Hans Holbein the Younger (German, 1497-1543),Portrait of Henry VIII, 1540 Oil on wood, 88.5 x 74.5 cm, Palazzo Barberini. Courtesy of the Gallerie Nazionali di Arte Anti ca, Rome (MIC). Biblioteca Hertziana, Isti tuto Max Planck per la storia dell’arte/Enrico Fontolan.

“The Tudors” at the Legion of Honor

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (The Museums) is presenting The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England, the first major exhibition in the United States of portraiture and decorative arts of the Tudor courts.

From King Henry VII’s usurpation of the English throne in 1485, to the death of his granddaughter Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, the Tudor monarchs used art to establish power and legitimize their reigns. The Legion of Honor’s presentation, the sole West Coast venue for the exhibition, will showcase a new exhibition design and chronological visual narrative, tracing the development of art across the reigns of the five Tudor monarchs and their individual styles.

“Thanks to Hollywood movies and TV dramas like The Tudors, many Americans have heard of King Henry VIII and his six wives, as well as the “Virgin Queen” Elizabeth I, but few may be aware of the distinctive art and visual propaganda that was central to the splendor and drama of the Tudor court,” said Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Now, in the first exhibition of its kind in the US, The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England reunites scores of sumptuous paintings, precious jewels, rich tapestries and rare artifacts from collections around the world to bring the Tudor dynasty vividly to life–from the bloody founding of the dynasty in 1485 by Henry VII on the fields of Bosworth, to the final moments of Queen Elizabeth in 1603.”

The Legion of Honor’s presentation will include works from the museum’s collection, including a late 16th century panel painting. Newly attributed to artist Robert Peake by Fine Arts Museums conservators, this work recently underwent an extensive study in preparation for the exhibition. The sitter, previously unknown, has been definitively identified as Frances Walsingham—the daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster—during a technical investigation. The digital reconstruction of the original cartellino inscription reads: “The Ladie Sidney daughter/ to Secretarye Walsingham.” Another museum collection piece that will be on view is a selection of decorated oak panels commissioned by Sir Edward Wotton, Treasurer of Calais and Privy Councillor to Edward VI, from his 16th century estate Boughton Place, Kent. Their classical ornament shows the influence of the Renaissance in rural England. Newly conserved, they will go on display for the first time since they were acquired by the Museums in the 1980s.

Other key works include tapestries commissioned or acquired by Henry VII and Henry VIII. Tapestries were the glory of the Tudor palaces, adorning the walls with vibrant color and the glint of gilt thread representing the power and prestige of the monarchy. They were the most expensive works of art created at this time and Henry VIII owned the enormous number of 2500 examples to furnish his many palaces. A Flemish tapestry depicting a scene from the story of David and Bathsheba demonstrates the cosmopolitan taste and sophistication of Henry VIII’s court.

“The Tudors ushered in the English Renaissance, which drew inspiration from humanism, antiquity, and observation of the natural world,” said Martin Chapman, Curator in Charge of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Unique to the presentation at the Legion of Honor are a portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger from the Palazzo Barberini in Rome and a portrait of Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard from a private collection in England, works by two of the most significant painters patronized by the Tudors.”

The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England will be on view from June 24 through September 24, 2023, at the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco.