Hans Holbein the Younger

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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

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). □

Holbein, Hans

views updated May 11 2018

Hans Holbein



Early Life.

The younger Hans Holbein was the son of a prominent Augsburg artist who was a contemporary of Albrecht Dürer. The son trained initially with his father, but left around 1515 to become an apprentice in the studio of Hans Herbster, a Basel artist. Here he developed his skills as a book illustrator and also became closely associated with the town's circle of humanists. One of the lifelong friends he made at Basel was Desiderius Erasmus, who charged Holbein with illustrating his famous satire The Praise of Folly. The accomplished illustrations that Holbein created for this best-selling intellectual farce brought the artist to the attention of Johannes Froben, a Basel printer and then one of the most important publishers of humanist texts in Europe. In 1516, Holbein became a designer in Froben's shop. During this period in Basel Holbein also painted panel paintings, which are evidence of his father's influence on his style. His manner was at the same time more monumental and balanced. In this early stage of his career Holbein also painted his Dead Christ, a work that displays the same sharp clarity and realism the artist developed later in his portraits.


The Reformation gathered support in Basel during the early 1520s, and as in many other towns in Switzerland, supporters of the new movement aimed to curb the uses of religious art. Eventually, these new sensibilities resulted in violent attacks upon statues and altarpieces. During these early years of the Reformation the new movement caused a decline in many artists' fortunes. The Reformers found distasteful the elaborate altarpiece paintings that had been frequently commissioned in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and a falloff in the production of new works of this kind soon became evident in the 1520s. This situation restricted the possibilities for a young artist like Hans Holbein, and while he remained in Basel he began to turn to portraiture to support himself. During 1523 and 1524 he painted several portraits of his friend Erasmus. The local market, however, failed to provide sufficient support, and so in 1524, he traveled to France, where he painted works for John, the Duke of Berry. A brief return to Basel in 1526 produced two works on mythological themes, but the climate in the city had now grown increasingly intolerant of painters. Again Holbein left Basel, this time for the Netherlands, and eventually England. On this journey he carried letters of introduction from Basel's prominent citizens, including one from his friend Erasmus. While he stopped in Antwerp for a time, he soon moved on to England, where he presented his letter from Erasmus to the English humanist Sir Thomas More, a close friend of Erasmus. More commissioned the artist to paint a portrait of his family, and from this panel Holbein also painted his famous portrait of More during 1527. Soon the artist was at work producing a number of portraits of prominent English men and women, and he returned to Basel in 1529, enriched by his stay in England. At home he purchased two houses in the city, and set up his shop once again.

Second Sojourn in England.

Basel's artistic climate, though, had not improved in the intervening years, and so in 1532, Holbein returned to England for a second time. Basel's town council had attempted to keep Holbein in Switzerland by offering the artist a pension, but since there was little work in the city and the town's atmosphere was disturbed by Reformation controversy, he set off. He never returned, although his wife stayed behind, the beneficiary of a Basel municipal pension. In England, Holbein found a more congenial atmosphere, soon painting his famous portrait The Ambassadors, a painting of two French royal emissaries at work in London at the time. The work shows the ambassadors with all of the attributes of the humanistically trained intellectual. A lute, globe, and other items scattered on the table behind the men demonstrate their breadth of learning. One unusual feature of the painting is an elongated and distorted skull that appears in the foreground before the men, a manneristic detail in an otherwise extremely realistic work. This realism, which approached the level of Jan van Eyck and other Netherlandish painters of the fifteenth century, was consistent in the remaining ninety portraits that Holbein produced in England before his death from the plague in 1543. During these later years the artist rose to the position of court painter to Henry VIII. He was responsible for painting portraits of the royal family and other important members of the English court, but the king also kept him busy decorating the royal apartments with murals and in producing engravings and small miniatures. In a small and remote country like England, the job of the royal portrait painter was an important one, since in the sixteenth century royal ambassadors frequently arranged dynastic marriages. These officials took with them portraits of the royal and noble children for whom they arranged strategic marriage alliances. Accuracy and realism, two areas in which the artist excelled, were necessary in the genre. In addition, Holbein endowed those he painted, even the youngest royal children, with a sense of commanding majesty. His portraits set a standard that would influence later artists, as portraiture became an increasingly important art form in Northern Europe in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Portraiture, too, was at this time to become an increasingly vital source of support to artists, particularly those who worked in Protestant countries, as the demand for religious images shrank in the wake of the Reformation.


