National Portrait Gallery
While Holbein’s portraits are electrifying, this show’s title is something of an overstatement. Couldn’t they have managed more than one apiece?
The National Portrait Gallery is one of the oddest museums in the world. Its peculiarity is evident in the labels of its sporadically compelling exhibition of Renaissance and Baroque portrait drawings. The name of the sitter – when known – comes first and the artist second. That’s how it is always done at this museum of great British characters. Walk through it, and you encounter many important people but few artistic masterpieces. In fact, there are just two great pictures in the entire permanent collection – Hans Holbein’s life-size drawing of Henry VIII and John Singer Sargent’s 1908 portrait of Conservative prime minister Arthur Balfour, both studies in the sexuality of power.
Recently, all that has been changing. Along with its portrait awards and fashion retrospectives, it keeps putting on exhibitions of actual art. We’ve had Giacometti and Picasso, with an important exhibition of Cézanne coming soon. Meanwhile, here is a tastefully selected survey of Old Master drawings. Holbein is the star. His drawing of an unknown Tudor woman entitled Woman Wearing a White Headdress (c.1532-43) stares at you with a cool disdain and self-possession that is arresting: was this the kind of look with which Anne Boleyn bewitched Henry VIII?