When Holbein returned to London towards the end of 1531, leaving Basle, where he had worked for nearly three years, he found himself immediately occupied with several portraits of the merchants of the Hanseatic League. During his first sojourn in England, he had painted the chancellor, Sir Thomas More, his protector and friend, and he had traced the features of several members of the aristocracy. On his return, circumstances for his gaining access to the court were less favourable. Henry VIII. was obeying his own good pleasure and satisfying all his caprices, and the chancellor was holding aloof, and could not exert his influence. Holbein did not now possess the title of Painter to the King, consequently he had to consider himself happy in obtaining the favour of his compatriots.

The German merchants had formed themselves into a powerful association; they found themselves united in a kind of city, which went by the name of Stahlhof. There they had their Guildhall, their Bourse, the place where their affairs were managed and which contained their stores of merchandise, and their counting-houses. It was a separate quarter, where each one could also have his own dwelling.

The company was opulent; the industry of the members of the Hanseatic League was chiefly in iron and the precious metals; among them were armourers, watch-makers, and goldsmiths. In the Stahlhof, called in English the Steelyard, and which the founders themselves had designated the Palace of Steel, was to be noted a certain opulence and pursuit of comfort which is to be found in all ages. After having finished their business, the merchants formed a social circle of their own. They had a festival-hall of their own, and they could walk about in spacious gardens which extended along the banks of the Thames.

Among these representatives of high finance a painter might find a choice clientèle that would never care about the price of an order. We know that Holbein painted the portraits of many of these rich merchants, for to-day we find these canvases, whose authenticity has been established, in Museums and important collections. We may therefore suppose that the German merchants appreciated Holbein at his true value; doubtless they disputed the honour of having their features reproduced by a master of such remarkable talent.

The portrait of Georg Gisze, which is before our readers, is certainly the finest work of this series. When we saw this masterly work in the Museum of Berlin, to which it belongs, it left an indelible impression upon us which we still feel at this distance. It is incontestably a masterpiece from every point of view; in the Gallery there is but one other picture of the same kind which may be compared to it, a painting which suggests a parallel in a single detail,—The Man with the Pinks, by Van Eyck.

Portrait of Georg Gisze. Holbein.

Portrait of Georg Gisze.

Holbein has represented Georg Gisze in his mercantile office, at a table, holding a letter which he is about to open, and surrounded by small objects, articles for which he has use in his business and in his every-day life. This man appears before us in a marvellous pose, among these material surroundings and in this professional scene. Observe his calm attitude and his almost placid physiognomy: we notice, however, the firm and decided air of a wealthy and elegant merchant. And, at the same time, we are sure that the type represented here is not of sudden growth: everything about him reveals intelligence.

Georg Gisze is young; the painter has told us his name and his age in an inscription on the wall: he is thirty-four. We do not lack information about him. We like him under that air of youthful seriousness; we see upon his face that dawning gravity in which the blossom of feeling already exists, but its plenitude and maturity are still to come. And in attentively examining our personage we are struck with his reflective and searching glance. We seem to have a glimpse in him of an undefined melancholy. This expression surprises us in this man, who ought to be happy at living and who lacks no pleasures that Fortune can procure.

This is a state of mind which is indicated to us, moreover, by a motto traced above his name on one of the walls of his office: Nulla sine mærore voluptas. Why this thought? Is it purely emblematic, or does it contain an allusion to some private matter? We are led to believe that it is intended as a complementary explanation, that it was placed upon the picture because it was in sympathy with a train of ideas special to the model. Perhaps it recalls some domestic sorrow, the lively grief left by an absent one, or by some eternal separation. A moral mystery, which seems to us very attractive, hovers around Georg Gisze.

He has long fair hair confined beneath a black cap; his smooth-shaven face is rather thin. He wears a rich costume, a pourpoint of cerise silk with puffed sleeves, and, over this pourpoint, a cloak of black wool lined with fur. The table on which he is leaning is covered with a Persian rug, and, beside the various objects scattered upon it, you notice a bunch of carnations in an artistically wrought Venetian glass. These carnations, like the motto, awake in us an image, a poetical reminiscence. Sentiment, Germanic in its essence, mingled with dreams and vague ideals, is introduced into this merchant's office.

The master has fully displayed with supreme power, and with all the resources of his art, the colours of the costume, the paleness of the face, and the freshness of the flesh standing out from the background of green panels. He has played with all the various tones of the accessories, book and registers, inkstand, watch, and scales for weighing the gold. Every detail, with no link missing, contributes to form the perfect harmony of the whole.

We cannot too greatly admire the singular clearness and extraordinary precision with which the artist has placed in relief every detail that can make a figure live and render a work essentially eloquent.7

People have tried to make out that Georg Gisze was a merchant of Basle. He would then have been of the race connected most closely with the Master's life. This opinion has been discussed by Woltmann, Holbein's historian. The superscriptions on the sufficiently numerous letters, which are reproduced in this painting, must be especially noticed; they are written in an ancient dialect which seems rather to be that of central Germany.8

Jouin, Chefs-d'œuvre: Peinture, Sculpture, Architecture (Paris, 1895-97).


In one corner of the picture is found this inscription with its Latin distich:

Imaginem Georgii Gysenii
Ista refert vultus, quâ cernis Īmago Georgi
Sic oculos vivos, sic habet ille genas.
Anno ætatis suæ XXXIII.
Anno dom. 1532.

8 We read on one of these letters: Dem erszamen Jergen Gisze to Lunden in Engelant, mynem broder to handen.