Comparing Henry VIII and James II through Art Analysis: Questions of Power, Legitimacy, and Celebrity

In: Stardom: Discussions on Fame and Celebrity Culture
Amber Anna Colvin
Search for other papers by Amber Anna Colvin in
Current site
Google Scholar

Purchase instant access (PDF download and unlimited online access):


How do we trace the rise of celebrity? What are the prerequisites for being famous? I argue that examining the lives and images of two monarchs, Henry VIII and James II, can illuminate how celebrity became a major part of English culture during this period. This work focuses on the advent of popular court portraiture and how these monarchs used the creation and distribution of portraits to strengthen their claims to legitimacy and, in essence, create a culture of celebrity centered on the body of the monarch. Purposefully painted art, particularly of rulers, and especially during an age in which patronage and collecting were becoming crucial political factors, can show the ‘cultural frame’ which these monarchs used, as well as the ways in which this propaganda was perceived and sought after. Prior to this time, most court portraits showed very two-dimensional figures with an excess of symbolism to identify the subject. From the time of Henry VIII onward, particularly with the arrival of Hans Holbein the Younger, Anthony van Dyck, and Sir Peter Lely, symbols still played a crucial part in images, but the body of the monarch became increasingly important and recognisable. I argue that with this increasing recognisability of the monarch, the act and art of collecting increased, making the monarch (and his family) into celebrities whose images were coveted by the English nobility and even essential to the stability of the political order. Through using royal women, classical symbolism, foreign painters, and identifiable images, these kings, both of whom were unlikely successors to the throne, created a structure of legitimacy and power through turning themselves into celebrities. Although certainly not the first famous people in history, these two men, through necessity, encouraged the development of collecting and political celebrity, despite the ‘backwards’ nature of English art.

  • Collapse
  • Expand