HANS HOLBEIN THE YOUNGER
Ship with Revelling Sailors, Lansquenets and a Sutleress
Pen and black ink, coloured in grey, blue, pink and red
Inv. No. 678
40.4 × 50.9 cm
This large drawing by Hans Holbein the Younger of a three-masted ship gliding through the waves with billowing sails is one of his more unusual ones. Of Holbein’s works in this medium, we are far more familiar with the elegant portrait studies in different-coloured chalks which he executed as preparatory drawings for his famous portrait paintings, particularly those of members of the English court. This ship seems likewise to have been a study made in preparation for a painting; at any rate, it was not treated with great care in the further course of the work. It was crudely trimmed on the left and right sides, torn, and folded in several places. Very soon after it had played its part in the painting’s production process, however, some effort was made to preserve it. It was mounted on a backing sheet, and some of the details that had been lost were carefully restored.
Holbein’s ship is populated by a crowd of lansquenets and sailors indulging in riotous excess. Tankards of wine are being raised and emptied on all sides, one of the drinkers is already vomiting, another has a bare-breasted sutleress in his arms. There is no sign of a captain or helmsman. This is a ship depiction in the tradition of the »Ship of Fools« – the title of an extraordinarily successful book appearing towards the end of the fifteenth century and pillorying the manifold follies of men and women. It employed the symbol of a ship crammed with fools (German: Narren) on their way to »Narragonia«. Elsewhere, ships of this kind carry their happy-go-lucky passengers to the Land of Cocaigne. This drawing by Holbein – with its firm outlines rendered in ink and the effective modelling achieved by brush washes in various colours – no doubt alludes to the same symbolism representing life gone morally astray.
In connection with the celebrations following Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn in 1533, Holbein executed some mural paintings (no longer extant) on the themes of wealth and poverty for the London guildhall of merchants of the Hanseatic League. It is very possible that this ship depiction was linked to that commission, and it may even have had a companion piece showing a ship being run in an orderly and honourable fashion.
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