Hans Holbein the Younger

The German painter and graphic artist Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1497-1543) combined consummate technical skill with a keen eye for realistic appearance and was the first portrait painter to achieve international fame.

Hans Holbein the Younger, born in Augsburg, was the son of a painter, Hans Holbein the Elder, and received his first artistic training from his father. Hans the Younger may have had early contacts with the Augsburg painter Hans Burgkmair the Elder. In 1515 Hans the Younger and his older brother, Ambrosius, went to Basel, where they were apprenticed to the Swiss painter Hans Herbster. Hans the Younger worked in Lucerne in 1517 and visited northern Italy in 1518-1519.

On Sept. 25, 1519, Holbein was enrolled in the painters' guild of Basel, and the following year he set up his own workshop, became a citizen of Basel, and married the widow Elsbeth Schmid, who bore him four children. He painted altarpieces, portraits, and murals and made designs for woodcuts, stained glass, and jewelry. Among his patrons was Erasmus of Rotterdam, who had settled in Basel in 1521. In 1524 Holbein visited France.

Holbein gave up his workshop in Basel in 1526 and went to England, armed with a letter of introduction from Erasmus to Sir Thomas More, who received him warmly. Holbein quickly achieved fame and financial success. In 1528 he returned to Basel, where he bought property and received commissions from the city council, Basel publishers, Erasmus, and others. However, with iconoclastic riots instigated by fanatic Protestants, Basel hardly offered the professional security that Holbein desired.

In 1532 Holbein returned to England and settled permanently in London, although he left his family in Basel, retained his Basel citizenship, and visited Basel in 1538. He was patronized especially by country gentlemen from Norfolk, German merchants from the Steel Yard in London, and King Henry VIII and his court. Holbein died in London between Oct. 7 and Nov. 29, 1543.

First Period: Basel (1515-1526)

With few exceptions, Holbein's work falls naturally into the four periods corresponding to his alternate residences in Basel and London. His earliest extant work is a tabletop with trompe l'oeil motifs (1515) painted for the Swiss standard-bearer Hans Baer. Other notable works of the first Basel period are a diptych of Burgomaster Jakob Meyer zum Hasen and his wife, Dorothea Kannengiesser (1516); a portrait of Bonifacius Amerbach (1519); an unsparingly realistic Dead Christ (1521); a Madonna and Child Enthroned with Two Saints (1522); several portraits of Erasmus, of which the one in Paris (1523 or shortly after), with its accurate observation of the scholar's concentrated attitude and frail person and its beautifully balanced composition, is particularly outstanding; and woodcuts, among which the series of the Dance of Death (ca. 1521-1525, though not published until 1538) represents one of the high points of the artist's graphic oeuvre.

Probably about 1520 Holbein painted an altarpiece, the Last Supper, now somewhat cut down, which is based on Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting, and four panels with eight scenes of the Passion of Christ (possibly the shutters of the Last Supper altarpiece), which contain further reminiscences of Italian painting, particularly Andrea Mantegna, the Lombard school, and Raphael, but with lighting effects that are characteristically northern. His two portraits of Magdalena Offenburg, as Laïs of Corinth and Venus with Cupid (1526), were evidently influenced by French portrait painting, although they reflect Leonardesque ideals and the Laïsextends her right hand in a manner reminiscent of that of Christ in Leonardo's Last Supper.

Second Period: England (1526-1528)

The preserved works of Holbein's second period consist exclusively of portraits, among them Sir Thomas More; Sir Henry Guildford and its pendant, Lady Mary Guildford; William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury (two versions), all of 1527; and the very sensitive Niklaus Kratzer, shown with his astronomical instruments (1528). The lost portrait of Sir Thomas More and his family, known through Holbein's drawing of the whole composition, seven preliminary sketches for the heads, and several painted copies, is a pioneering work in group portraiture.

Third Period: Basel (1528-1532)

During this period Holbein continued his activity as a portrait painter, decorated the facade of a house, "zum Kaiserstuhl" (of which preparatory drawings exist), completed the decoration of the council chamber in the town hall (1530; fragments are preserved in Basel), and designed woodcuts for the Old Testament (1531, published 1538) and other books. The masterpiece among the portraits of this period is the Artist's Family, representing his wife and two of his children (1528/1529); it is a touching portrait painted with a dispassionate realism that conveys with utmost clarity the gloom and loneliness of the woman. The altarpiece Madonna of Mercy with the Family of Jakob Meyer, which Holbein had begun about 1526, before he left for England, was completed in 1528. It is a symmetrically organized picture with the figures closely contained in a pyramidal group in front of a shell-backed niche of Renaissance inspiration.

Fourth Period: England (1532-1543)

The last period of Holbein's life marks the culmination of his career as a portrait painter, with his subjects now mainly the wealthy German merchants in London and the King and his court. Characteristic examples are George Gisze (1532), a Danzig merchant shown in the surroundings of his business activity; Hermann Wedigh (1532), a merchant of Cologne; The Ambassadors (1533), a full-length double portrait, tightly organized and precise in the rendering of musical and astronomical instruments and an anamorphic skull; Robert Cheseman of Dormanswell (1533); Charles de Solier, Sieur de Morette (1534/1535); Henry VIII (1536; Lugano-Castagnola), the first of several portraits of the monarch shown in full regal splendor, and its pendant, Jane Seymour; Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan (1538), a full-length portrait; Edward VI as a child (1539); Anne of Cleves (1539/1540; Paris); and Sir William Butts (ca. 1543).

During this period Holbein learned the technique of portrait miniatures and produced important works of this kind, such as Anne of Cleves (1539/1540; London) and Mrs. Pemberton (ca. 1540). Other works of this final period include a project for a triumphal arch with Apollo and the Muses on Parnassus for the merchants of the Steel Yard on the occasion of the coronation procession of Anne Boleyn (1533); allegorical wall decorations in the guildhall of the Steel Yard (ca. 1533; lost); designs for goldsmith work and jewelry for Henry VIII (from ca. 1536 on); and the decoration of the privy chamber in Whitehall Palace (1537; destroyed by fire in 1698), for which a cartoon for the left side, showing Henry VII and Henry VIII, is preserved.

His Style

Holbein's art is characterized by superb technical skill, an unerring sense of composition and pattern, a sound grasp of three-dimensional form and space, and a sharp eye for realistic detail. His portraits are painted with a passion for objectivity, the outward appearance of his subjects directly reflecting their inner character or mood without the intrusion of the artist's attitude toward them. His drawings, frequently executed in black and colored chalks (following a practice he may have observed in France), bear testimony to this artistic temperament: they are precise and controlled, and the outline dominates as the expressive agent.

Holbein's development was gradual and appears to have been guided essentially by his successful search for objective precision. In the work of his second English period he concentrated more on clear contours and ornament and was less concerned with three-dimensional form and space, with the result that his last portraits are relatively flat and decorative, characteristics generally associated with 16th-century mannerism.

Further Reading on Hans Holbein the Younger

A concise biography and critical account of Holbein's work are in Paul Ganz, The Paintings of Hans Holbein (1st complete edition, 1950). See also Arthur B. Chamberlain, Hans Holbein the Younger (2 vols., 1913). Specialized studies include K. T. Parker, The Drawings of Hans Holbein in the Collection of His Majesty the King at Windsor Castle (1945), and James M. Clark, The Dance of Death by Hans Holbein (1947).