Hans Holbein the Younger


Hans Holbein the Younger (Augsburg, 1497 or 1498 – London, October 7, 1543) was a German painter and engraver, who painted first in Basel and then in England at the court of Henry VIII.He was a painter of religious subjects, satirical and well-known portraitist as well as a champion of the art of the Protestant Reformation, although his relationship with religion was very ambiguous. He also gave a significant contribution to the history of book illustrations. He is called “the Younger” to distinguish him from his father, Hans Holbein the Elder.

Holbein was born in Augsburg, but as a young man he worked mainly in Basel. At first, he devoted himself to frescoes and religious works, drew historiated stained glass windows and printed books. Occasionally he also made portraits, acquiring considerable fame in particular with that of the humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam. When the Protestant Reformation reached Basel, Holbein worked for Reformed clients while continuing to serve his traditional religious patrons. His late Gothic style was enriched by inspirations from Italy, France, the Netherlands, and elements of humanism, creating his own personal style.

In 1526 Holbein went to England in search of work, on the recommendation of Erasmus. Welcomed into the humanist circle of Thomas More, in a short time obtained an excellent reputation. He returned to Basel four years later, and then returned to England in 1532 under the patronage of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell. From 1535 he was painter to King Henry VIII of England and made portraits of him as well as drawings of jewelry, plates and other precious objects. His portraits of the royal family and English nobles were well suited to the years when Henry VIII was establishing the supremacy of the Church of England in his kingdom.

Holbein”s art was appreciated from the beginning. The French poet and reformer Nicholas Bourbon (the elder) called him “the Apelles of our time”. Holbein was also described as the great “loner” of the history of art, since despite his skill he never founded a school. Some of his works were lost after his death, but the large number of his works preserved show us his extreme versatility.

Holbein”s art has sometimes been defined as realistic since he always drew and painted with a precision rare to find. His works appear to be full of symbolism, allusions and paradoxes that in the history of art have increased even more interest in his figure as an artist. According to art historian Ellis Waterhouse, his portraiture “remains inviolate to this day because of his ability to penetrate the character, combining richness and purity of style.”

He is also dedicated a song within the musical Six “Haus of Holbein”, the fifth track of the album.

Early years

Holbein was born in the Empire”s free city of Augsburg during the winter of 1497-98. Son of the painter and grocer Hans Holbein the Elder, he had an older brother, Ambrosius. Holbein the Elder conducted his business in Augsburg, sometimes assisted by his brother Sigmund, also a painter.

In 1515 Hans and Ambrosius moved as student painters to Basel, a well-known center of study and printing. Here the two studied under Hans Herbster, the city”s leading painter. Here the brothers found work as draftsmen for engravers for woodcuts and metallographs. In 1515 the preacher and theologian Oswald Myconius invited them to add pen drawings to the copy of the In Praise of Folly by the humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam. These sketches are the first contact between Holbein and humanism. His other works from this period include a double portrait of the mayor of Basel, Jakob Meyer zum Hasen, and his wife Dorothea, which essentially follow his father”s style.

The young Holbein, along with his brother and father, is depicted in the left panel of the altar triptych for St. Paul”s Basilica painted in 1504 by Holbein the Elder, now on display at the Staatsgalerie Augsburg.

In 1517, father and son began a project in Lucerne, painting interior and exterior frescoes for the merchant Jakob von Hertenstein. While in Lucerne, the Holbeins also drew cartoons for stained glass windows. City records indicate that on December 10, 1517, Hans was fined five liras for being involved in a street fight, having come to blows with a goldsmith named Caspar, who was fined the same amount. That winter Holbein probably visited northern Italy, although there is no evidence for this. Many scholars believe that on that occasion he studied frescoes at the school of Andrea Mantegna before returning to Lucerne. He made two series of panels for Hertenstein”s house with copies of Mantegna”s works, including the Triumph of Caesar. According to other sources he also went to Como, where he arrived around 1518. In Italy he took inspiration mainly from the art of Lombardy, from Bramante to Bramantino, passing through the Last Supper by Leonardo, whose influences took shape in the table Dinner of 1522.

In 1519 Holbein returned to Basel. His brother is absent from the chronicles of the time, which suggests that in the meantime had died. He re-established himself in the city by setting up a workshop. He joined the local guild of painters and took citizenship. He married Elsbeth Binsenstock-Schmid, an older widow who had a son, Franz, and who ran a leather tanning factory inherited from her late husband. During their first year of marriage Philipp was born.

With the arrival of Lutheranism he was a prolific artist and carried out a number of projects such as exterior frescoes for The House of Dance and interior frescoes for the Council Chamber of the city hall. The former are known today only in the form of preparatory drawings, while the Council Chamber drawings survive today in the form of small, poorly preserved fragments. Holbein also produced a number of paintings with religious subjects and drew cartoons for stained glass windows.

In a period of revolution in the art of book design, he illustrated for the publisher Johann Froben. His woodcuts during this period include the Dance of Death, Icons (Old Testament illustrations), and the opening page of Martin Luther”s Bible.

Occasionally Holbein also made portraits, including the double portrait of Jakob and Dorothea Meyer and in 1519 that of the young academic Boniface Amerbach. According to art historian Paul Ganz, the portrait of Amerbach is the first one made in his own style, particularly in the use of color. For Meyer he made an altarpiece with the Madonna, the donors, his first wife and daughter. In 1523 Holbein painted the first of his portraits of the humanist Erasmus, who then made copies to send to his friends and admirers in Europe. These paintings made Holbein an international artist. Holbein visited France in 1524, probably in search of work at the court of Francis I. Instead, when he decided to seek work in England in 1526, Erasmus recommended him to his friend Thomas More. “The arts are chilled in this part of the world,” Holbein wrote, “and I am taking myself to England to collect some angels.”

In England, 1526-1528

Holbein during a visit to the Dutch city of Antwerp, where he had gone to buy some oak panels, met the painter Quentin Matsys. At the invitation of Sir Thomas More he was received in England and it was the powerful statesman who procured him some commissions. “Your painter, my dear Erasmus,” he wrote, “is a wonderful artist.” Holbein painted the famous Portrait of Sir Thomas More and another with Moor and his family. The group portrait, original in its conception, is known only from his preparatory sketches and in copies made by others. According to the art historian Andreas Beyer, it was “the prelude to a genre that became very popular in seventeenth-century Dutch painting”. His seven studies of the More family have also come down to us.

During his first stay in England, Holbein worked extensively for the circle of humanists associated with Erasmus of Rotterdam. Notable commissions from this period include a portrait of William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, who owned one of the portraits of Erasmus executed by Holbein. Holbein also painted a portrait for the Bavarian astronomer and mathematician Nicholas Kratzer, tutor to the More family. Although Holbein did not work for the king during this visit, he painted portraits of courtiers such as Sir Henry Guildford, his wife Lady Mary, and of Anne Lovell, recently identified as the subject of Lady with Squirrel and Starling. In May 1527, “Master Hans” also painted a panorama of the siege of Thérouanne for visiting French ambassadors. With Kratzer, he devised a sky covered with planetary symbols under which the visitors dined. The chronicler Edward Hall described the spectacle as showing “the sky from the whole earth, as in a true map.”

Basel, 1528-1532

On August 29, 1528, Holbein purchased a house in Basel, St Johanns-Vorstadt. Presumably he returned home to retain his citizenship rights, since he was allowed to leave his native town for a period of two years without losing his privileges. Enriched by his success in England, Holbein purchased a second house in the city in 1531.

During this time in Basel, he painted The Artist”s Family, a drawing in which he depicted Elsbeth with the couple”s two first-born children, Philipp and Katherina, evoking the images of the Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist. Art historian John Rowlands called this work “one of the most vivid portraits in art.”

Basel had become a turbulent city during Holbein”s absence. The reformers, spurred on by Zwingli”s ideas, engaged in acts of iconoclasm and banned all sacred images in churches. In April 1529, Erasmus, a free thinker, was forced to leave his golden paradise of Freiburg im Breisgau. Iconoclasts probably destroyed some of Holbein”s religiously themed works, but the details are unknown. In this period Holbein”s religious vision appears fragmentary and inconclusive. “The religious side of his painting was always ambiguous,” suggested art historian John North, “and remained so throughout his life.” According to a register compiled to ensure that all leading citizens subscribed to the new doctrines, “Master Hans Holbein, the painter, says we should inquire more about the canteen before we approach it.” In 1530, the authorities called Holbein to account for his absence at the Reformed communion. Shortly thereafter he was included in the list of those “who had no serious objections or desires to go with other Christians.”

Holbein evidently was therefore able to maintain the favor of the new established order. The reformist council paid him an income of 50 florins and commissioned him to redo the frescoes in the Council Chamber. The new themes, however, were inspired by the Old Testament rather than classical stories or allegories. Holbein”s frescoes of Rehoboam and the encounter between Saul and Samuel remained, however. At the same time, Holbein also worked for well-known clients. His old patron Jakob Meyer paid him in 1526 to add figures to the altarpiece he had painted for him earlier. Holbein”s last commission in this period was the decoration of two clock faces of the city”s main gate in 1531. The reduced level of patronage in Basel was one of the reasons he returned to England in early 1532.

The second period in England, 1532-1540

Holbein returned to an England where politics and religion were changing radically. In 1532 Henry VIII was preparing to repudiate Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn, even against the advice of the pope. Among those who opposed Henry”s actions was Holbein”s former patron, Sir Thomas More, who resigned as Lord Chancellor in May 1532. Holbein himself seemed to distance himself from More in this second period and “turned his back on those who had been recommended to him,” according to Erasmus. Instead, the artist found favor in the new circles of power that gravitated around the Boleyn family and Thomas Cromwell. The latter became secretary to the king in 1534, controlling all aspects of government, including artistic propaganda. More was executed in 1535 along with John Fisher, for whom Holbein had also made a portrait.

Holbein”s commissions during this period include portraits of Lutheran merchants of the Hanseatic League. The merchants lived and ran their businesses in Steelyard, a complex of houses, warehouses, and offices on the north bank of the Thames. Holbein rented a house in Maiden Lane, once again devoting himself to private commissions. His portrait of Georg Giese of Danzig shows the merchant surrounded by the symbols of his trade. The portrait of Derich Berck of Cologne, on the other hand, is done in a classical style and probably influenced by the work of Titian. For the Steelyard guild, Holbein painted the monumental allegories The Triumph of Wealth and The Triumph of Poverty, both now lost. The merchants also commissioned him to paint Mount Parnassus for the coronation procession of Anne Boleyn on May 31, 1533.

Holbein also portrayed numerous courtiers, landowners, and visitors, although the most famous painting from his second English period remains The Ambassadors. This life-size panel depicts Jean de Dinteville, ambassador to Francis I of France in 1533, and Georges de Selve, bishop of Lavaur who visited that same year. The work incorporates symbols and paradoxes, including an anamorphic (distorted) skull. According to scholars, these symbols would all be references to knowledge, religion, morality, and illusion in the spirit of the Nordic Renaissance. Art historians Oskar Bätschmann and Pascal Griener presented the hypothesis that in the painting The Ambassadors, “sciences and arts, objects of luxury and glory, are all bowed down to the greatness of Death.”

No certain portraits of Anne Boleyn by Holbein have come down to us, particularly since her memory was erased after her execution for alleged charges of treason, incest and adultery in 1536. It is clear at any rate that Holbein worked directly for Anne and her circle. For her he designed a bowl with an image of a hawk on a rose bush, as well as jewelry and books dedicated to her. The artist also made sketches of several ladies in his entourage, including his sister-in-law Jane Parker. At the same time, Holbein worked for Thomas Cromwell, who commissioned him to produce distinctly reformist images, including anti-clerical woodcuts and decorations for the first page of the Bible translated into English by Myles Coverdale. Henry VIII had embarked on a grandiose program of artistic patronage with the intent of glorifying himself for his new status as supreme head of the Church of England, work that culminated in the construction of Nonsuch Palace begun in 1538.

From 1536 Holbein was employed as a court painter with an annual salary of 30 pounds. He then found himself working side by side with other “royal painters” such as Lucas Horenbout, who also came from the continent. In 1537, Holbein painted his most famous painting: Henry VIII in heroic pose, portrayed frontally. As a portrait painter, Holbein was praised because he was able to capture, behind the appearance, the most personal and significant expressions of the characters he portrayed up to describe their spiritual and moral characteristics, trying to combine the Gothic tradition with the new humanistic trends and influences Lombardy with the Flemish. It also survived the cartoon of a life-size work with the portrait of Henry painted for the Palace of Whitehall where the king appears with his father behind. The fresco also featured Jane Seymour and Elizabeth of York, but this was destroyed by fire in 1698. There are only some engravings and a copy made in 1667 by Remigius van Leemput. He made, again for Henry VIII, a half-length portrait in the same pose, but all life-size portraits of the king are copies derived from the scheme of the Whitehall painting. The figure of Jane Seymour was based on sketches made of her person by Holbein.

Jane died in October 1537, shortly after giving birth to Henry”s only son, Edward VI, and Holbein painted the portrait of the little prince two years later, holding in his hands a rattle in the shape of a scepter. The last portrait of Henry VIII executed by Holbein is dated 1543, but it was completed by others: the painting depicts the king with a group of court surgeons.

Holbein”s portrait style changed when he entered the service of Henry VIII, focusing in fact more on the face and clothes, omitting the effects of three-dimensionality and realism at the expense of symbolism. The artist also applied this style to miniature portraits such as that of Jane Small and to large portraits such as that of Christina of Denmark. He went with Philip Hoby to Brussels in 1538 and depicted Christina for the king, who was aiming at the young widow as his possible wife. According to Wilson, the portrait Holbein made of Christina of Denmark is “the most valuable portrait of a woman he ever executed, and one of the best ever painted in general.” In the same year, Holbein and Hoby went to France to portray Louise of Guise and Anne of Lorraine, again on commission of Henry VIII, but neither of the two portraits of their cousins has come down to us. Holbein found time to visit Basel, where the authorities welcomed him festively and where he received a pension. On his way back to England, he apprenticed his son Philipp to the goldsmith Jacob David (originally from Basel) in Paris.

Holbein also painted Anne of Clèves in the castle of Burgau. This was the wife whom Henry later married in Düren at the encouragement of Thomas Cromwell in the summer of 1539. The English envoy Nicholas Wotton reported that “Hans Holbein had depicted the effigies of Lady Anne and Lady Amelia with an expressiveness that made the images very realistic”. Her union with Henry was short-lived and she separated from him after a short time, at the end of an unconsummated marriage. The impact that Holbein”s portrait had on the English sovereign was witnessed by Sir Anthony Browne.

No one but Henry would disdain Anne again; the French ambassador Charles de Marillac found her attractive, pleasant, and worthy, however heavily dressed, “German-style,” in Holbein”s portrait. The king blamed this failure on Thomas Cromwell, who had not only been the architect of this marriage project, but had also given credence to the exaggerations about Anne”s beauty. This was one of the factors that led to Cromwell”s downfall.

The last years, 1540-1543

Holbein had managed to survive the fall of his first two great patrons, Thomas More and Anne Boleyn, but Cromwell”s arrest and execution on charges of heresy and treason in 1540 undoubtedly damaged his career. Holbein retained his position as painter to the king, however, but after Cromwell”s death a vacuum was created around him. Ironically, it was Holbein”s portrait of Anne of Cleves that contributed to Cromwell”s downfall: the king, displeased with the lack of attractiveness of his proposed wife, directed his anger at Cromwell. The latter, according to the sovereign, had exaggerated in praising her beauty, while there is no evidence that Henry accused Holbein of having “improved” Anne”s appearance.

In addition to his routine duties, Holbein also handled private commissions, still painting for Steelyard merchants. He also did some of his best miniatures including those of Henry Brandon and Charles Brandon, son of Henry VIII”s friend Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk and his fourth wife, Catherine Willoughby. Holbein sought to secure commissions from prominent courtiers vying for influence at court, particularly working for Anthony Denny, one of the king”s two gentlemen of the chamber. He became personal friends with Denny to the point of asking him to borrow money. He also painted a portrait of him in 1541, and two years later painted an innovative “clocksalt” model for him. Denny was part of the circle that had gained influence at court in 1542 after Henry”s unsuccessful marriage to Catherine Howard. The king”s remarriage in July 1543 to the reformist Catherine Parr, whose brother Holbein had portrayed in 1541, brought Denny”s party to power.

Holbein probably visited his wife and children in the late 1540s, partly to maintain his privileges as a citizen of Basel. He apparently did not work during this period, but the city of Basel still paid him six months” wages in advance. Scholars have wondered about the married life of Holbein, who lived away from his wife from 1532. His will mentions the presence of two children born in England, of whom nothing is known except that they were placed in foster care. Holbein”s infidelity does not seem to be a fact unknown to scholars. Some believe that Magdalena Offenburg, the model of the Darmstadt Madonna and of two portraits painted in Basel, was his lover. In one painting she had given her features to Laide of Corinth, lover of Apelles, the famous Greek artist whose name Holbein bore in humanist circles. However Holbein never forgot his wife and children, helping them financially. When Elsbeth died in 1549, he was in possession of a fair amount of money, having sold all his portraits before his death.

Hans Holbein died between October 7 and November 29, 1543 at the age of 45. Karel van Mander said in the seventeenth century that he had died of the plague. Wilson reports the story but with caution, since Holbein”s friends were present at his bedside, which is hard to believe for a plague victim. Peter Claussen suggests that he could have died from an infection called the sweating sickness. Calling himself a “servant of royal majesty,” Holbein made his will on October 7 at his home in Aldgate. Goldsmith John of Antwerp and some German-born neighbors signed the document as witnesses. He probably tested in a hurry because the document was not signed by any notary. On November 29, John of Antwerp, the subject of many portraits of Holbein, took the title of executor of the last will of the artist. He probably paid debts incurred by Holbein, cared for his two children in England, and sold and gave away his personal effects, including many drawings and early works that have come down to us. The site of Holbein”s tomb is unknown to this day since it was not marked with any inscription.

In 1899 the Holbeinstraße in Munich was dedicated to him.


Holbein”s earliest influences in his painting came from his father, Hans Holbein the Elder, a well-known painter of religious subjects and portraitist who passed on his techniques and talent for portraiture to his son. The young Holbein learned his trade in his father”s workshop in Augsburg, a city steeped in the book trade, where woodcuts and engraving flourished greatly. Augsburg was also one of the main “ports of entry” for the Italian Renaissance in Germany. At the time Holbein began his apprenticeship with Hans Herbster in Basel, it was the time of the late Gothic style, realism and emphasis on line, elements that would influence him for the rest of his painting career. In Basel, he was fostered by humanist patrons whose ideas helped form his vision as a mature artist.

During his years in Switzerland, during which he may have also visited Italy, Holbein added elements of Italian style to his stylistic vocabulary. Scholars have noted the influence of Leonardo da Vinci”s sfumato technique in his works, such as in his Venus and Cupid and in Laide of Corinth. From the Italians, Holbein learned the art of perspective centered on a single point and the use of architectural motifs and forms. In this he was probably influenced by Andrea Mantegna. Decorative details come less in his later portraits, while calculated precision increases. Despite the assimilation of Italian techniques and Reformed theology, Holbein”s art was still influenced by the Gothic tradition and its roots in the Nordic area. His portrait style, for example, remains distinct from the sensuous technique of Titian, as well as from the Mannerism of William Scrots, Holbein”s successor as painter to the King of England. Holbein”s portraiture, particularly in drawing, had much in common with that of Jean Clouet, an artist he may have met during his visit to France in 1524. In fact, he adopted Clouet”s method of drawing with colored lime on an unprepared ground, as well as attention to detail through preliminary drawings and sketches. During his second period in England, Holbein learned the technique of miniature painting, practiced by Lucas Horenbout. Particularly in his later years, he devoted much of his time to miniature portraiture.

Holbein followed in the footsteps set in Augsburg by artists such as his father and Hans Burgkmair, who earned their living largely through commissions in the religious sphere. Despite the demands of the Protestant Reformation, the church at the end of the fifteenth century was still largely medieval in its traditions. In addition to its ties to Rome, the German and Swiss churches kept alive pilgrimages, the veneration of relics, and prayers for the dead. Holbein”s early works fully reflect this culture. The rise of the reform movement, led by humanists such as Erasmus and Thomas More, however, began to change his religious attitudes. Basel, where Martin Luther”s major works were published, became the main center of transmission of Reformed ideas.

The gradual shift from traditional to Reformed religion can also be seen in full in Holbein”s works. His Body of Christ Dead in the Tomb of 1522 expresses a humanist vision of Christ in full accord with the reformist climate of Basel at the time. The Dance of Death (1523-26) takes up the late medieval allegory of the Dance Macabre as a reformist satire. Holbein”s series of etchings show the figure of Death in various poses, intent on confronting individuals at every stage of life. No one escapes Death, not even the pious.

