Hans Holbein ‘the Younger’ was a German artist and printmaker – widely considered as one of the finest and most accomplished portraitists of the 16th century and Early Modern Period. Working in a Northern Renaissance style, Holbein is renowned for his precise rendering and the compelling realism of his portraits, and is particularly famed for his portrayls of the nobility of the Tudor court of King Henry VIII. He also produced religious art, satire, Reformation propaganda, book design and intricate metalwork.
Here are 10 facts about this impressive and multifaceted artist:
1. He is referred to as ‘the Younger’ to distinguish him from his father
Holbein was born in approximately 1497 into a family of important artists. He is commonly known as ‘The Younger’ to differentiate him from his father of the same name (Hans Holbein ‘the Elder’) who was also an accomplished painter and draughtsman, as was Holbein the Younger’s uncle Sigmund – both were renowned for their conservative Late Gothic paintings. One of Holbein’s brothers, Ambrosius, was also a painter, yet died in around 1519.
Holbein the Elder ran a large, busy workshop in Augsburg in Bavaria, and it was here the boys learned the art of drawing, engraving and painting. In 1515, Holbein and his brother Ambrosius moved to Basel in Switzerland, where they designed prints, murals, stained glass and engravings. At the time, engraving was one of the only ways to mass-produce images for wide circulation, thus a highly important medium.
2. He was a successful portraitist from an early stage
In 1517 Holbein went to Lucerne, where he and his father were commissioned to paint murals for the city mayor’s mansion as well as portraits of the mayor and his wife. These early surviving portraits reflect his father’s favoured Gothic style, and are very different to Holbein’s later works that are considered his masterpieces.
Around this time, Holbein also drew a famous series of pen and ink illustrations in the margins of his schoolmaster’s book, The Praise of Folly, written by Dutch humanist and legendary scholar Erasmus. Holbein was introduced to Erasmus, who later hired him to paint three portraits of him to send to his contacts from his travels across Europe – making Holbein an international artist. Hobein and Erasmus developed a relationship that proved very helpful to Holbein in his later career.
3. Most of his early career was spent making religious art
Following the death of Ambrosius, in 1519 and now in his early 20s, Holbein returned to Basel and established himself as an independent master whilst running his own busy workshop. He became a Basel citizen and married Elsbeth Binsenstock-Schmid, prior to being accepted into Basel’s painters’ guild.
Over time, Holbein received numerous commissions from institutions and private individuals. The majority of these had a religious theme, including murals, altarpieces, illustrations for new Bible editions and paintings of biblical scenes.
During this time, Lutheranism was making an impact in Basel – just several years earlier, Martin Luther had posted his 95 Theses to a church door in Wittemberg, 600km away. Most of Holbein’s devotional works at this time show sympathy towards Protestantism, with Holbein creating the title page for Martin Luther’s Bible.
4. Holbein’s artistic style developed from several different influences
Early in his career, Holbein’s artistic style was influenced by the late Gothic movement – the most prominent style in the Low Countries and Germany at the time. This style tended to exaggerate figures and placed an emphasis on line.
Holbein’s travels in Europe meant he later incorporated Italian-style elements, developing his perspective and proportion through painting scenic views and portraits such as Venus and Amor.
Other foreign artists also influenced his work such as French painter Jean Clouet (in his use of coloured chalks for his sketches) as did the English illuminated manuscripts that Holbein learned to produce.
5. Holbein also excelled in metalwork
Later in his career, Holbein was interested in metalwork, designing jewellery, plates and trinket cups for Anne Boleyn, and armour for King Henry VIII. The intricately engraved Greenwich armour he designed (including foliage and flowers) was worn by Henry whilst competing in tournaments, and inspired other English metalworkers to attempt to match this skill. Holbein later worked on even more elaborate engravings including mermen and mermaids – a later hallmark of his work.
6. Holbein became King Henry VIII’s official Painter
The Reformation made it difficult for Holbein to support himself as an artist in Basel, so in 1526 he moved to London. His connection to Erasmus (and a letter of introduction from Erasmus to Sir Thomas More) facilitated his entry into England’s elite social circles.
During his initial 2 year stint in England, Holbein painted portraits of a humanist circle, and the highest ranking men and women, as well as designing ceiling murals for stately homes and battle panoramas. Having returned to Basel for 4 years, Holbein returned to England in 1532, staying there until his death in 1543.
Holbein painted many portraits at the court of King Henry VIII, where he became the official ‘King’s Painter’ which paid £30 a year, enabling him to rely on the financial and social support of the king. Many of his masterpieces were produced during this time, including his definitive portrait of King Henry VIII, his design for Henry’s state robes, and several paintings of Henry’s wives and courtiers, including the extravagant monuments and decorations for Anne Boleyn’s coronation in 1533.
Additionally he accepted private commissions, including for a collection of London merchants, and is thought to have painted approximately 150 portraits – life-size and miniature, of royalty and nobility alike – during the last decade of his life.
7. Political and religious changes in England impacted on Holbein’s career
Holbein returned to a radically changed England for his second (and lasting) time in 1532 – the same year that Henry VIII had broken from Rome by separating from Catherine of Aragon and married Anne Boleyn.
Holbein ingratiated himself with the new social circle in the changed circumstances, which included Thomas Cromwell and the Boleyn family. Cromwell, in charge of the king’s propaganda, utilised Holbein’s skills to create a series of highly influential portraits of the royal family and court.
8. One of his paintings contributed to Henry’s annulment from Anne of Cleves – and Thomas Cromwell’s fall from grace
In 1539, Thomas Cromwell orchestrated Henry’s marriage to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. He sent Holbein to paint a portrait of Anne to show King Henry VIII his bride, and this flattering painting is said to have sealed Henry’s desire to marry her. However, when Henry saw Anne in person he was disappointed with her appearance and their marriage was ultimately annulled. Fortunately, Henry didn’t blame Holbein for his artistic licence, instead blaming Cromwell for the mistake.
9. Holbein’s own marriage was far from happy
Holbein had married a widow several years older than him, who already had a son. Together they had another son and a daughter. However, 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 supported them financially, he was known to have been unfaithful, with his will showing that he had fathered another two children in England. Holbein’s wife also sold almost all of his paintings that were in her possession.
10. Holbein’s artistic style and multifaceted talents make him a unique artist
Holbein died in London aged 45, possibly a victim of the plague. His mastery of a wide variety of mediums and techniques has ensured his fame as a unique and independent artist – from creating detailed lifelike portraits, influential prints, religious masterpieces, to some of the most unique and admired armour of the time.
Whilst a large part of Holbein’s legacy is attributed to the fame of the important figures in the masterpieces that he painted, later artists were unable to emulate the clarity and intricacy of his work across so many different types of art, highlighting his extraordinary talent.
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