Updated date:

A Life-Sketch of the Artist Hans Holbein the Younger

Denise has been studying and teaching art and painting for 40+ years. She has won numerous prestigious awards for her art and design.

Self Portrait, 1542.

Self Portrait, 1542.

The memory keepers and great historians of the past are the artists who meticulously recorded the details of people and places we would never be able to see without their help. They are the honored few who did for us what cameras do today: record faithfully.

What we artists do is immortalize a time, an era, a community, or a person in a portrait. This is why we are still fascinated with the little-known lady captured in The Mona Lisa. It is why an era that lasted a little more than 11 years (and dancers who only danced for two years at best) are immortalized forever in the posters of the Moulin Rouge by the artist Toulouse-Lautrec.

It is also why the era of this artist will be forever remembered. He recorded for us the much loved and talked about King Henry VIII and his many wives. THe has been studied and renowned for his realism and detail. It’s too bad his life was rather short. This is the story of Hans Holbein the Younger, who lived from 1497 to 1543.

Thomas More

Thomas More

Why Is He Called "the Younger?"

After Durer, Holbein is the greatest of the German painters of his time. His fascinating portrait The Ambassadors is still considered one of the most enigmatic paintings in art history. Hans Holbein is called the “younger” to distinguish him from his father, also an accomplished artist, Hans Holbein the Elder, who painted in the Late Gothic style. Born in Augsburg, Bavaria, Germany, he became a highly accomplished portrait artist.

Marriage and Early Works

He married a young widow, Elsbeth Schmid, who had an infant son already. She bore a son, Philipp, in their first year of marriage. At first, as a young painter, Holbein painted murals and religious works. He even designed stained glass windows and printed books. It was only occasionally that he was asked to paint a portrait, but finally, he made his mark after painting a portrait of the humanist Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam.

With a recommendation from Erasmus, he traveled to England in 1526 looking for work and was welcomed into the circle of Thomas More. In England, Thomas More found him several commissions. Some of the portraits of the More family are lost, but those that lasted came to be influential to the Dutch paintings of the 17th century.

Erasmus

Erasmus

Likeness and Symbolism

Unlike many famous painters before and after him, he founded no school but was still considered a master, and his work was highly prized. After his death, some of his work was lost, although it was highly collected and sought after. He drew and painted with rare precision, painting mostly true likenesses of the people he painted. Not to be content with the mere likeness, he often embedded layers of symbolism, allusion, and paradox in his art for the fascination of scholars and viewers.

Lutheranism

His time in Basil coincided with the arrival of Lutheranism in the city. About this time, the printing press made its debut, and books were being printed for the masses—not just the rich. With this influx of printed books, illustration was needed, and Holbein designed several woodcut designs for the publisher Johan Froben. He also created illustrations for the Old Testament and title page of Martin Luther’s Bible, which was a translation from Latin to the vernacular (German) so the average person could read the bible for himself.

Patronage of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell

After returning to Basel in 1528, he worked under the patronage of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell. Many things had changed in Basel while Holbein was gone. With the influence of reformers like Zwingli, imagery was being banned in churches. This, of course, has a profound effect on artists. It was the iconoclasts who probably destroyed some of Holbein’s religious artwork during this time.

As a citizen of Basel, Holbein was required to register like all other citizens to ensure that all went along and subscribed to the new doctrines of the church. It is not truly known what Holbein’s feelings were on this subject, but he is listed among those “who have no serious objections and wish to go along with other Christians.” He was commissioned to resume work on the council chamber frescos. However, it was probably fewer artistic commissions that prompted Holbein to return to England early in 1532 looking for work to support his family.

The New Queen

However, things both political and religious were changing in England as well. In 1532, Henry VIII repudiated his wife, Catherine of Aragon, in defiance of the pope. Holbein’s former host and patron was among those who opposed Henry’s actions and resigned as Lord Chancellor in May 1532. The painter, however, found favor within the new power circles of the Boleyn family: Anne Boleyn, the new queen, and Thomas Cromwell.