In addition to the Dance of Death Holbein completed the Icons or Old Testament Series (comprising two works: Images of Old Testament Stories and Portraits and Prints of Old Testament Stories). These works were produced by Holbein in association with Melchior and Gaspar Trechsel in about 1526, then printed and edited in Latin by Jean and Francois Frellon with 92 accompanying woodcuts.

It seems well known that the Trechsel brothers had initially summoned Holbein to entrust him with the illustration of some Bibles. In fact, some of Holbein”s icons are also found in the recently discovered Biblia cum Glossis by Michel De Villeneuve (Michael Servetus). Holbein”s woodcuts are found in other works such as in Servetus” translation of the Old Testament, printed by Juan Stelsio in Antwerp in 1540 (92 woodcuts), and also in the Spanish edition printed by Francois and Jean Frellon in 1542 (92 woodcuts + 2), as demonstrated at the conference of the International Society for the History of Medicine by the expert researcher on Servetus, González Echeverría, who also proved the existence of an associated work of Holbein with De Villeneuve, the Biblia cum Glossis or “Lost Bible”.

Holbein painted many religiously motivated works between 1520 and 1526, including the Oberried Altar, the Solothurn Madonna, and a Passion. It was not until the Basel reformers turned to iconoclasm in the late 1520s that he began to become impatient with religious themes.

Holbein continued to produce religious works, but on a smaller scale. He drew satirical religious woodcuts in England, as well as a few pieces for private devotion such as a Noli Me Tangere, whose expressions were taken from his personal view of religion. In the Noli Me Tangere Holbein captures the moment when the risen Christ tells Mary Magdalene not to touch him, where adherence to Gospel dictates is clearly evident. The seventeenth-century diarist John Evelyn wrote that he had “never seen so much reverence and kindness as well as so much awe expressed in a single image.”

Holbein has been described as “the supreme representative of German Reformed art.” The Reformation was for all intents and purposes a varied period and his position was often highly ambiguous. Despite his ties to Erasmus and More, he subscribed to the revolution initiated by Martin Luther for a return to the Bible and the dethronement of the temporal power of the popes. In his woodcuts Christ the Light of the World and The Sale of Indulgences, Holbein illustrates Luther”s attacks on Rome. At the same time, he continued to work for the Herasmians and traditionalist Catholics. After his return from England to a now reformed Basel in 1528, he resumed work on both Jakob Mayer”s Madonna and the fresco paintings for the Council Chamber of the city hall. The Madonna was an icon of traditional piety, while the Old Testament stories were part of the Reformation program.

Holbein returned to England in 1532 under the tutelage of Thomas Cromwell, who was restructuring the country”s religious structure. He soon became part of Cromwell”s propaganda machine, creating images to support the theme of royal supremacy. During the period of the dissolution of the monasteries, he produced a series of small woodcuts in which the well-known “villains” of the Bible were disguised as monks. His reformist work The Old and the New Law identifies the Old Testament with the “Old Religion.” Scholars have noticed religious interference in his portraits as well. In The Ambassadors, for example, details such as the Lutheran hymnbook and the crucifix behind the curtain certainly allude to the French mission. Holbein painted few religious images in the latter part of his career.


For Holbein, “everything begins with a drawing.” The son of a grocer versed in art, he was heir to the German tradition of linear and precise drawing, especially at the preparatory level. Holbein”s lime-ink portraits demonstrate his skill. More drawings than finished works survive of him, which is why it can be assumed that some of them were made to remain so or for his own pleasure. Holbein produced few portraits during his years in Basel. These include his 1516 studies of Jakob and Dorothea Meyer, sketches, like those of his father, made mostly in silverpoint and lime.

Holbein painted most of his portraits during the two English periods of his life. In the first period, from 1526 to 1528, he used Jean Clouet”s technique for his preliminary studies, combining black and colored lime with unprepared paper. In the second period, from 1532 to his death, when he also used ink pen in addition to lime. Judging by the three hours of portrait posing that Christina of Denmark gave him, Holbein was able to make his portrait studies in an extraordinarily short time. Some scholars believe that he used a mechanical aid to help him trace the facial contours of his subjects. Holbein paid less attention to facial tones in his later drawings.

The portraits painted by Holbein are often accompanied by preparatory drawings that have survived. Holbein transferred each drawing onto a panel with the help of a geometric tool so that he could ensure absolute precision. He then constructed the pictorial surface with the use of tempera and oil, reporting even the smallest detail.

The result was a brilliant portrait painting where the subject always appears seated, but where the precision in detail, according to the scholar Foister, “made each person depicted clearly recognizable to contemporaries”, while also constituting an unparalleled source on the history of customs of the Tudor period. Holbein”s humanist clients had a very high regard for individuality. According to Strong, the subjects of his portraits lived “a new experience, a profound vision of humanist ideals.”

Different commentators differ on Holbein”s objectivity and accuracy as a portraitist. What some see as an expression of spiritual depth, others see as mournful, detached, or even absent. “He emphasized the suffused coldness of their continence,” wrote nineteenth-century biographer Alfred Woltmann, “but behind this exterior of calmness lay a deep breath of inner life.” Some critics see the late style in Holbein”s portraiture as a regression. Kenyon Cox, for example, believes that his methods became more primitive over time, reducing the painting “almost to the condition of the medieval miniature.” Erna Auerbach links the “formal decorative flatness” of Holbein”s later portraiture to the style proper to illuminated documents, citing in this regard the group portrait of Henry VIII with the Barber Surgeons” Company. According to other analyses there would be no pictorial change in the last phase of Holbein”s career.

Until the late 1630s, Holbein often set his subjects in three-dimensional settings. At the time, he also used to include classical or biblical elements such as drapery, architectural elements, or symbols. These portraits allowed Holbein to demonstrate his virtuosity and power in the use of metaphors, as well as clues to the private lives of the subjects depicted. His 1532 portrait of Sir Brian Tuke, for example, alludes to the unhealthy health of the painted subject by comparing his suffering to that of Job in the Bible. The depiction of the five plagues of Christ and the inscription “INRI” on the crucifix are, according to scholars Bätschmann and Griener, “intended to protect the owner from illness.” Holbein portrayed the merchant Georg Gisze amidst an elaborate system of symbols of science and wealth to evoke the depicted man”s personal iconography. However, some of Holbein”s other portraits of Steelyard merchants, for example in that of Derich Born, focus on the naturalness of the face, foreshadowing the late style adopted by Holbein.

The study of Holbein”s later portraits are complicated by the number of copies and derivative works attributed to him. Scholars are still trying to distinguish the real Holbein from other high-quality copyist works.


During the last decades of his career, Holbein painted a large number of miniatures, small portraits often worn like jewelry. His miniature technique was derived from the medieval art of illuminated manuscripts. Even Holbein”s largest paintings contained in one way or another small miniatures of objects, made with precision to give the overall work an even more monumental appearance. The twelve miniatures of Holbein that have come down to us propose all his mastery in this art. His miniature portrait of Jane Small, with its rich blue background, fine detail, and absence of shadows, is considered one of the finest pieces in this style. According to art historian Graham Reynolds, “Holbein portrayed this young woman with solemn appearance in the blue light of the room making it one of the most beautiful portraits of the genre.”

Throughout his life, Holbein drew large-scale decorations such as frescoes but also small objects, including plates and jewelry. In many cases, his drawings, or copies of them, are the only evidence of these works. For example, his frescoes for the Hertenstein House in Lucerne or for the House of Dance in Basel are known only through his drawings. As his career progressed, he added motifs from the Italian Renaissance.

Many of his designs were engraved on sets of Greenwich armor, including Henry VIII”s personal tournament armor. His style continued to influence the production of English armor for more than half a century after his death.

The preparatory cartoon for Holbein”s fresco of the entire Tudor family for Whitehall Palace was made on 25 sheets of paper joined together, each with a specially prepared background. Many of Holbein”s designs for historiated windows, metalwork, jewelry, and weapons have come down to us. All demonstrate his fluidity and skill in the art of detail.

Holbein”s way of drawing objects was to make preliminary sketches and then to make further versions that were increasingly precise and detailed. He used to use traditional decorations or ornaments with leaves and various decorations in use at the time. In the design of precious objects, Holbein worked closely with other craftsmen such as goldsmiths. His works, as suggested by art historian John North, “show how he worked flawlessly on all kinds of materials, giving a realistic look to objects as he gave personality expression to his portraits.” Although little is known about Holbein”s workshop, scholars agree that the drawings made by the artist must have served as a source for his assistants.

