Mapping Provenance: Holbein's "Sir Thomas More"


Oil painting of Sir Thomas More wearing a black cap, a black velvet cloak with brown fur lining and collar, and a doublet with red velvet sleeves, seated in front of a bright green curtain
Hans Holbein the Younger (German, 1497/1498–1543), Sir Thomas More, 1527. Oil on oak panel, 29 1/2 x 23 3/4 in. (74.9 x 60.3 cm). The Frick Collection, New York

Sir Thomas More Travel Itinerary

Origin: London
Destination: Frick Madison, with stops in Rome, London, and 1 East 70th Street
Duration: 1527 to the present
Distance: at least 5,250 miles

The provenance of Sir Thomas More—Hans Holbein the Younger’s dazzling likeness of the famed humanist scholar who defied Henry VIII and ultimately lost his head—begins with a 104-year gap. What happened to this panel between 1527, the year of its creation, and 1631, when it was recorded in the collection of an Italian cardinal? Who owned it, who looked at it, and where was it hung? How and why did it move from London to Rome? We simply don’t know—a mystery that only adds to the power of the panel, currently on display on the second floor of Frick Madison.

This is the next installment in our series that deploys digital tools to visualize the trajectory of a work of art through time and space. The journey of an artwork is rarely a smooth one, and the provenance, or ownership history, of Sir Thomas More is notable for its lacunae. Unlike Vermeer’s Mistress and Maid, which belonged to at least fifteen owners and roved the Continent, Sir Thomas More is known to have changed hands only a few times before it was acquired by Henry Clay Frick in 1912.

Mapping the Journey

Explore the surprisingly fragmentary provenance of one of the Frick’s most iconic works. Navigate the map below and read on to retrace the panel’s 494-year trajectory from Tudor England to the second floor of Frick Madison.

Use the icon in the upper-left corner to access all the individual stops in the journey or open the fullscreen map.

  1. London (1527)
    In 1527, the German-born artist Hans Holbein the Younger portrays Thomas More, who lives at the time in the Chelsea area of London. In the years that followed, the exact whereabouts of the panel are unknown. Scholars have concluded that the Holbein portrait left England by the end of the sixteenth century. A copy of the panel is made somewhere on the Continent—perhaps in Central Europe or northern Italy—in the early seventeenth century.
     
  2. Rome (by 1631)
    In 1631, the English diplomat Arthur Hopton mentions the panel in a letter to the Earl of Arundel: “The picture...is in Rome in [the collection of Cardinal Pier Paolo Crescenzi] & is not to be had for any price.” The panel may have come to the Italian cardinal by way of French cardinal Matthieu Cointerel, who owned “a painting of Thomas More” at the time of his death in 1585 and named Virgilio Cesarini, the father of Cardinal Crescenzi, as his sole heir. In the mid-eighteenth century, Violante, the last member of the Crescenzi family, marries Marcantonio Bonelli. The Crescenzi family’s centuries-long ownership of the panel comes to an end when it passes to their son, Pio Camillo Bonelli.
     
  3. London (by 1858)
    The panel has returned to London and now belongs to the dealer Farrer. By 1864, it belongs to the Huth family of merchant bankers. In 1896, the Boston collector Isabella Stewart Gardner tries unsuccessfully to buy the painting. One year later, the art historian Bernard Berenson implores her to try again: “You must beg, borrow, steal, do anything, but don’t lose this opportunity.” She instead buys two pendant portraits by Holbein of Sir William and Lady Butts.
     
  4. 1 East 70th Street, New York City (1912)
    In January 1912, Henry Clay Frick purchases the painting from Edward Huth for £55,000. He is advised on the acquisition by the critic Roger Fry. In 1915, Frick acquires Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell, More’s arch nemesis and a shrewd political tactician in the Tudor court who, like More, ultimately was beheaded. The historic foes are installed in the Frick family’s recently completed home at 1 East 70th Street, on opposite sides of the fireplace in the Living Hall.
     
  5. Frick Madison (2021)
    Sir Thomas More temporarily moves to Frick Madison, five blocks away from the Frick mansion, where it is again installed opposite Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell. From September 2021 to January 2022, Sir Thomas More is shown adjacent to Doron Langberg’s Lover (2021) as part of the project Living Histories: Queer Views and Old Masters.
     
A woman in an orange coat looking at a gold-framed portrait of Thomas More hanging on a gray wall
Sir Thomas More installed on the second floor of Frick Madison, the most recent stop on the painting’s journey. Photo: Joseph Coscia Jr., 2021

This map largely follows the research of Xavier F. Salomon, Deputy Director and Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator, published in the 2018 Diptych series book Holbein’s Sir Thomas More. For further information, see also the online object record and Xavier’s Cocktails with a Curator episode on the panel.


Map icons by Luciano Johnson, The Frick Collection

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