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Self-Portrait of Hans Holbein the Younger, 1542
Hans Holbein, the Younger (1497-1543)

HANS HOLBEIN, the Younger (1497-1543), German painter, favourite son of Hans Holbein the elder, was probably born it Augsburg about the year 1497. Though Sandrart and Van Mander declare that they do not know who gave him the first lessons, he doubtless received an artist's education from his father.

One of Holbein's illustrations for Erasmus's 'Encomium Moriae' About 1515 he left Augsburg with Ambrose, his elder brother, to seek employment as an illustrator of books at Basel. His first patron is said to have been Erasmus, for whom, shortly after his arrival, he illustrated with pen-and-ink sketches an edition of the Encomium Moriae, now in the museum of Basel. But his chief occupation was that of drawing titlepage-blocks and initials for new editions of the Bible and classics issued from the presses of Froben and other publishers. His leisure hours, it is supposed, were devoted to the production of rough painter's work, a schoolmaster's sign in the Basel collection, a table with pictures of St Nobody in the library of the university at Zurich.

In contrast with these coarse productions, the portraits of Jacob Meyer and his wife in the Basel museum, one of which purports to have been finished in 1516, are miracles of workmanship. It has always seemed difficult indeed to ascribe such excellent creations to Holbein's nineteenth year; and it is hardly credible that he should have been asked to do things of this kind so early, especially when it is remembered that neither he nor his brother Ambrose were then allowed to matriculate in the guild of Basel. Not till 1517 did Ambrose, whose life otherwise remains obscure, join that corporation; Hans, not overburdened with practice, wandered into Switzerland, where (1517) he was employed to paint in the house of Jacob Hertenstein at Lucerne.

In 1519 Holbein reappeared at Basel, where he matriculated and, there is every reason to think, married. Whether, previous to this time, he took advantage of his vicinity to the Italian border to cross the Alps is uncertain. Van Mander says that he never was in Italy; yet the large wall-paintings which he executed after 1519 at Basel, and the series of his sketches and pictures which is still extant, might lead to the belief that Van Mander was misinformed. The spirit of Holbein's compositions for the Basel town hall, the scenery and architecture of his numerous drawings, and the cast of form in some of his imaginative portraits, make it more likely that he should have felt the direct influence of North Italian painting than that he should have taken Italian element from imported works or prints. The Swiss at this period wandered in thousands to swell the ranks of the French or imperial armies fighting on Italian soil, and the road they took may have been followed by Hans on a more peaceful mission.

Hans Holbein. Lais of Corinth. He shows himself at all events familiar with Italian exampla at various periods of his career; and if we accept as early works the "Flagellation," and the "Last Supper" at Basel, coarse as they are, they show some acquaintance with Lombard methods of painting, whilst in other pieces, such as the series of the Passion in oil in the same collection, the modes of Hans Holbein the elder are agreeably commingled with a more modern, it may be said Italian, polish. Again, looking at the "Virgin" and "Man of Sorrows" in the Basel museum, we shall be struck by a searching metallic style akin to that of the Ferrarese; and the "Lais" or the "Venus and Amor" of the same collection reminds us of the Leonardesques of the school of Milan.

When Holbein settled down to an extensive practice at Basel in 1519, he decorated the walls of the house "Zum Tanz" with simulated architectural features of a florid character after the fashion of the Veronese; and his wall paintings in the town-hall, if we can truly judge of them by copies, reveal an artist not unfamiliar with North Italian composition, distribution, action, gesture and expression. In his drawings too, particularly in a set representing the Passion at Basel, the arrangement, and also the perspective, form and decorative ornament, are in the spirit of the school of Mantegna. Contemporary with these, however, and almost inexplicably in contrast with them as regards handling, are portrait-drawings such as the likenesses of Jacob Meyer, and his wife, which are finished with German delicacy, and with a power and subtlety of hand seldom rivalled in any school.

Curiously enough, the same contrast may be observed between painted compositions and painted portraits. The "Bonifacius Amerbach" of 1519 at Basel is acknowledged to be one of the most complete examples of smooth and transparent handling that Holbein ever executed. His versatility at this period is shown by a dead Christ (1521), a corpse in profile on a dissecting table, and a set of figures in couples; the "Madonna and St Pantalus," and "Kaiser Henry with the Empress Kunigunde" (1522), originally composed for the organ loft of the Basel cathedral, now in the Basel museum.

