Hans Holbein the Younger
Hans Holbein the Younger was German-born, in the winter of the year 1497, in the of town of Augsburg. Holbein was an exemplary printmaker and painter, and is known for being one of the most excellent portraitists of his time. He produced not only portraits and miniatures, but also paintings on the Reformation, religion, and satire, which were typically painted in the Northern Renaissance style.
His father was Hans Holbein the Elder, a prominent late-Gothic artist of the time. Holbein the Younger and his brother Ambrosius began training as artists at a young age, and eventually followed in their father’s footsteps, becoming professional artists. Hans the Elder owned a very busy workshop in Augsburg, in which his brother Sigmund also painted; they all worked together as painters and as draughtsman until the boys grew up. When Holbein the Younger was 17 years old, he and Ambrosius moved to Basel, Switzerland, most likely to increase their trade skills, as Basel was considered a center of education and the printing trade.
Basel’s best painter and the leading graphic artist in the city was Hans Herbster, and Hans and Ambrosius were fortunately apprenticed to him. For work, they designed metal cuts and woodcuts for the local printers, making a decent living while they learned the trade. At one point in time, Holbein was asked to make pen drawings in the margins of a copy of Erasmus’ The Praise of Folly, for a theologian named Oswald Myconius. The drawings are evidence of Holbein’s wit and penchant for satire.
During that time with Herbster, Holbein became acquainted with famous scholars, particularly humanist Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, who asked him to illustrate his written work, and years later he met Martin Luther, who needed illustrations for his German translation of the Bible. He was also commissioned by leading citizens, such as the Mayor and his wife, to paint their portraits. One of his famous pieces is actually a collection of 41 woodcuts, the satirical theme being the Dance of Death.
At some time before 1517 he must have traveled to Italy and studied the making and designs of Andrea Mantegna’s frescoes. Holbein left Basel to help his father with a project painting murals and two series of panels as copies of Mantegna’s The Triumphs of Caesar for Jakob von Hertenstein, who was a wealthy merchant in Lucerne, in 1517. It is documented that while there he also made designs for stained glass windows. By 1519 he had returned to Basel. His older brother Ambrosius is never mentioned again in any painters' guild records, so it is presumed that he may have died sometime earlier.
In Basel he joined the guild and married a widow named Elsbeth Schmid, who had a young son named Franz and was managing her late husband’s tanning business. She gave birth to Holbein’s son Philipp in the first year of their marriage. During this time Lutheranism had become very popular in Basel, and Holbein’s workload for the churches increased, and he was also busy creating paintings for the Council Chamber in the Basel Town Hall.
In 1523 he began making portraits in earnest, and his style had changed, becoming more advanced by his use of unbroken colors. He used ideas that he learned from the French, Italian and other Netherlandish painters to create his own original and progressive styles. He worked for both the reformists and the religious patrons, making money from both sides, and his portraits of the famed Erasmus brought him international fame as well.
Eventually, in 1524 he found the need to travel to France in search of richer royal patrons, and in 1526 Erasmus praised Holbein to Sir Thomas More in England. One of his famous portraits is of the well-known British scholar, More, made in 1527, which was followed by several pictures of More’s family and commissions to do portraits of More’s scholarly and humanist friends, although he was never asked to paint for the king. Holbein’s portrait techniques were considered far advanced for his time, and only became accepted in painting circles in the Netherlands over a hundred years later.
He returned home to Basel in 1528, in order to keep his citizenship there, and with his newly earned wealth he bought a second home in Basel. He painted a portrait there of his wife and their two children, Philipp and Katerina, but as Franz was not in the portrait it is possible he’d died from childhood illness. Religious upheaval caused some minor problems for artists in Basel, as religious images were banned, but Holbein weathered the changes well enough as his religious paintings were generally ambiguous. It was lack of wealthy patrons again that led him to travel back to England in 1532.
He found himself in the middle of political issues when he arrived, as Henry VIII was between wives, and in defiance of the pope. Holbein’s old patron More was on the opposing side, so Holbein avoided him and later went to the Boleyn family and Thomas Cromwell for patronage. Most of his work when he first arrived in 1532 were portraits for the Steelyard merchants, a few courtiers, landowners and visitors such as ambassadors to the city. His painting, called The Ambassadors was the best and most famous of his works, and it was produced in 1533.
Holbein worked for Cromwell, and then finally became employed as a King’s Painter in 1536; he soon painted his most famous picture of Henry VIII standing, feet spread apart, in a full-length portrait in 1537. Besides the king, Holbein painted Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Elizabeth of York and several other nobles while he remained one of England’s court painters. He also did a painting of Edward VI, Henry and Jane’s son, holding a golden rattle shaped like a sceptre, at age two.
He continued to return to Basel every few years to visit his wife and children, but his last visit was in 1543, when he became very ill from an infection. He quickly made a Last Will and Testament on October 7, 1543, to be sure that his property and family were well taken care of, including his two young children whom he had fathered while in England. On November 29 his friend, John of Antwerp, legally executed Holbein’s will, but the exact date of Holbein’s death was not discovered and the place of his burial has never been found.