Hans Holbein was the second most accomplished German artist next to Albrecht Durer during the Northern Renaissance. He was famous for his portraits of highly influential people like Henry VIII of England, French Ambassador Jean de Dinteville, Edward VI, and Jane Seymour. One can easily conclude that Hans was more of a portraitist than a painter of altarpieces and frescoes for most days of his life.
Hans Holbein was the son of Han Holbein the Elder (1460-1524) who provided great contributions to the development of Renaissance art in German art which art was based on Gothic styles and principles. Hans the Younger continued his father’s legacy and became one of the central figures of Northern Renaissance, particularly in Germany and England.
Hans Holbein the Younger’s specific birth date is unknown but art historians believe he was born anywhere between 1497 and 1498. He had an older sibling named Ambrosius Holbein (1492-1519) who was also a painter, making them a family of artists living in the city of Augsburg.
Since in Germany, it was a mandatory for married artists to establish their own workshop, Hans’ father had one where he could have received his earliest training in painting alongside his brother. The elder Holbein had Sigmund Holbein as his assistant in running the workshop. Under the mentorship of his father, Hans first painted art works with religious themes and used to design decorations for stained glass windows. At an early age, he would also paint small portraits and his portrait of Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam was the most popular.
It was a German custom to send painters and artists to journey so that they could learn more about the other art disciplines from other countries. Therefore, in 1515, Hans and Ambrosius pursued their journey men years or Wanderjahre in Basel City, which at that time was the center of arts and culture. In Basel, they entered the workshop of Hans Herbster as designers of woodblocks and metal blocks for publishing equipment.
Aside from Herbster, the young Holbein brothers were also asked by priest Oswald Myconius to draw figures on the margin of his copy of The Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus. Hans primarily sketched almost the entire thing which suggests that he has in-depth knowledge of Humanistic theories and practices. This early inclination of Hans towards Humanism foreshadowed his successful feat in creating classical and humanistic paintings. Additionally, Hans did also some portraits for the town leader of Basel, Jakob Meyer zum Hasen and a double portrait with his wife Dorothea.
The Holbein brothers returned to Augsburg after two years of being journeymen. Hans the Younger collaborated with his father for a project which they did in Lucerne in 1517. The two was asked by a wealthy merchant named Jakob Von Hertenstein, for whom the younger Holbein also designed some figures for stained glass.
Contemporary scholars believe that it was around this time when Hans was trying to study Italian Renaissance art through the works of Andrea Mantegna as might have traveled to northern Italy occasionally while in Lucerne. The basis was on the fact that Hans acquired copies of The Triumphs of Caesar by Mantegna that he placed on the household of Mayor Hertenstein.
Beginning of 1519, Hans returned to Basel alone as his brother was already dead on that same year. His goal was to re-position himself as an artist in the city by establishing an art studio and joining the Guild for painters. He acquired a citizenship in Basel and married a widow, Elsbeth Schmid who was a business woman. The couple had two sons; one was Elsbeth’s child to her deceased husband while the second one named Philipp was her child to Hans.
After his marriage, Hans experienced success at a greater level in Basel during the early 16th century in synch with the introduction of Lutheranism in the said city. The emergence of this new religious movement opened up some opportunities for Hans as he was contracted by the Lutheran leaders to paint murals for them like the House of the Dance and some more murals for the Council Chamber of the Town Hall.
It was also Hans extended stay in Basel where he was able to develop his skill in painting portraits albeit worked on occasionally. Some of his portraits were for the scholar Boniface Amerbach, altarpiece and donor portraits of the Madonna and the most outstanding portrait above all was the portrait of Humanist scholar Erasmus. These portraits earned him international recognition that Francois I of France sought the expertise of Hans in 1524 to be his court artist.
Desiderius Erasmus was the key to Hans’ emergence in England as he recommended him to Thomas More, a highly influential scholar and politician at that time. So there he was traveling across Antwerp to get to England and Hans began his works for Thomas More in 1527 immediately. Holbein did was the man behind the famous portrait of Thomas More today; the one where the statesman was seated on a chair, adorned with a medallion, a hat and robe while looking intently away from the point of view of the painter. Aside from portraits of More, Holbein also painted some portraits of his patron’s family members.
The first few years of Holbein in England mainly involved working for the Humanists close to Erasmus. Some of the many English commissions were the portraits of William Warham, Nicholas Kratzer, Sir Henry Guildford, Lady Mary and Anne Lovell. Hans was obviously well-received by the nobility in England.
In 1528, Hans had to return to Basel to buy a house for his family and maintain his citizenship at the same time. His return also gave him the opportunity to paint a family portrait of his own with Elsbeth alongside their children Philipp and Katherina in the painting. It is worth mentioning that this portrait is very reminiscent of the classical Virgin and Child with St. John the Baptist.
However, the arrival of Lutheranism into the city brought some political problems as the reformists, particularly those who were influenced by Zwingli, were reluctant in accepting new ideologies. Therefore, some religious works of Holbein were destroyed yet he remained working on the frescoes of the Council Chamber and did some minor adjustments to the themes and subjects of his works.
Later on, as the situation in Basel was becoming quite turbulent to be endured any longer, Holbein decided to return to England. Over there, the overall situation was changing drastically yet still under control. Holbein somehow distanced himself from Thomas More and instead found a new liking to the company of Thomas Cromwell and the Boleyn family, the apparent allies of King Henry VIII.
The first few years of his return to England had been spent on painting portraits for the merchants of Hanseatic League, mostly Lutherans. The said league was located at the Steelyard complex so Hans had to rent a property near Maiden Lane to guarantee convenience anytime.
Under the Hanseatic League’s commissions, he painted portraits of Derich Berck and Georg Gisze. He also decorated the Steelyard’s guildhall with a couple of allegorical frescoes entitled The Triumph of Poverty and The Triumph of Wealth. Additionally, he painted a tableau of Mount Parnassus which was a supposed gift of the league for the coronation of Anne Boleyn in May 1533.
While residing in Maiden Lane, Hans also accepted works from landlords, courtiers and wealthy individuals who wanted to have themselves painted. In fact, the then-visiting Jean de Dinteville, French Ambassador to England, had hired Hans to make a life-size panel for him. This became one of his most celebrated portraits in England because it contains lots of allegorical elements into it that refer to mortality, religion and characteristics of the emerging Northern Renaissance.
Meanwhile, Hans established a good relationship with Thomas Cromwell that he was the main artist for painting royalist and reformist symbols and images. One example was the woodcuts of Myles Coverdale’s English translation of the Christian bible that were independent of clerical elements into them.
In 1536, Hans earned the trust of King Henry VIII to become one of his court artists, from whom he received a steady source of income. Hans proved himself to his art patron when he created a phenomenal portrait of King Henry VIII in a heroic stance. This portrait earned a place in the Whitehall Palace but is now located in Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid.
Besides King Henry, Jane Seymour and Elizabeth of York were also Hans’ subjects in painting portraits, however most of which had been destroyed by fire in 1698. Seymour had a child with Henry, Edward VI, whom Hans painted a portrait a couple of years after Edward was born. This portrait of Edward VI provided evidence to the unique style of Hans being known for emulating intensity on the faces of his subjects while either on a sitting or standing position.
The downfall of Cromwell in 1540 due to treason affected the career of Hans Holbein greatly. From then on, he started focusing on private commissions by wealthy Englishmen and visitors. He continued to make a name through his portraits while visiting his family in Basel albeit briefly.
Hans died sometime in October or November 1543 due to an unknown infection at the age of 45. He left his estate to his children and wife and possibly lived a comfortable life.