Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of King Henry VIII (1491-1547) 

Follower of Joos Van Cleve (active 1505/8-1540/1)

Portrait of King Henry VIII (1491-1547), Follower of Joos Van Cleve
Oil and Canvas
16th Century
28 3/8 x 23 1/4 inches, 72.4 x 59 cm
By repute, the collection of the Montgomery family in the UK since the 19th Century, then latterly in the United States.
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This portrait is a rare 16th Century replica of a portrait in the Royal Collection by Joos Van Cleeve. Although there has in the past been some uncertainty as to when the original portrait was painted, it seems clear now that it must date to the early 1530s, a date which can probably be narrowed down further to c. 1532. It therefore pre-dates the most widely known portraits of Henry VIII by Holbein, which can be dated to 1536 onwards, and which show the king as the formidably large man history knows so well.

When the Royal Collection portrait was first acquired by Charles I, the attribution was given to Jean Clouet. Van Cleve’s hand was first correctly recognised by George Vertue in the early 18th Century. Van Cleve’s authorship, however, has given rise to speculation that the artist never saw Henry, and that the portrait must have been painted from other sources. This seems unlikely, however, not least given the relative lack of suitable source material to show Henry at that age, and from which an accomplished portraitist such as Cleve could have worked. The portrait, with its sharp likeness and inner vitality, does not immediately strike the viewer as something taken from, say, a miniature by Lucas Hornebolte.

Instead, more recent thinking convincingly links the portrait to van Cleve’s comparable portrait of Francis I [Philadelphia Museum of Art]. It has even been suggested, with their similar sizes, composition with the ‘cast shadow’, and the close date of their costumes, that the portraits of Francis and Henry were conceived as pendants. Francis I employed van Cleve as a portraitist in the early 1530s, and given that Cleve seems never to have travelled to England, it is probable that we must look to Henry’s visit to Boulogne in October 1532 for the artist’s only possible glimpse of Henry VIII.

That being so, the portrait shows Henry during the most important period of his reign; the final act of his break with Rome and the formal commencement of the English reformation. Henry’s main aim in travelling to France had been to secure Francis I’s support in his ‘Great Matter’; the need to divorce Katherine of Aragon so that he could at last marry Anne Boleyn. Domestically, Henry had already begun the long political and legal battles that would be required to enact a split with Rome, but the final act had not yet been performed: Thomas More had resigned but was still alive and actively opposing radical moves; the title of Defender of Faith was still worn as a Papal endorsement; and it was still far from clear that Henry would be able to overcome Parliament’s strong objections, to say nothing of popular feeling. The meeting with Francis, therefore, was a final attempt at diplomacy, and with Francis’ support acting as a vital counterweight to Charles V (Katherine’s uncle), Henry would try one final time to persuade Pope Clement that a divorce should be granted.

It is possible that the Latin inscription on the paper held by Henry – which translates as ‘Go your way into all the world and preach the gospel’ (Mark, XVI, 15) – was intended as a last gasp visual reinforcement of Henry’s Catholic faith. Certainly, the almost complete lack of contemporary replicas (when compared to the superfluity of Holbein copies) for example, would suggest that Cleve’s portrait was never seen in Reformation England as an official likeness of the King, as indeed would its absence from the Royal Collection until it was acquired by Charles I in 1624.

Despite detailed preparations being made for a delegation of French clerics to travel to Rome to support Henry’s case, Francis I’s assistance was ultimately not required. Given that Henry had begun to sleep with Anne in September 1532 (when in Calais, on the way to meet Francis at Boulogne) haste was now required should Anne fall pregnant. An indication of the Henry’s anxiety can be seen in the document creating Anne Marquis of Pembroke in the Autumn of 1532, with the unusual stipulation that any son of Anne’s could inherit the title, whether legitimate or not. Meanwhile, with the help of new advisers, including the supportive Archbishop Cranmer and the political genius of Thomas Cromwell, Henry was at last able to pass the required legislation removing all papal authority over the Church of England. Anne, visibly pregnant, was crowned queen on 31st May 1533.
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