Born in Germany at the end of the 15th century, Hans Holbein witnessed the legacy of earlier Northern European artists such Jan van Eyck get developed by his contemporaries, including Hieronymus Bosch, Albrecht Durer and even his own father. Holbein would contribute greatly to the Northern Renaissance, establishing himself as the most significant painters of the age. Read on to find out exactly how he achieved such a reputation.
10. The Holbein Family Was Made Up Of Artists
Hans Holbein is commonly known as ‘The Younger’ to differentiate him from his father. They shared both their name and pursuit. The elder Holbein was a painter who ran a large workshop in the city of Augsburg with the help of his brother Sigmund. It was under the tutelage of their father that the young Hans and his brother Ambrosius learnt the art of drawing, engraving and painting. Father and sons feature together in Holbein the Elder’s 1504 triptych, The Basilica of St Paul.
As teenagers, the brothers moved to Basel, the centre of Germany’s academic and publishing sectors, where they worked as engravers. Engraving was a highly important medium at the time, as one of the only ways to mass-produce images for wide circulation. While in Basel, Hans was also commissioned to paint portraits of the city’s mayor and his wife. His earliest surviving portraits, which reflect the Gothic style favoured by his father, are very different to the later works that would be considered his masterpieces.
9. Holbein Made His Name Making Devotional Art
In his early 20s, Holbein established himself as an independent master, running his own workshop, becoming a citizen of Basel and a member of its painters’ guild. It was a successful period for the young artist, who received numerous commissions from institutions and private individuals alike. Some of these were secular, such as his designs for the walls of the Town Hall. However, the majority were religious, such as illustrations for new editions of the Bible and paintings of biblical scenes.
It was during this time that Lutheranism began to make an impact in Basel. Several years earlier the founder of Protestantism nailed his 95 theses to the door of a church 600 km away in the city of Wittemberg. Interestingly, most of Holbein’s devotional works from his years in Basel indicate sympathy towards the new movement. For example, he created the title page for Martin Luther’s bible.
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8. He Was Also A Successful Portraitist
Holbein’s early portrait of the mayor of Basel came to the attention of some other important figures in the city, including the legendary scholar Erasmus. Erasmus had famously travelled across Europe, forming a wide network of friends and associates with whom he exchanged regular correspondence. In addition to his letters, he wished to send these contacts an image of himself, and therefore hired Holbein to create his portrait. The artist and the scholar developed a relationship that would prove immensely helpful to Holbein in his later career.
7. His Artistic Style Was The Product Of Numerous Different Influences
Both in his father’s workshop and in Basel, Holbein was under the influence of the late Gothic movement. It had remained the most prominent style in the Low Countries and Germany at the time. Gothic artwork was characterised by its exaggerated figures and emphasis on line, which meant that it often lacked the depth and dimensionality of its classical counterpart.
From Holbein’s later work, however, scholars assume that he must have travelled across Europe during his Basel years, due to the presence of unmistakably Italian elements in his artwork. Notably, he began to produce both scenic views and portraits, such as Venus and Amor, that showed a new understanding of perspective and proportion. While Venus’ face retains elements of the Northern European style, her body, pose and the posture of the small cupid are all reminiscent of the Italian masters.
Holbein is also known to have learned new methods from other foreign artists. From French painter Jean Clouet, for instance, he picked up the technique of using coloured chalks for his sketches. In England, he learnt how to produce the valuable illuminated manuscripts that were used as a symbol of wealth, status and piety.
6. Holbein Even Dabbled In Metalwork
Later in Holbein’s career, he added metalwork to the long list of skills he had already mastered. He worked directly for the infamous second wife of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, designing jewellery, decorative plates and cups for her collection of trinkets.
He also made specific pieces for the king himself, most significantly the Greenwich armour that Henry wore while competing in tournaments. So impressive was the intricately engraved suit-of-armour that it inspired English metalworkers for decades afterwards to try and match Holbein’s skill.
Many of Holbein’s designs used traditional motifs seen in metalwork for centuries, such as foliage and flowers. As he gained experience he began to branch out into ever more elaborate images, such as mermaids and mermen, which became a hallmark of his work.
