We're in the Gemäldegalerie gallery in Berlin and we're looking at Hans Holbein's portrait of Georg Gisze,a Hanseatic merchant. That's a lot of information, so here's what that means. The Hanseatic League was a group of merchants that, about 300 years before this portrait was made, got together and said, "We need to work together, so that we can avoid pirates, so that we can avoid princes who wanted to take advantage of us.", and this was a group that did a lot of business in London and Georg Gisze is coming from Danzig, what is now Poland, and is working in an office in London, England.
Hans Holbein painted many of the businessmen of the Hanseatic League. This was likely the first in a series of those portraits and, perhaps, Holbein was showing off about what he could do as portraitist, hoping to get more business. There is something about the material nature of the objects and Holbein's ability to render them so exactly. It really speaks to this culture that is now paying attention to the wealth of objects. We think that this portrait was intended for his bride-to-be and so there is this interest in veracity, not only in the likeness of the figure, but also in the accoutrements of his life that define him as a person in the world.
It feels a little bit like his painting is more about the things in his office than it is about him. It's as if his identity is formed by his employee as a merchant. We see all the signs of how he does business, his letters, his contracts, his scissors, his pen, his stamps. At the same time, it's also a reminder that the material world is not all there is.
That's right and we actually see some explicit symbols relating to the notion of mortality and the passage of time. For instance, you had mentioned the tools of his business and if we look in the very front of the painting, what we can see a quill. We can see money in a small metal container. We can see some of the unused ceiling wax in that little red stick on the extreme right and then there's a small clock and the clock, of course, is an expression of a certain degree of wealth, but also a businessman's concern with time, but it also has a moral dimension, as mentioned, and this is about the passage of time, the passage of life and that that idea is made even more strongly if we look at that beautiful glass Venetian vase, that is so transparent and is so beautifully depicted by Holbein.
Those carnations in the fragile glass vase that they're in, are a momentum worry, a reminder of death, of the fragility of life and not only that, but of the insignificance of these activities, these day-to-day things that one does to make money and get somewhere in the world. And yet those are the things that are really being emphasized, so there's an inherent contradiction here. There's a reminder of the transience of the things that are here being celebrated and it is a wonderful kind of contradiction. It's a wonderful kind of tangle that clearly the artist and the patron were fully aware of.