By 1535, he was an official painter to King Henry VIII, producing not only portraits but also decorations, jewelry, plates, and other objects for the royal family. Thomas More was executed in 1535. In a climate so dangerous, I would guess an artist needed to watch who his friends were or he’d find himself facing a beheading.

Also, as many times as he painted King Henry in all his girth and pomp, I would worry that the King may not have taken kindly to the artist not taking off a few pounds. I know when I painted my father, he was actually offended that I painted him exactly as I saw him. He figured he didn’t have that much weight or that many chins. I learned early that you better take off 10 years and 10 pounds or your clients may be mad at what they see.

George Gisze, Merchant

George Gisze, Merchant

His Many Portraits

Holbein painted more than just royal portraits, although these are the ones people remember most. He also painted various courtiers, landowners, and visitors during this time. We have faithful depictions of the costumes and fabrics common during that era in England mostly because of Holbein’s paintings.

He painted the ambassador of Francis I of France as well as bishops and clerics. With these paintings, he added things like a distorted skull, which would symbolize things to learn of the day. He loved adding things that spoke of mortality, religion, and illusion in the tradition of the Northern Renaissance.

“Drawing is the true test of art.”

— J.A.D. Ingres

Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan

Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan

Time of Travel

It is unfortunate that no certain portraits of Anne Boleyn by Holbein survived after her execution for treason and adultery in 1536. Her memory was perhaps purged after that. It was that year that Holbein was officially employed as the King’s Painter with an annual salary of 30 pounds. He designed and painted a mural of the king in a heroic pose with feet planted apart and with his father behind him, which was destroyed by fire in 1698. Only studies and drawings for that mural still exist.

He painted Jane Seymour who died shortly after the birth of Henry’s only son, Edward VI. He was sent to Brussels to sketch Christina of Denmark in 1538 as a prospective bride for Henry. That same year, accompanied by a diplomat, he went to France to paint Louise of Guise and Anne of Lorraine for Henry. Unfortunately, neither of these portraits survived. Then, in 1539, He painted Anne of Cleves, who was Henry’s eventual choice of wife. This meant a lot of travel for Holbein, but it also enabled him to go home to Basel and apprentice his son, Philip, to a goldsmith before returning to England.

“A portrait is a painting with something a little wrong with the mouth.”

— John Singer Sargent

Unhappy King

Henry married Anne of Cleves but was thoroughly unsatisfied with her in person. The entire weight of the king’s anger was directed at Cromwell, who was arrested and executed on trumped-up charges of heresy and treason. It doesn’t appear that the king blamed Holbein for the supposed flattery of Anne’s looks in her portrait.

After the execution of Cromwell, Holbein was still employed by the king but had few commissions to keep him busy. The politics of the times with courtiers and diplomats jockeying for positions of power must have been somewhat of an enigma to Holbein. With so many moving up to positions of power and influence only to be cast down a few years later, it had to have been hard to know who to align oneself with. A painter, after all, has very little power and only a little influence.

“A painting is never finished—it simply stops in interesting places.”

— Paul Gardner

Edward VI

Edward VI

Death at 45

Holbein died in 1543 while still in the service to the king. Some believed he died of infection, but others record that he died of the plague. Since it is recorded that there were friends at his bedside, the latter is not likely. While in England, he apparently fathered two children and they were taken care of in his will along with his wife back home and her sons. No one knows where he was buried, and in truth, his grave may not have been marked. He was only 45 years old.

