Hans Holbein the Younger

Hans Holbein the Younger, “An Unidentified Man”, circa 1535, Black and Colored Chalks, White Gouache, Pen and Ink, Metapoint, Royal Collection Trust, England

Born in 1497 in the city of Augsburg, Hans Holbein the Younger was a German-Swiss portraitist and printmaker who worked in the Northern Renaissance style that occurred in Europe north of the Alps. The culture and influence of the Italian Renaissance was brought to northern Europe’s local art movements by the trade and commerce between Italy and the Low Countries in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Considered one of the greatest sixteenth-century portraitists, Holbein also produced religious art, Reformation propaganda, and book designs.

Hans Holbein the Younger was the second son of painter and draftsman Hans Holbein the Elder. He and his brother, Ambrosius, trained at their father’s Augsburg art and craft workshop until 1515 when they, as journeyman painters, traveled to Basel, the Swiss center of education and the printing trade. Apprenticed to Basel’s leading painter and printmaker Hans Herbster, they found work as designers of metal cuts and woodcuts for the city’s printers. In 1515, the Holbein brothers received a commission from theologian Oswald Myconius to create  margin drawings for that year’s edition of scholar Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam’s Latin essay “In Praise of Folly”.

In 1517, Holbein traveled to Switzerland’s central city of Lucerne where he worked with his father on murals for merchant Jakob von Hertenstein; he also created designs for stained glass works. In the winter of that year, it is suspected Holbein journeyed to northern Italy where he studied the fresco works of Andrea Mantegna, a painter who had experimented in the art of perspective. Holbein, upon his return to Lucerne, painted two panels at Hertenstein’s house with copies of Mantegna’s large egg tempera canvases.

Hans Holbein relocated to Basel in 1519, joined the Painters’Guild, and became a citizen of the city. In this productive period, he created internal murals for the Council Chamber at the Town Hall, a series of religious paintings and designs for stained glass windows. Working in book design through publisher Johann Froben, Holbein created woodcut designs for the “Dance of Death”, a late Middle Age allegory of death; illustrations of the Old Testament; and the title page of Martin Luther’s Bible. He also designed twelve alphabet fonts ornamented with depictions of Greek and Roman gods, and the heads of Caesars, poets and philosophers. 

While in Basel, Holbein painted a series of portraits, among them the portrait of the young scholar Bonifacius Amerbach, son of the printer Johannes Amerbach, and a double portrait of Basel’s Mayor Jakob Meyer and his wife, Dorothea. Sent to the Court of England by Antwerp’s secretary Pieter Gillis, Holbein painted two portraits of Sir Thomas More, one with his family; a portrait of William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury; the German astronomer and mathematician Nicholas Kratzer, a member of Thomas More’s scientific circle and tutor to More’s children; and courtiers such aa Lady Anne Lovell and Comptroller of the Royal Household Sir Henry Guildford and his wife, Lady Mary. 

In England circa 1536-1537, Hans Holbein officially entered the service of King Henry VIII. One of his first commissions was a 1537 mural for the Palace of Whitehall. It was the first life-size full-length portrait of a monarch to be created in England. A fire in the seventeenth-century destroyed the mural; however several copies of the section depicting Henry VIII survive. Holbein was often sent to Europe to sketch portraits of potential brides for the king due to his skill at rendering faces. A series of his drawings dated between 1526 and 1543 were  bound in a book and are kept within the Royal Collection, a majority of these portraits being housed at Windsor Castle. 

In most of his drawings, Holbein tended to concentrate on the face of the sitter and left more abstract lines to delineate the clothing. Depending on the part of the portrait he was sketching, he would often change mediums. Scholars believe he began his portraits with red chalk and then worked on subtle shading for facial contours. Holbein next applied fine lines of colored chalk for the features and finished with dark black ink for blocks of flat tone on the hats. Due to the darker handling of key facial features, the changing mediums created a more complex rendering of the face. 

Hans Holbein utilized a colored ground in his portrait sketches. He had a range of prepared drawing papers ready for use and selected the tone most apt for the complexion of his sitter. Using this method, Holbein quickly established the color accuracy of his sitter’s face; this also became the established practice later used by watercolorist William Turner for his open-air landscape paintings. Holbein used touches of watercolor or gouache to further extend the value range and to enhance a particular feature, such as the eyes or beard. He also employed a method known as silverpoint, drawing fine lines with a silver stylus on a prepared ground; the effect of which are marks that tarnish into warm brown tones through oxidization over time.

After entering King Henry VIII’s service, Holbein altered his paintings’ portrait style. He focused more intensely on his sitter’s facial features and largely omitted props and settings. Holbein applied this clean technique to the miniature portraits of Princess Christina of Denmark and Jane Pemberton Small, the wife of a London cloth merchant. At Burgau Castle, he later painted the portrait of the prospective bride of King Henry, Anne of Cleves. For this portrait, Holbein decided to paint her full-faced and elaborately attired. Aside from his official duties, Holbein continued to paint many private portrait commissions of merchantmen and courtiers. 

Hans Holbein the Younger died, at the age of forty-five, in London near the end of 1543. Although Flemish art historian Karel van Mander stated in the early 1600s that Holbein died of the plague, it is more likely he died from an infection as friends attended his bedside. Holbein, in October of 1543, had made a signed and witnessed will; however it was not witnessed by a lawyer. John Antwerp, a goldsmith and friend, legally undertook the administrations of Holbein’s last wishes, settled the debts, provided for Holbein’s family, and dispersed his remaining effects. Holbein’s gravesite is unknown. Not one note or letter from his hand survives. 

Top Insert Image: Hans Holbein the Younger, “Portrait of Unidentified Woman”, circa 1532-1543, Black and Colored Chalk, Pen and Ink on Pale Pink Prepared Paper, Royal Collection Trust, England 

Second Insert Image: Hans Holbein the Younger, “An Unidentified Man”, circa 1535, Black and Colored Chalks, Pen and Ink, Brush and Ink on Pink Prepared Paper, 27.2 x 21 cm, Royal Collection Trust, England

Third Insert Image: Hans Holbein, “John More, Son of Thomas More”, circa 1526-1527, Black and Colored Chalks on Prepared Paper, Royal Collection Trust, England

Foourth Insert Image: Hans Holbein the Younger, “Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey”, circa 1532-1533, Black and Colored Chalk with Pen and Ink on Pale Pink Prepared Paper, Royal Collection Trust, England

Bottom Insert Image: Hans Holbein, “Lord Thomas Vaux”, Date Unknown, Detail, Black and Colored Chalk, Pen and Brown Ink, Black Was and White Opaque Watercolor on Pink Prepared Paper, Royal Collection Trust, England

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