Holbein”s fame was largely due to the subjects of his paintings, often important or powerful figures in their day. Many of his portraits have since become true cultural icons. For example, he created the typical image in the collective imagination of Henry VIII of England. In painting Henry is presented as an iconic hero, although the tyranny of his character is not spared. Holbein”s portraits of other historical figures, such as Erasmus of Rotterdam, Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, remain fixed in the collective imagination to this day. The same can be said of many English lords and ladies today known to us in image only thanks to his art. For this reason, John North has called Holbein “the cameraman of Tudor history.” In Germany, however, Holbein is known primarily as an artist of the Protestant Reformation, and in Europe as a representative of humanism in painting.

In Basel, Holbein”s memory was perpetuated by his friend Amerbach and his son, Basilius, who dedicated themselves to collecting his works. The so-called Amerbach-Kabinett then went on to form the core of the collection of Holbein”s works that are still in the Kunstmuseum Basel today. Many documents, especially English ones, mention Holbein and his painting as early as the sixteenth century. Archbishop Matthew Parker (1504-75) noted how his portraits were “delineated and expressed full resemblance to the reality of life.” At the end of the sixteenth century, the miniature portraitist Nicholas Hilliard spoke in his treatise Art of the Miniature of its artistic debt to Holbein: “Holbein”s way of painting I also imitated, since he was the best.” No biography on Holbein”s life was written until 1604 when Karel van Mander wrote the work “Schilder-Boeck” (printer”s book), which was at times poorly edited.

Holbein”s followers produced different copies and versions of his works, but he never founded a real school with students. Biographer Derek Wilson has called him one of the great “soloists” of art history. The only other artist to have slavishly adopted his techniques seems to have been John Bettes the Elder, whose Man with a Black Hat (1545) has a style particularly close to Holbein”s. Scholars have also long debated the role Holbein played in influencing English art. According to Foister, “Holbein had no real successors and few imitators in England. The disparity between his portraits, subtle and questioning of men and women, and the portraits of Elizabeth I and her courtiers may seem extreme, and therefore it is difficult to trace a true stylistic succession to Holbein”s work.” In any case, “modern” painting in England can be said to have been born with Holbein. Artists after him clearly referred to Holbein”s works, sometimes in an explicit way. Hans Eworth, for example, made two full-scale copies in the 1660s of Holbein”s portrait of Henry VIII for Whitehall, but included it in the background used by the Basel artist for his work Mary Neville, Lady Dacre. Holbein”s influence in “monumentality and attention to structure” can also be seen in Eworths” work. According to art historian Erna Auerbach: “Holbein”s influence on the style of English portraiture is undoubtedly immense. Thanks to his genius, a prototype portrait was created that not only satisfied the client, but also brought English portraiture to a European level. It became the prototype of English court portraiture during the Renaissance period.”

Beginning in the 1720s there was a rediscovery of the old masters of English painting, and in particular Holbein was fully recovered through the careful work of Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel. The Flemish artists Anthony van Dyck and Peter Paul Rubens rediscovered Holbein through Arundel. Arundel commissioned engravings derived from Holbein”s paintings in his possession from the Bohemian Wenceslaus Hollar, works some of which are now lost. Holbein”s art was also appreciated in the Netherlands, where the opee dealer Michel Le Blon became a profound connoisseur of Holbein. The first catalogue raisonné of Holbein”s works was compiled by the Frenchman Charles Patin and the Swiss Sebastian Faesch in 1656. It was published in conjunction with Erasmus of Rotterdam”s In Praise of Folly with an inaccurate biography that portrayed Holbein as a dissolute.

In the eighteenth century, Holbein found favor in Europe in those who sought in his art an antidote to the Baroque. In England, one of the greatest connoisseurs of his work was Horace Walpole (1717-97) who appreciated him as a master of the Gothic style. Walpole filled his Strawberry Hill residence (neo-gothic style) with copies of Holbein”s works as well as having a room specially dedicated to him. From about 1780, there was a reappraisal of Holbein. A new cult of the sacred art of the great painters was supported by the German Romantics.


  1. Hans Holbein il Giovane
  2. Hans Holbein the Younger
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