The Holbeins, a family of painters, had considerable influence on northern European art in the late 1400s to mid-1500s. Hans Holbein the Elder and his youngest son, Hans Holbein the Younger, were the two who enjoyed the most success. They came from the region around Augsburg, Germany, where the elder Holbein established his workshop. Hans the Younger traveled extensively, painting portraits of important public figures and learning about Renaissance artistic styles.
Hans Holbein the Elder (ca. 1460–1534). Scholars know nothing of the elder Holbein's artistic training. By about 1496 he had opened his workshop in Augsburg and had produced altarpieces for various churches in southern Germany. His early work has the bright coloring typical of late Gothic* art of the region, but his later pieces moved away from this style. For example, in a series of religious scenes completed in 1500, the artist used only shades of gray so as to resemble sculpture.
The 1516 altarpiece St. Sebastian marks another departure for the elder Holbein. In this picture, he focused attention on the central figure of the saint by clearing a space around him, and he unified the panels of the altarpiece with architectural elements that spill over onto the side panels. Hans the Elder also created portraits, designs for glass painting, and patterns for sculptors and goldsmiths. Among the artists of his day, only Albrecht DÜrer produced as many pieces and had as much influence.
Hans Holbein the Younger (1497–1543). Hans the Younger worked at his father's shop until 1516, when he moved to Basel, Switzerland. One of his first commissions was to illustrate a copy of Praise of Folly by the humanist* writer Desiderius Erasmus. Later, Erasmus hired the younger Holbein to paint several portraits of him, which he gave to colleagues and patrons* as gifts. In religious paintings, the artist had a distinctive way of portraying spiritual figures. His Body of the Dead Christ (1521) shows a thin and decomposing human form, rather than the muscular figures often seen in religious works of the time.
In the late 1520s, Erasmus recommended Hans the Younger as a portrait painter to prominent people in England. As a result, the artist gained commissions from members of the court of Henry VIII, including Sir Thomas More. The younger Holbein returned to Basel in 1529, but religious unrest between Catholics and Protestants led him to resettle in London. From 1532 to 1538 he served as court painter to Henry VIII, producing portraits, jewelry designs, miniatures, and murals. The portrait he painted of Henry VIII is one of the best-known images of the king. On several occasions, the artist traveled to other parts of Europe to paint portraits of Henry's potential brides. Hans the Younger had a significant influence on the next generation of English portrait painters, as well as on the Flemish* masters Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony Van Dyck.
- * Gothic
artistic style marked by bright colors, elongated proportions, and intricate detail
- * humanist
Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome)
- * patron
supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer
- * Flemish
relating to Flanders, a region along the coasts of present-day Belgium, France, and the Netherlands