Hans Holbein

Hans Holbein

Painter, Engraver
(1497 – 1543)

Hans HolbeinThe younger Hans Holbein was the son of a prominent Augsburg artist who was a contem porary 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.

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