of the painting and underdrawing, in particular the skilled and detailed painting of the hands and fur, suggest that it was painted by Hans Holbein the Younger. Infrared photography shows especially powerful underdrawing in the hands. X-ray photographs have given us an insight into the artistic process: originally the painter had intended to depict a different kind of beret. The museum is engaged in ongoing research with experts and hopes to be able to provide evidence to support or refute the attribution to Holbein.
During the exhibition Images of Erasmus the work will be confronted for the first time with three other portraits of Erasmus attributed to Holbein. This will provide a unique opportunity to come to a definitive conclusion about the attribution. The exhibition will contain a separate study presentation devoted to the research on the portrait.

New painting tradition
Erasmus was the first citizen to allow himself to be extensively portrayed by the greatest artists of his time. He used these portraits as tokens of appreciation for his patrons and for self-promotion. He presented the portraits as gifts to his friends and to monarchs and patrons together with letters. This made Erasmus a well-known figure and portraits of the scholar were a favourite subject among painters. This led to new portraits being commissioned by many admirers in Europe, resulting in numerous copies and imitations.

Images of Erasmus
Five hundred years after Erasmus wrote The Praise of Folly – one of the most influential books of all time – Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen presents a major Erasmus exhibition from 8 November 2008 until 8 February 2009. The Louvre has agreed, exceptionally, to loan the superb portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger. Works of art never seen before in the Netherlands are coming from around the world, from cities such as New York, London and Madrid. The paintings, drawings, prints and objects throw light on Erasmus’s ideas and illustrate his influence on the arts and on society.
Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (1466-1536) was a celebrity throughout Europe in his lifetime. This exhibition brings together portraits of Erasmus by the greatest artists of his day: Quinten Massys, Hans Holbein the Younger and Albrecht Dürer. Letters and writings reveal that Erasmus kept very strict control of the way he was portrayed. The exhibition also focuses on subjects that were close to his heart: scholarship and education, war and peace, church and art.

Erasmus is one of the pioneers of modern thinking. In the exhibition a multimedia tour applies his views and ideas to topical social and cultural issues. The exhibition is accompanied by a substantial and richly illustrated catalogue. The design of the exhibition is a result of a unique collaboration between artist Krijn de Koning and graphic designer Tessa van der Waals.

The exhibition has been made possible by the support of the Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR), Erasmus University Medical Centre (Rotterdam), the Trustfund EUR, the City of Rotterdam, Sikkens and the Erasmus Foundation, in cooperation with the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation, Holland Art Cities 2009-2010 and Erasmus in Rotterdam 2008.