Equally remarkable, but more attractive, though injured, is the "Virgin and Child between St Ursus and St Nicholas" (not St Martin) giving alms to a beggar, in the gallery of Solothurn. This remarkable picture is dated 1527, and seems to have been ordered for an altar in the minster of St Ursus of Solothurn by Nicholas Conrad, a captain and statesman of the 16th century, whose family allowed the precious heirloom to fall into decay in a chapel of the neighbouring village of Grenchen. Numerous drawings in the spirit of this picture, and probably of the same period in his career, might have led Holbein's contemporaries to believe that he would make his mark in the annals of Basel as a model for painters of altarpieces as well as a model for pictorial composition and portrait.

Hans Holbein. Erasmus of Rotterdam. Royal Collection. The promise which he gave at this time was immense. He was gaining a freedom in draughtsmanship that gave him facility to deal with any subject. Though a realist, he was sensible of the dignity and severity of religious painting. His colour had almost all the richness and sweetness of the Venetians. But he had fallen on evil times, as the next few years undoubtedly showed. Amongst the portraits which he executed in these years are those of Froben, the publisher, known only by copies at Basel and Hampton Court, and Erasmus, who sat in 1523, as he likewise did in 1530, in various positions, showing his face threequarters as at 1) Longford, 2) Basel, 3) Turin, 4) Parma, 5) the Hague and 6) Vienna, and in profile as in the 7) Louvre or at 8) Hampton Court.

Besides these, Holbein made designs for glass windows, and for woodcuts, including subjects of every sort, from the Virgin and Child with saints of the old time to the Dance of Death, from gospel incidents extracted from Luther's Bible to satirical pieces illustrating the sale of indulgences and other abuses denounced by Reformers. Holbein, in this way, was carried irresistibly with the stream of the Reformation, in which, it must now be admitted, the old traditions of religious painting were wrecked, leaving nothing behind but unpictorial elements which Cranach and his school vainly used for pictorial purposes.

Once only, after 1526, and after he had produced the "Lais" and "Venus and Amor," did Holbein with impartial spirit give his services and pencil to the Roman Catholic cause. The burgomaster Meyer, whose patronage he had already enjoyed, now asked him to represent himself and his wives and children in prayer before the Virgin; and Holbein produced the celebrated altarpiece now in the palace... at Darmstadt, the shape and composition of which are known to all the world by its copy in the Dresden museum. The drawings for this masterpiece are amongst the most precious relics in the museum of Basel.

The time now came when art began to suffer from unavoidable depression in all countries north of the Alps. Holbein, at Basel, was reduced to accept the smallest commissions — even for scutcheons. Then he saw that his chances were dwindling to nothing, and taking a bold resolution, armed with letters of introduction from Erasmus to More, he crossed the Channel to England, where in the one-sided branch of portrait painting he found an endless circle of clients. Eighty-seven drawings by Holbein in Windsor Castle, containing an equal number of portraits, of persons chiefly of high quality, testify to his industry in the years which divide 1528 from 1543. They are all originals of pictures that are still extant, or sketches for pictures that were lost or never carried out.

Hans Holbein. Sir Thomas More. Frick Collection. Sir Thomas More, with whom he seems to have had a very friendly connexion, sat to him for likenesses of various kinds. The drawing of his head is at Windsor. A pen-and-ink sketch, in which we see More surrounded by all the members of his family, is now in the gallery of Basel, and numerous copies of a picture from it prove how popular the lost original must once have been.

At the same period were executed the portraits of Warham (1. Lambeth and 2. Louvre), [Sir Henry] Wyatt (Louvre), Sir Henry Guildford and his wife (Windsor), all finished in 1527, the astronomer Nicholas Kratzer (Louvre), Thomas Godsalve (Dresden), and Sir Bryan Tuke ([Washington and] Munich) in 1528. In this year, 1528, Holbein returned to Basel, taking to Erasmus the sketch of More's family. With money which he brought from London he purchased a house at Basel wherein to lodge his wife and children, whose portraits he now painted with all the care of a husband and father (1528).

He then witnessed the flight of Erasmus and the fury of the iconoclasts, who destroyed in one day almost all the religious pictures at Basel. The municipality, unwilling that he should suffer again from the depression caused by evil times, asked him to finish the frescoes of the town-hall, and the sketches from these lost pictures are still before us to show that he had not lost the spirit of his earlier days, and was still capable as a composer. His "Rehoboam receiving the Israelite Envoys," and "Saul at the Head of his Array meeting Samuel," testify to Holbein's power and his will, also proved at a later period by the "Triumphs of Riches and Poverty," executed for the Steelyard in London (but now lost), to prefer the fame of a painter of history to that of a painter of portraits.

