Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/98 – 1543)
Holbein, Hans, the Younger, German portrait painter. Hans Holbein the Younger, a painter and designer of stained glass, woodcuts, and jewelry, was born in Augsburg to a family of artists. His father Hans the Elder (active c. 1490–1523) was probably his first teacher, and his uncles Sigmund Holbein and Hans Burgkmair the Elder (1473–c. 1531) were important early influences. He left Augsburg at eighteen to join his elder brother Ambrosius (1493/94–1519?) in Basel as journeymen in the workshop of the leading painter there, Hans Herbst, or Herbster (1470–1552), and collaborated on the marginal drawings in Oswald Myconius’s famous copy of Erasmus’s Praise of Folly. Commissions from Basel humanists and city officials soon ensued: portraits of Erasmus’s publisher, Johannes Froben; Erasmus’s attorney and heir, Bonifacius Amerbach (1519; Basel); three portraits of Erasmus himself (1523; Longford Castle, Ireland; Louvre, Paris; and Basel); a diptych portrait of the mayor Jakob Meyer and his wife Dorothea Kannegiesser (1516), who also commissioned The Meyer Madonna (1526–1530; Darmstadt); a madonna with standing saints for the then city clerk Johannes Gerster (1522, The Solothurn Madonna); and an altarpiece for a Basel city council member, Hans Oberried. During 1517–1519 Holbein assisted his father with illusionistic decorations for the facade of the Jakob Hertenstein house (Lucerne) and the Haus zum Tanz in Basel. Admitted to the Basel painters’ guild Zum Himmel on 25 September 1519, that same year he married Elsbeth Binzenstock, a tanner’s widow. On 20 July 1520 he secured Basel citizenship, and a year later he received a commission to decorate the new council chamber. Further religious works included a Passion altarpiece, a Last Supper scene, and The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521; all in Basel). This last work, a panel for use from Good Friday until Easter morning, is so radical a representation of death that the nineteenth-century Russian author Dostoevsky would later declare, “This picture could rob many a man of his faith,” creating its effect with an imaginary painting in his novel The Idiot. Designs for the woodcut Dance of Death series were also made during these years (1522–1525). Holbein traveled to France (1524), perhaps hoping to find employment with Francis I, and may have seen works by Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Sarto at Amboise, as well as three-color chalk drawings by Jean Clouet, a technique that he adapted for his own use in portrait work. His paintings of Venus and Cupid and of Lais of Corinth (1526; Basel) show the strong influence of the Franco-Italian Renaissance. Erasmus, concerned for the welfare of his favorite painter, recommended Holbein by letter to his friend Sir Thomas More in London, and the artist departed from Basel for England, by way of Antwerp, on 29 August 1526. While there, he painted a group portrait of the More family, for which only the individual chalk studies (Windsor Castle) and the preliminary sketch (Basel) with the artist’s notes have survived—the latter was presented to Erasmus. He also finished portraits of Sir Thomas More (1527; Frick Collection, New York); the Archbishop of Canterbury William Warham (1527; Louvre, Paris); the comptroller of Henry VIII’s household, Sir Henry Guildford, and his wife, Lady Guildford (both 1527; Windsor and St. Louis); Henry’s privy councillor Sir Henry Wyatt (1527/ 28; Louvre, Paris); and a drawing of his son, the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt (undated). Before leaving England, Holbein also painted a portrait of the king’s German astronomer Nicolas Kratzer (1528; Louvre, Paris). Unlike his Basel paintings, which are a mixture of tempera and oil on pine or lindenwood, the British portraits were completed on oak panels. Returning to Basel, Holbein bought two houses, painted on paper a group portrait of his wife and children, The Artist’s Wife and Her Two Children, Philip and Catherine (1528, Basel; silhouetted and mounted on panel), and made adjustments to the Meyer Madonna, which by then was to become an epitaph. In 1528 and 1529, during the wave of iconoclasm that accompanied the Reformation in Basel under the influence of Ulrich Zwingli, religious works of art were removed from the churches and many were destroyed. Consequently, Holbein left for England once again. Thomas More now being out of favor at court, Holbein found clients among the young German merchants of the Steelyard, including Georg Gisze of Danzig (1532; Berlin), Hermann Wedigh of Cologne (1533; New York) and Dierick Born (1533; Vienna). His double portrait of the French ambassador Jean de Dinteville and his houseguest Georges de Selve, bishop of Lavour, entitled The Ambassadors (1533; London) also dates from this period. Soon afterward he was made part of Henry VIII’s court, portraying Henry himself, Queen Jane Seymour (1536; Vienna), Christina of Denmark (1538; London), Anne of Cleves, and the future King Edward VI, the two-year-old Prince of Wales (1539; Washington). The King’s physician Sir John Chambers was Holbein’s last client. The artist died, probably of the plague, in 1543, leaving behind a mistress and two young children in England.
Bätschmann, Oskar, and Griener, Pascal. Hans Holbein. Princeton, 1997.
Ganz, Paul. Dessins de Hans Holbein le jeune. Geneva, 1939.
Hervey, Mary F. S. Holbein’s ‘Ambassadors’, the Picture and the Men. An Historical Study. London, 1900.
Michael, Erika. Hans Holbein the Younger: A Guide to Research. New York and London, 1997.
Roberts, Jane. Holbein. Zeichnungen vom Hofe Heinrichs VIII. Exh. cat. Hamburg and Basel, 1988.
Rowlands, John. Holbein: The Paintings of Hans Holbein the Younger. Oxford, 1985.
Strong, Roy. Holbein and Henry VIII. London, 1967.
—JANE CAMPBELL HUTCHISON