Holbein painted this large portrait at the beginning of his second period in England in search of work, and it may be intended as a virtuoso showpiece for his gifts in portraiture and the depiction of objects and textures. It is the most sumptuous of his series of portraits of mainly German merchants of the Steelyard, a complex of offices, warehouses, and residences on the north bank of the Thames in London. Familiar with Holbein's wider reputation, the merchants were quick to take advantage of his presence in London. The Danzig merchant Georg Gisze (or Giese) is shown among the paraphernalia of his trade: money, pen, seal, inkpots, balance, boxes, scissors, keys. On a table covered with a Turkey rug stands a vase of carnations, perhaps symbolising his betrothal (Gisze married Christine Krüger in Danzig in 1535).
On the surface, the picture appears super-realistic; but on closer inspection it contains a series of deliberate optical paradoxes. The walls, for example, are not at a right angle, and the table, as shown in the bottom right of the painting, where objects overhang its edge, is not rectangular. Certain objects on the table are not painted flat to the surface, and the vase and the money tin are precariously positioned. The overlapping of the book by the note, or cartellino
, fixed to the wall by sealing wax, is an optical illusion given the bulk of the book. The balance hangs unstably from the shelf; and next to it is inscribed Gisze's motto: "Nulla sine merore voluptas
" (no pleasure without regret), implying a symbolic connection with the scales. According to art historian Stephanie Buck, "The apparently splendid world of the rich merchant Gisze is thus by no means as sound and stable as it appears at first" (Buck, pp. 88–95).