But the reforming times still remained unfavourable to art. With the exception of a portrait of Melanchthon (Hanover) which he now completed, Holbein found little to do at Basel. The year 1530, therefore, saw him again on the move, and he landed in England for the second time with the prospect of bettering his fortunes. Here indeed political changes had robbed him of his earlier patrons. The circle of More and Warham was gone. But that of the merchants of the Steelyard took its place, for whom Holbein executed the long and important scries of portraits that lie scattered throughout the galleries and collections of England and the Continent, and bear date after 1532.

Hans Holbein. The Ambassadors. National Gallery, London Then came again the chance of practice in more fashionable circles. In 1333 the "Ambassadors" (National Gallery), and the "Triumphs of Wealth and Poverty" were executed, then the portraits of Leland and Wyatt (Longford) , and (1534) the portrait of Thomas Cromwell. Through Cromwell Holbein probably became attached to the court, in the pay of which he appears permanently after 1537. From that time onwards he was connected with all that was highest in the society of London. Henry VIII invited him to make a family picture of himself, his father and family, which obtained a post of honour at Whitehall. The beautiful cartoon of a part of this fine piece... enables us to gauge its beauty before the fire which destroyed it in the 17th century.

Then Holbein painted Jane Seymour in state (Vienna), employing some English band perhaps to make the replicas at 1. the Hague, Sion House and Woburn; he finished the [Sir Richard] Southwell of the Uffizi, the jeweller Morett at Dresden, and last, not least, Christine of Denmark, who gave sittings at Brussels in 1538. During the journey which this work involved Holbein took the opportunity of revisiting Basel, where he made his appearance in silk and satin, and pro forma only accepted the office of town painter. He had been living long and continuously away from home, not indeed observing due fidelity to his wife, who still resided at Basel, but fairly performing the duties of keeping her in comfort.

Hans Holbein. Anne of Cleves. The Louvre. His return to London in autumn enabled him to do homage to the king in the way familiar to artists. He presented to Henry at Christmas a portrait of Prince Edward. Again abroad in the summer of 1539, he painted with great fidelity the princess Anne of Cleves, at Düren near Cologne, whose form we still see depicted in the great picture of the Louvre. That he could render the features of his sitter without flattery is plain from this one example. Indeed, habitual flattery was contrary to his habits.

His portraits up to this time all display that uncommon facility for seizing character which his father enjoyed before him, and which he had inherited in an expanded form. No amount of labour, no laboriousness of finish — and of both he was ever prodigal — betrayed him into loss of resemblance or expression. No painter was ever quicker at noting peculiarities of physiognomy, and it may be observed that in none of his faces, as indeed in none of the faces one sees in nature, are the two sides alike. Yet he was not a child of the 16th century, as the Venetians were, in substituting touch for line. We must not look in his works for modulations of surface or subtle contrasts of colour in juxtaposition. His method was to the very last delicate, finished and smooth, as became a painter of the old school.

Amongst the more important creations of Holbein's later time we should note his "Duke of Norfolk" at Windsor, the hands of which are so perfectly preserved as to compensate for the shrivel that now disfigures the head. Two other portraits of 1541 ([De Vos van Steenwijk in] Berlin and [Unknown Young Man in] Vienna), the Falconer at the Hague, and John Chambers at Vienna (1542), are noble specimens of portrait art; most interesting and of the same year are the likenesses of Holbein himself, of which several examples are extant — one particularly good at Fähna, the seat of the Stackelberg family near Riga, and another at the Uffizi in Florence. Here Holbein appears to us as a man of regular features, with hair just turning grey, but healthy in colour and shape, and evidently well to do in the world.

Yet a few months only separated him then from his death-bed. He was busy painting a picture of Henry the VIII confirming the Privileges of the Barber Surgeons (Lincoln's Inn Fields), when he sickened of the plague and died after making a will about November 1543. His loss must have been seriously felt in England. Had he lived his last years in Germany, he would not have changed the current which decided the fate of painting in that country; he would but have shared the fate of Dührer and others who merely prolonged the agony of art amidst the troubles of the Reformation.


Crowe, Sir Joseph Archer. "Hans Holbein the Younger."
The Encyclopædia Britannica. 11th Ed. Vol. XIII.
New York: The Encyclopædia Britannica Co., 1910. 578-580.

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