S. Buck, Hans Holbein the Younger: Painter at the Court of Henry VIII (London, England: Thames and Hudson, 2002).

J. North, The Ambassadors' Secret: Hans Holbein and the World of the Renaissance (London, England: Hambledon, 2002).

D. Wilson, Hans Holbein (London, England: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1996).

Holbein, Hans (the Younger) (1497–1543)

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Holbein, Hans (the Younger) (14971543)

A German artist, a leader of the Renaissance in northern Europe, who achieved his most famous works at the court of King Henry VIII of England. Born in Augsburg, a town of southern Germany, he was a student of his father, Hans Holbein the Elder, a noted painter of the late Gothic style in Germany. Holbein the Younger journeyed to Switzerland, where he apprenticed with the painter Hans Herbster and where he joined the painters guild. He also encountered the humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus, who engaged him to create illustrations for his book In Praise of Folly. Holbein ran a busy workshop in Basel that turned out portraits on commission from the city's leading families, as well as altarpieces and stained glass for local churches. Well-known works from this time are the paintings Dead Christ and Madonna and Child Enthroned with Two Saints, and a series of forty woodcut prints known as the Dance of Death. In 1524, he visited France, where he discovered the technique of drawing in chalk, a method employed by the French portraitist Jean Clouet. Holbein left Basel in 1526 to seek better opportunities in England. Through a letter of introduction written by Erasmus, Holbein met Sir Thomas More, who was serving as a chancellor for Henry VIII. Holbein returned to Basel in 1528, completing several more woodcut series for books as well as The Artist's Family, a picture of his wife and two children. Although he planned to settle in Basel, Holbein found that the Protestant Reformation under the leadership of Huldrych Zweingli was hostile to patronage of artists by the church. In 1532 he returned to England and became a citizen of London.

At the royal court, Holbein painted a series of royal portraits, and also served as a designer of ceremonial clothing, monuments, and palace decor. Holbein painted the king, the king's wives and courtiers, and notables such as More, Thomas Cromwell, Desiderius Erasmus, Sir Henry Guildford, the astronomer Nicholas Kratzer, and William Warham, the archbishop of Canterbury. Holbein also earned many portrait commissions from the German merchants living in London. His portraitscarefully prepared pencil or chalk sketches that were transferred directly to oak panelsare masterpieces of color, strong outline, and realistic detail, especially in the depiction of the emotions and character of their subjects. Holbein was among the first portrait painters to gain renown; before his time, portraitists were simply artisans who prepared a work of art much as a carpenter creates a piece of furniture.

See Also: Erasmus, Desiderius; Henry VIII; More, Sir Thomas

Holbein, Hans

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Holbein, Hans (c.1497–1543). Painter. It is hardly an exaggeration to suggest that our visual image of Henry VIII and his courtiers is derived from Holbein's portraits. Born the son of an Augsburg artist of the same name, Holbein paid two visits to England, a short one 1526–7 and a longer one 1532–43. On the first occasion he brought with him introductions from Erasmus, whom he painted frequently, to Sir Thomas More, painted a celebrated More family portrait, and may have carried out decoration work at court. On his next visit his patron More was in disfavour, but Holbein received many commissions, and entered the service of the king, for whom he painted a family reconstruction, showing Henry, his parents, and Jane Seymour. Holbein was also employed to travel abroad and paint prospective brides for the king: his too-flattering portrait of Anne of Cleves caused considerable embarrassment. The largest group of Holbein's work in Britain is in the Royal Collection. His magnificent portraits include More (1527), Archbishop Warham (1527), Thomas Cromwell (1534), Henry VIII (1536), Jane Seymour (1536), the duke of Norfolk (1540), the duke of Suffolk (1541), and the young Edward, prince of Wales (1543). An early commentator wrote of Holbein: ‘he is not a poet but an historian.’

June Cochrane

Hollein, Hans

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Hollein, Hans (1934– ). Austrian architect. He established his reputation with small, well-crafted shops, including the Retti Candle Shop (1964–5), Schullin Jewellery Shop with its ‘cracked’ front (1972–4), and the Austrian State Travel Agency with its palm-tree supports (1976–8), all in Vienna, which employ materials such as marble, brass, stainless steel, and chrome, detailed with meticulous care. Less happy, however, is the relationship of the new fronts with the existing façades into which they are set, while the use of themes such as the apparently haphazard crack suggests tension and disruption of perfection. Much admired have been the Städtisches Museum, Abteiberg, Mönchen-gladbach (1972–82), with a grid-structure that breaks down in the corner, and the Museum of Modern Art, Frankfurt (1987–91). The Haas House, near the Cathedral in Vienna (1987–90), might suggest that ideas that work on the scale of a shop-front are less successful on a large, prominent building on a key site within a historic urban centre. His proposals for a Museum cut into the Mönschberg rock, Salzburg (1990), were ingenious, and included dramatic interiors.


Auty (1994);
Architectural Review, clxxii/1030 (Dec. 1982), 53–71;
Kalman (1994);
Klotz (1988);
Pettena (ed.) (1988);
Jane Turner (1996)

Holbein (the Younger), Hans

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Holbein (the Younger), Hans (1497–1543) German painter. His early work included religious paintings, such as Dead Christ (1521) and woodcuts such as Dance of Death (c.1523–25). Holbein's portraits of his friend Erasmus earned him the patronage (1526–28) of Sir Thomas More. In 1532, he settled permanently in London and became (1536) court painter to Henry VIII. Holbein's masterpieces include The Ambassadors (1533) and superb portraits of Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan (1538), and Anne of Cleves (1540).

http://www.metmuseum.org; http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk; http://www.nga.gov

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