Literature Study GuidesWolf HallPart 5 Chapter 3 Summary

Wolf Hall | Study Guide

Hilary Mantel

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Wolf Hall | Part 5, Chapter 3 : A Painter's Eye, 1534 | Summary



Hans Holbein, an artist, has painted a portrait of Cromwell. It shows him with a quill, scissors, papers, his seal in a bag, and a book that is supposed to be a Bible (but is really a financial book). There are many differences between Cromwell's portrait and the memories he has of sitting for it. The reactions among Cromwell's friends and household are varied.


Cromwell has many conflicting emotions about the portrait. On the one hand he feels that it leaves out a great deal—it cannot show what he was thinking at the time of the portrait sitting, for example. And it shows what appears to be a Bible, while Cromwell knows it is really a far different text—a financial text about how best to keep your books. But on the other hand he feels it shows some truths almost too well. "Hans has made his skin smooth as the skin ... but the motion ... is as sure as that of a slaughterman's when he picks up the killing knife." Holbein has portrayed him as a man of the court and also as a ruthless man.

The discussion of the portrait shows how he treats men and women differently. He is kind and smiling toward the women but hard and cold to the men. Helen Barre notes, "I don't think you look like that ... that is not the expression on your face." Rafe notes Cromwell saves the harder expression shown in the portrait for men.

The discussion also sheds light on how others see Cromwell. Eustache remarks on the oddity of portraying Cromwell alone, saying, "One never thinks of you alone, Cremuel, but in company, studying the faces of other people, as if you yourself mean to paint them." The chapter's title, then, refers to both the actual portrait painter's eye and to the gaze of Cromwell, who analyzes people as a painter would, to make of them his own kind of artwork.

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