5. It Was In England That Holbein Prospered
In 1526, Holbein travelled to England, using his connection with Erasmus to infiltrate the country’s most elite social circles. He lived in England for two years, during which he made portraits of some of the highest ranking men and women, designed a stunning celestial ceiling mural for the dining room of a stately home, and painted a large panorama of a battle between the English and their eternal enemy, the French.
After 4 years in Basel, Holbein returned to England in 1532 and would stay there until his death in 1543. Many of his masterpieces were produced during this final period of his life, and he was given the official position of the King’s Painter, which paid 30 pounds a year. This meant that Holbein could rely on the financial and social support of one of the world’s most powerful men, as long as he continued to produce fantastic artwork.
He certainly stepped up to his new role, producing the definitive portrait of Henry VIII as well as several paintings of his wives and courtiers. As well as these official pieces, Holbein also continued to accept private commissions, the most profitable of which were for a collection of London merchants, who paid for individual portraits and larger paintings for their guildhall.
4. Holbein Painted His Most Famous Masterpieces At The Royal Court
Along with his iconic portrait of Henry VIII, The Ambassadors is among Holbein’s most celebrated works. The painting shows two Frenchmen who were in residence at the English court in 1533 and is packed with hidden meaning. Many of the objects shown represent the division of the church, such as the half-hidden crucifix, the broken lute string, and the hymn written on the sheet music. Such intricate symbolism demonstrates Holbein’s mastery of detail.
The most striking sign, however, is undoubtedly the distorted skull that dominates the lower foreground. From straight on, the rough outline of the skull can just about be perceived, but by moving to the left, the full form becomes clear. Holbein thus harnesses his command of perspective to mirror the mysterious but undeniable nature of mortality.
3. Holbein’s Career Was Rocked By Political And Religious Changes
After his four years in Basel, Holbein returned to a radically changed England. He arrived in the very same year that Henry VIII broke from Rome, defying the orders of the pope by separating from Catherine of Aragon and marrying Anne Boleyn. Although the social circle that he had formed during his first stint in England had fallen out of royal favour, Holbein managed to ingratiate himself with the new powers, Thomas Cromwell and the Boleyn family. Cromwell was in charge of the king’s propaganda, and utilised Holbein’s artistic skills to create a series of highly influential portraits of the royal family and court.
One of these portraits did not go quite to plan and actually contributed to Cromwell’s fall from grace. In 1539, the minister orchestrated Henry’s marriage to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. He sent Holbein to make a portrait of the bride to show the king, and the flattering painting is said to have sealed the deal. When Henry saw Anne in person, however, he was sorely disappointed with her appearance and their marriage was ultimately annulled. Fortunately for Holbein, Henry does not seem to have begrudged him the artistic license, instead blaming Cromwell for the mistake.
2. And His Personal Life Was No Simpler
While still a young man in Basel, Holbein had married a widow several years older than himself who already had one son. Together they had another son and a daughter, who are shown in a remarkable painting entitled The Artist’s Family. Although composed in the style of a Madonna and Child, the main atmosphere evoked in the painting is one of melancholy. This reflects what seems to have been a far from happy marriage.
Apart from one brief trip back to Basel in 1540, there is no evidence that Holbein visited his wife and children while living in England. Although he continued to support them financially, he was known to have been an unfaithful husband, with his will showing that he had fathered another two children in England. Perhaps more evidence of marital discord is to be found in that fact that Holbein’s wife sold off almost all of his paintings that he had left in her possession.
1. Holbein Is Acknowledged As A ‘One-Off’ Artist
A large part of Hans Holbein’s legacy can be attributed to the fame of the figures that he painted. From Erasmus to Henry VIII, his sitters counted among the world’s most important people. Their images would always continue to attract interest and curiosity throughout the centuries. His mastery of such a wide variety of media and techniques also ensured that he was remembered as a unique artist. He not only created incredibly lifelike portraits, but also produced highly influential prints, striking devotional masterpieces, and some of the most admired armour of the day.
Holbein worked independently, without a large workshop or crowd of assistants, meaning that he did not leave behind him a school of art. Later artists nonetheless attempted to emulate the clarity and intricacy of his work, but none achieved the same level of success in so many different types of art. During his lifetime, Holbein’s reputation was won on the back of his multifaceted talents, and after his death, his fame was secured by the many masterpieces he had created.