The Artist's Family

The Artist's Family

Legacy Great Artist

Holbein has been described as “the supreme representative of German Reformation art.” His religious works and portraiture have been copied and studied for centuries. He has influenced many artists after him. I love to look at the unrivaled mastery of the costuming and the feel of the fabrics and laces.

artists-who-died-before-50-hans-holbein-the-younger

The Talent Survives

I appreciate the stories and struggles that artists have to endure to make the marks in history that some of them have made. Many times it is just a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

In the case of Holbein, who knows if he would have been as remembered if he had never left his home and traveled to England. Certainly, the mystery of Henry VIII and his many wives would have remained a mystery without Holbein’s faithful rendering of their lives and times.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Artistic Comments Welcomed

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on November 25, 2015:

FlourishAnyway,

Well, 45 is pretty young, I think. Maybe he caught a draft in those cold English castles or maybe it was the plague, who knows. Happy Thanksgiving to you too. Thanks for commenting as always.

Blessings,

Denise

FlourishAnyway from USA on November 25, 2015:

I had seen some of his works before but never knew his name. These days 45 seems so young. Happy Thanksgiving!

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on November 22, 2015:

CorneliaMladenova,

Very true. He does deserve to be remembered. Thank you for commenting, my friend.

Blessings,

Denise

Korneliya Yonkova from Cork, Ireland on November 22, 2015:

Great and informative hub. I have seen most of the portraits and paintings but never had any idea who has created them. The talent of Holbein is divine, he deserves being remembered forever. :)

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on November 17, 2015:

Rachel L Alba,

So kind of you to stop by, Rachel. I do hope you get to see them in person someday. Photos published like this really don't do them justice. There is a glowing magic about paintings that you can only see in person. Plus you will be amazed by the size of some of them. You have a blessed Thanksgiving too. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Rachel L Alba from Every Day Cooking and Baking on November 17, 2015:

Hi Denise, It always amazes me at the talent of these painters. Too bad their lives are cut short. I wish some day I could make it to a famous museum to see some of this great art. For now, I will be satisfied to see them in your hubs.

Have a Blessed Thanksgiving.

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on November 15, 2015:

daydreamer13,

Yes it is. I think we always need to keep in mind that if we don't learn from history we are doomed to repeat it. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

daydreamer13 on November 15, 2015:

History is fascinating. What a wonderful hub and beautiful pictures. Excellent work! Well done!!

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on November 14, 2015:

BlossomSB,

I agree. I've been painting for decades and I can't say I've come anywhere near his point to detail. I love the fabrics too. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on November 14, 2015:

Hi Larry,

Thanks. I actually find them educational too. The research is fun and I love reading and writing about artists anyway, so what could be better? Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Bronwen Scott-Branagan from Victoria, Australia on November 14, 2015:

I love his work, the people seem so fresh and real, although it was so long ago - and the way he paints fabrics and the folds in the materials is beautiful, I can just about feel it! Thank you for writing about him and showing so many of his paintings, too. How wonderful it would be to be able to paint like that!

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on November 14, 2015:

I always find these artist profiles educational.

Great job!

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on November 13, 2015:

Reynold Jay,

It's very discouraging and cut-throat. What is more, regular people (haha, non artists) find and job and are employed, unless they do something wrong. An artist finds a job, works diligently, finishes the project and again has to look for work. It's annoying that we are never really there... employed for long. But I love it so much I wouldn't do anything else. I'm sure your senior artist feels the same way. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Reynold Jay from Saginaw, Michigan on November 13, 2015:

You mentioned that there are too many artists for the jobs out there, Not encouraging for my DUY TRUONG ( senior artist) who will soon finish her work with me.

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on November 13, 2015:

Reynold Jay,

He did hobnob with the elite, didn't he. And I do hope I got all the facts straight since I'm not really a political sort. Eventually with so many heads falling to the axe, I would think that was not a very healthy place to be, don't you agree? Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Reynold Jay from Saginaw, Michigan on November 13, 2015:

I enjoyed this so very much. He certainly hobnobbed with the historical figures. I'm familiar with Cromwell in that they did a film on that many years ago with Richard Harris in the staring role. Well done, Denise.

Related Articles