Hans Holbein the Younger, is best known as one of the greatest portraitists of the 16th century. He also produced religious art, satire and Reformation propaganda, and made a significant contribution to the history of book design. He is called “the Younger” to distinguish him from his father, Hans Holbein the Elder, an accomplished painter of the Late Gothic school.
Born in Augsburg, Holbein worked mainly in Basel as a young artist. At first he painted murals and religious works and designed for stained glass windows and printed books. He also painted the occasional portrait, making his international mark with portraits of the humanist Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam.
Holbein travelled to England in 1526 in search of work, with a recommendation from Erasmus. He was welcomed into the humanist circle of Thomas More, where he quickly built a high reputation. After returning to Basel for four years, he resumed his career in England in 1532. This time he worked under the patronage of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell. By 1535, he was King’s Painter to King Henry VIII. In this role, he produced not only portraits and festive decorations but designs for jewellery, plate and other precious objects. His portraits of the royal family and nobles are a record of the court in the years when Henry was asserting his supremacy over the English church.
Holbein’s art has sometimes been called realist, since he drew and painted with a rare precision. His portraits were renowned in their time for their likeness; and it is through Holbein’s eyes that many famous figures of his day, such as Erasmus and More, are now “seen”. Holbein was never content, however, with outward appearance. He embedded layers of symbolism, allusion, and paradox in his art, to the lasting fascination of scholars.
For Holbein, “everything began with a drawing”. A gifted draughtsman, he was heir to a German tradition of line drawing and precise preparatory design. Holbein’s chalk and ink portraits demonstrate his mastery of outline. He always made preparatory portraits of his sitters, though many drawings survive for which no painted version is known, suggesting that some were drawn for their own sake.
Holbein painted most of his portraits during his two periods in England. In the first, between 1526 and 1528, he used the technique of Jean Clouet for his preliminary studies, combining black and coloured chalks on none-primed paper. In the second, from 1532 to his death, he drew on smaller sheets of pink-primed paper, adding pen and brushwork in ink to the chalk.
Holbein’s painted portraits were closely founded on drawing. Holbein transferred each drawn portrait study to the panel with the aid of geometrical instruments. He then built up the painted surface in tempera and oil, recording the tiniest detail, down to each stitch or fastening of costume.
The result is a brilliant portrait style in which the sitters appear, dressed in minutely rendered clothing that provides an unsurpassed source for the history of Tudor costume.
Hans Holbein died 1543, at the age of 45. The site of Holbein’s grave is unknown and may never have been marked.