Jan 25, 2024

Introducing Henry VIII, the missing figure in SIX The Musical

A jewel of the AGO Collection takes centre stage and comes face to face with his musical wives

Renaissance portrait of King Henry VIII, from waist up, dressed in furs

Circle of Hans Holbein, the younger. Portrait of Henry VIII, 16th century. Oil on oak panel, Overall: 64 x 51.8 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario. Anonymous Gift, 2000. Photo © AGO. 2000/172

By Adam Harris Levine, Associate Curator, European Art, Art Gallery of Ontario

At the centre of the Tony Award-winning production SIX The Musical is the late Henry VIII – once proud king of England. Yet, in this excitingly original re-telling of history, despite being a larger-than-life figure, he’s nowhere to be seen. A story told from the perspective of his six wives through music and dance - a fun and feminist corrective - that we don’t see Henry is all to the point, but does leave one to wonder, what did he look like really?

As a curator, I am committed to finding new ways to talk about the history of European art and its reception, and I enjoyed SIX The Musical for making history contemporary on stage right here in Toronto.

Here at the AGO, we have a superb depiction of the man at the centre of all the drama. Gifted to the museum in 2000, this oil on wood panel portrait, currently on view in the Thomson Collection of European Art, shows us the king from the waist up, strong, confident, and in charge.

But did he really look like that?  Beginning in the Middle Ages, portraiture was a primary weapon in the ongoing battle to assert authority and legitimacy - a branding device used by the wealthy and powerful. Henry was very aware of the power of images, commissioning numerous artists to paint images of himself and his family members. No humility or pretence of realism here - artists were paid to produce portraits of an imposing figure, six feet tall, stout, broad-shouldered, thickly bearded, and lavishly dressed in silks, furs, and jewels.

One of Henry’s court painters was Hans Holbein the Younger, considered by some to be the most accomplished portraitist of the 1500s. There’s a great song – Haus of Holbein – sung by all the Queens in SIX The Musical that’s dedicated to the painter. Born to a family of accomplished painters in Germany, then training in Switzerland, Holbein was welcomed to the English court by Henry’s advisor, Thomas Cromwell, and second wife, Anne Boleyn. As a court painter, Holbein produced portraits and decorations for members of the royal family, sometimes on a fixed salary and often on an exclusive basis.

In 1537, Henry commissioned Holbein to decorate his new palace, Whitehall, with a series of monumental paintings, and one of these included a full-size, standing portrait of the king. Neither Holbein’s talent nor connections could not save him from an ignoble end – he died of the plague in 1543, his body buried in a communal pit. But in the years that followed, before Whitehall Palace burned down in 1698, several artists made their own versions of Holbein’s portrait, disseminating the iconic image that we associate with Henry VIII today.

Recently, I had the pleasure of introducing the cast of Toronto’s production of SIX The Musical to our Henry. Check it out:

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SIX The Musical continues at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. Portrait of Henry VIII is on view now on level 1 of the AGO (Gallery 113).

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