Hans Holbein the Younger Timeline

Hans Holbein the Younger Timeline

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Hans Holbein the Younger Timeline - History

Posted by Adam Busiakiewicz:

The Telegraph have published an article by Franny Moyle who might well have found the earliest portrait of Hans Holbein the Younger (c.1497-1543) hiding in plain sight. Her article describes a visit she made to the Staatsgallerie in Augsburg, where she noticed a prominent boy featured in Holbein the Elder's memorial to the Walther Family (pictured). Famously, the gallery features another work by Holbein the Elder showing two blonde haired boys who have long been identified as Hans (the Younger) and his brother Ambrosius (see below). Many readers will undoubtedly know of the drawing of the pair in Berlin. The Walther family memorial was created when Hans was five years old.

The comparison between these figures encouraged Moyle to get in touch with several scholars to see if anyone else had spotted him. It seems that no one else had. Indeed, her theory has since been endorsed by Dr Bodo Brinkman, curator of Old Masters at Basel's Kunstmuseum, which houses a major collection of Holbein's works.

Holbein in England

The Reformation made it difficult for Holbein to support himself as an artist in Basel, Switzerland, and he traveled to London in 1526. Erasmus furnished him with a letter of introduction addressed to the English statesman and author Sir Thomas More. Holbein painted many portraits at the court of Henry VIII. While there he designed state robes for the king. He also designed many of the extravagant monuments and decorations for the coronation of Henry's second wife, Anne Boleyn, in the summer of 1533.

Several extant drawings said to be of Anne Boleyn are attributed to Holbein. One portrays a woman with rather plump features dressed in a plain nightgown and coif. Some have said that this shows the queen during pregnancy, sometime between 1533 and 1535, but recent research shows that the subject is most likely one of Anne's ladies-in-waiting, possibly Lady Margaret Lee or her sister, Anne Wyatt. It seems more likely that the finished portrait Holbein painted of Anne Boleyn was destroyed after she was beheaded on May 19, 1536 on false charges of treason, adultery and incest.

Holbein painted Henry's third wife, Jane Seymour. He also painted Jane's sister, Elizabeth Seymour, who married the son of Thomas Cromwell. This portrait was incorrectly identified as Henry's fifth wife, Queen Catherine Howard, when it was discovered in the Victorian era. After Seymour's death Holbein painted Christina of Denmark during negotiations for her prospective marriage to Henry VIII. The likeness met with Henry's approval, but Christina declined the offer of matrimony, citing a desire to retain her head.

Holbein also painted Anne of Cleves for Henry VIII. Henry criticized the portrait as having been too flattering it seems likely that Henry was more impressed by extravagant praise for Anne than with Holbein's portrait. There is some debate over whether or not a portrait miniature of a young woman in a gold dress and jewels is in fact Holbein's painting of Henry's fifth wife, Catherine Howard.

The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521)

In this panel, Holbein has created a life-size image of Christ, lying in his tomb. The greenish hue to the skin, in particular around the wounds on the hand, feet and torso, as well as on his face suggest the putrefaction of flesh and results in an almost grotesque image. Rather than creating a sense of calm or peace, the mouth and eyes are shown wide open, so that the pain endured on the cross seems to continue into the tomb. These elements emphasize Christ's humanity over his divine status and this is compounded by the unnaturally stretched and emaciated body being confined in an uncomfortably narrow space, imbuing it with an uneasy claustrophobia.

The recess in which Christ is laid is painted with an incredible sense of depth and this adds to the realism of the piece. This is further enhanced by the loose strands of Christ's hair which have fallen over the edge of the surface upon which he lies and his finger which also reaches over the edge and into the viewer's plane, reinforcing the dimensionality of the space. This is an early example of Holbein's use of trompe l'oeil, a technique that he would later apply to great effect in many of his portraits.

It is possible that the panel was intended as part of a Holy Tomb, in place of a sculpture or perhaps as a lid over a sepulchre. Above the body, angels hold instruments of the Passion and a Latin inscription reads 'Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.' Art Historian Oskar Bsatschhmann notes that "Holbein transformed the image of the Christ at rest into the dreadful vision of a corpse, that of a man who had been condemned to death. Only the specific character of the wounds betray the identity of Christ." Although a fascination with the macabre was a common trait of early Protestant artists, their minds steeped in the apocalyptic horrors of the Reformation, this is not the only way in which to view Holbein's gory interpretation. The rotting flesh can also be seen to stress the sheer miracle of the Resurrection, occurring even after the human body has decayed.

