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Hans Holbein, Henry VIII’s Portrait Painter

As an author focusing on British royal history, I find it interesting to explore situations that have been largely forgotten.

King Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger.

King Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Hans' Early Years

Hans Holbein the Younger was born circa 1497 in Augsburg in Bavaria, Germany. He was the son of artist and draughtsman Hans Holbein the Elder (1465-1524.) The Holbeins’ were an accomplished artistic family: Hans the Younger’s uncles Sigmund and Michael and his older brother Ambrosius also pursued art.

By 1515 Ambrosius and Hans had left their father’s workshop where they completed the early training in their craft. They were based in Basel, Switzerland working as journeymen for Hans Herbster, a renowned artist in the city.

Journeymen acquired qualifications as they served apprenticeships. They were not permitted to be self-employed or to call themselves master craftsmen, according to the medieval trade guild’s rules. Whilst working for Herbster, Ambrosius and Hans were approached about providing artwork for the intellect and philosopher Desiderus Erasmus (1466-1536.) Hans was also commissioned to paint the mayor of Basel and his wife. Signs were favourable, a great career surely awaited both sons of the celebrated Holbein the Elder. Sadly, it has been assumed that Ambrosius passed away because he vanished from the records in the late 1510’s.

Acclaimed Artist

Hans the Elder and Younger combined their talents for a mural project in Lucerne, Switzerland and besides taking on additional projects the younger Hans travelled to the north of Italy to study its artists. He returned to Lucerne but soon found himself back in Basel where he decided to take citizenship. He swiftly made a name for himself. In 1521 he married a widow named Elsbeth who was a mother to Franz and a business owner. The arrivals of Phillip Holbein within a year of their wedding and Katherina, Jacob and Kűngold in the following eight years completed their family.

He took on artistic projects for the local authority and church, created stunning murals, artwork for books using his skills with woodcuts, designed stained glass windows and religious images. He was in demand as the popularity of the religion of Lutheranism in Catholic Basel was rising.

Occasionally, he committed to painting a portrait of an influential person in the city but he was kept too busy to devote all his time to this art form. Or so he believed. His reputation as a portrait artist reached several European cities and his 1523 portrait of Erasmus was the springboard for his decision to travel to the Netherlands and France to ingratiate himself with King Francois I (1494-1547.)

A Self Portrait.

A Self Portrait.

England and A Change In Basel

In 1526, with a letter of invitation from Erasmus, he made the journey to London and Erasmus’ good friend and Henry VIII’s (1491-1547) trusted ally Sir Thomas More (1478-1535.) More commissioned several portraits from Holbein and praised his work highly. The Archbishop of Canterbury William Warham (1480-1557) was another client. Henry VIII made him no offers of work.

Hans Holbein the Younger had to return to Basel within a couple of years of his departure to maintain his citizenship, so he duly travelled home in 1528. His time away had been profitable enough for him to purchase two homes in the city. He painted Elsbeth, Phillip and Katherina in The Artist’s Family and this portrait is in the Kunstmuseum in Basel.

The change in religious leanings in Basel, once a bonus was now to his detriment. Some of his work was destroyed and the local authority questioned his non-attendance at Reformation services. Throughout his life, probably by design rather than accident, Hans' religious beliefs remained ambiguous so he managed to convince the authorities that he was not against the new religion and was willing to attend church, he had just not done so for whatever reason. He continued to fulfil projects but fewer commissions arrived as a result of the shift in belief systems.

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The Artist's Family (1528) by Hans Holbein. His wife Elsbeth, son Phillip and daughter Katherina are shown.

The Artist's Family (1528) by Hans Holbein. His wife Elsbeth, son Phillip and daughter Katherina are shown.

England and Fame

He decided to try his luck in England once again. It was 1532. Henry VIII was on the brink of breaking with the Church of Rome and establishing the Church of England, divorcing his first wife Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536) and marrying his pregnant mistress Anne Boleyn (1501-1536.) Sir Thomas More was in disgrace, he would be executed for opposing Henry’s actions in 1535, so Hans could not make approaches for work through his former client. He cleverly made the acquaintance of Boleyn family members and with Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540,) the rising star of the Tudor court for achieving King Henry’s goals. Anne Boleyn’s coronation eve procession featured a street tableau which Holbein was employed to create by Lutheran merchants in the city of London.

Hans Holbein was responsible for many of the depictions of Henry VIII, his wives and Thomas Cromwell that we are familiar with today and take as definitive representations. He painted the new queen Anne Boleyn but presumably the work was destroyed on Henry’s orders when he executed her. By 1536 Henry had awarded the position of King’s Painter to Hans. He received an annual salary of £30 which was far less than other court painters received.

Jane Seymour (1508-1537,) Henry’s third queen was depicted in murals at Whitehall and in portrait form, he painted Jane and Henry’s infant son Edward, later King Edward VI (1537-1553.)

Anne of Cleves 1539.

Anne of Cleves 1539.

Thomas Cromwell, his rise and fall were equally dramatic.

Thomas Cromwell, his rise and fall were equally dramatic.

A Thriving Career Halted

Hans was asked by Henry VIII to travel to the continent to paint Anne of Cleves (1515-1557) so that Thomas Cromwell could prove the beauty of his recommended fourth wife for the king. Henry agreed to the match as he liked what he saw in the portrait. History recorded that he was not so appreciative of Anne’s true appearance. Their marriage ended quickly, but she was given the honour of being referred to as “The King’s Sister” and Henry remained friendly with her. Luckily for Hans, Henry blamed Cromwell entirely and had him executed for this mismatch. Hans went on to paint the short lived wife number five, Katherine Howard (1523-1542) in 1540.

He returned to Basel that year, again to safeguard his citizenship, and he visited his wife and children who he’d left behind to pursue his career. In England, he’d managed to father two children by an unknown woman. The children were placed in the care of a nurse.

Back in London, Hans Holbein the Younger either contracted a fever, the plague or an infection and although no data confirms the cause or date of his death, it is believed to have been in the autumn of 1543. He made his will on 7th October 1543.

Friend, client and goldsmith John of Antwerp (another Hans, born circa 1497) was charged with clearing Hans’ debts, he sold assets including sketches and designs from Hans’ career, and he organised care for Hans’ two children in England. The acclaimed artist was buried in an unmarked grave, probably in Aldgate in the City of London. Elsbeth, still residing in Basel, survived him by six years.


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.

© 2021 Joanne Hayle

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