Darmstadt Madonna (1526-28)

This Schutzmantelbid, or 'Virgin of Pity' painting, is also known as the Madonna of Jakob Meyer zum Hasen, shows Jakob Meyer, a Basel official, having invoked divine protection for himself and his family. He is portrayed to the left, his eyes looking upwards to heaven. Opposite him are his two wives, his first wife, Magdalena Baer, who died in 1511 is positioned behind in profile, and in front, is his second wife, Dorothea Kannengiesse, in three-quarter view. Before them kneels their only surviving child, Anna, but to the left, in front of Meyer, are thought to be his two deceased sons. Above them all towers the Madonna, cradling the infant Christ. The buckled carpet upon which they stand demonstrates Holbein's skill in creating life-like texture and light, but also serves as a symbol of wealth and to draw the viewer into the pictorial space, so that they too are welcomed into the group, sharing the divinity bestowed by the Madonna and Christ child. This is one of Holbein's most famous religious works and art historian Helen Langdon attributes its success to "its depiction of individual human identities combined with spectacular spatial control and illusionism".

As with the depiction of Christ in his tomb, Holbein includes human elements, in the individual portraits of donor and family, but more particularly in the Madonna and child. The twisting of the infant's body serves to emphasise the physical weight carried in the arms of his mother. For the Madonna herself, her face is not a stereotypical rendition in the tradition of Italian Renaissance painters such as Raphael, but rather was painted from life and is based on model, Magdalena Offenburg. In this manner, the painting retains the softness of the Italian tradition (particularly in the rendition of the two boys) but also brings to bear the realism of the Northern Renaissance, as Langdon notes, "Holbein achieved a combination of piety and grandeur, and interaction between the human and divine, to rival that of Van Eyck himself." The resulting group portrait is much more than a simple devotional image and as Holbein's final major religious work, marked his future in portraiture.

Portrait of Georg Giese (1532)

This portrait of wealthy merchant Georg Giese shows the trader in a three-quarter view, standing behind a carpet-covered counter, with various objects displayed across its surface. The sitter's name is on the wall to the left, along with his motto "no pleasure without regret". There are also letters on both walls that identify him and mark familial links to other merchant families, signalling a network of important connections. In these trompe l'oeil details, Holbein has gone as far as to recreate the writing of Giese's own hand on some of the correspondence. Amongst the many symbolic objects are carnations to signify an engagement or betrothal, a clock alluding to the passage of time, as well as a collection of tools to reinforce the profession of the sitter and a number of details indicating wealth. Giese's gaze is fixed towards the viewer and this allows him to dominate the space so that, even when surrounded by a busy collection of objects, the eye is still drawn to him. Holbein's artistic skill is particularly evident in the delicate glass vase and the sleeves of Giese's jacket, showing a Mannerist interest in surface texture. This realism later influenced 19th century advocates of naturalism in portraiture and this can be seen in the works of artists such as Bastien-Lepage, particularly in his Portrait of the Prince of Wales (1879-80).

This portrait marks the first major work by Holbein at the beginning of his second stay in London, prior to his royal appointment. It illustrates his development in portraiture and the influence of other artists of the Renaissance on him, most notably Titian. The pose and sideward glance being reminiscent of the Italian artist's Man with a Quilted Sleeve (1510). Simultaneously, the delicately painted vase with light reflecting off it was a typical feature of early Netherlandish paintings and this indicates a coalescence of influences in the artist's work, which shaped his style of portrait-making. The continued success of this portrait is illustrated in its use on the German 100,000 mark banknote in 1923.


Early career Edit

Holbein was born in the free imperial city of Augsburg during the winter of 1497–98. [11] He was a son of the painter and draughtsman Hans Holbein the Elder, whose trade he and his older brother, Ambrosius, followed. Holbein the Elder ran a large and busy workshop in Augsburg, sometimes assisted by his brother Sigmund, also a painter. [12]

By 1515, Hans and Ambrosius had moved as journeymen painters to the city of Basel, a centre of learning and the printing trade. [13] There they were apprenticed to Hans Herbster, Basel's leading painter. [14] The brothers found work in Basel as designers of woodcuts and metalcuts for printers. [15] In 1515, the preacher and theologian Oswald Myconius invited them to add pen drawings to the margin of a copy of The Praise of Folly by the humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam. [16] The sketches provide early evidence of Holbein's wit and humanistic leaning. His other early works, including the double portrait of Basel's mayor Jakob Meyer zum Hasen and his wife Dorothea, follow his father's style. [17]

The young Holbein, alongside his brother and his father, is pictured in the left-hand panel of Holbein the Elder's 1504 altar-piece triptych the Basilica of St. Paul, which is displayed at the Staatsgalerie in Augsburg. [18]

In 1517, father and son began a project in Lucerne (Luzern), painting internal and external murals for the merchant Jakob von Hertenstein. [19] While in Lucerne Holbein also designed cartoons for stained glass. [20] The city's records show that on 10 December 1517, he was fined five livres for fighting in the street with a goldsmith called Caspar, who was fined the same amount. [21] That winter, Holbein probably visited northern Italy, though no record of the trip survives. Many scholars believe he studied the work of Italian masters of fresco, such as Andrea Mantegna, before returning to Lucerne. [22] He filled two series of panels at Hertenstein's house with copies of works by Mantegna, including The Triumphs of Caesar. [23]

In 1519, Holbein moved back to Basel. His brother fades from the record at about this time, and it is usually presumed that he died. [24] Holbein re-established himself rapidly in the city, running a busy workshop. He joined the painters' guild and took out Basel citizenship. He married Elsbeth Binsenstock-Schmid, a widow a few years older than he was, who had an infant son, Franz, and was running her late husband's tanning business. She bore Holbein a son of his own, Philipp, in their first year of marriage. [25]

Holbein was prolific during this period in Basel, which coincided with the arrival of Lutheranism in the city. [26] He undertook a number of major projects, such as external murals for The House of the Dance and internal murals for the Council Chamber of the Town Hall. The former are known from preparatory drawings. [27] The Council Chamber murals survive in a few poorly preserved fragments. [28] Holbein also produced a series of religious paintings and designed cartoons for stained glass windows. [29]

In a period of revolution in book design, he illustrated for the publisher Johann Froben. His woodcut designs included those for the Dance of Death, [30] the Icones (illustrations of the Old Testament), [31] and the title page of Martin Luther's bible. [32] Through the woodcut medium, Holbein refined his grasp of expressive and spatial effects. [33]

Holbein also painted the occasional portrait in Basel, among them the double portrait of Jakob and Dorothea Meyer, and, in 1519, that of the young academic Boniface Amerbach. According to art historian Paul Ganz, the portrait of Amerbach marks an advance in his style, notably in the use of unbroken colours. [34] For Meyer, he painted an altarpiece of the Madonna which included portraits of the donor, his wife, and his daughter. [35] In 1523, Holbein painted his first portraits of the great Renaissance scholar Erasmus, who required likenesses to send to his friends and admirers throughout Europe. [36] These paintings made Holbein an international artist. Holbein visited France in 1524, probably to seek work at the court of Francis I. [37] When Holbein decided to seek employment in England in 1526, Erasmus recommended him to his friend the statesman and scholar Thomas More. [38] "The arts are freezing in this part of the world," he wrote, "and he is on the way to England to pick up some angels". [39]

England, 1526–1528 Edit

Holbein broke his journey at Antwerp, where he bought some oak panels and may have met the painter Quentin Matsys. [40] Sir Thomas More welcomed him to England and found him a series of commissions. "Your painter, my dearest Erasmus," he wrote, "is a wonderful artist". [41] Holbein painted the famous Portrait of Sir Thomas More and another of More with his family. The group portrait, original in conception, is known only from a preparatory sketch and copies by other hands. [42] According to art historian Andreas Beyer, it "offered a prelude of a genre that would only truly gain acceptance in Dutch painting of the seventeenth century". [43] Seven fine related studies of More family members also survive. [44]

During this first stay in England, Holbein worked largely for a humanist circle with ties to Erasmus. Among his commissions was the portrait of William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, who owned a Holbein portrait of Erasmus. [45] Holbein also painted the Bavarian astronomer and mathematician Nicholas Kratzer, a tutor of the More family whose notes appear on Holbein's sketch for their group portrait. [46] Although Holbein did not work for the king during this visit, he painted the portraits of courtiers such as Sir Henry Guildford and his wife Lady Mary, [47] and of Anne Lovell, identified in 2003 or 2004 [48] as the subject of Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling. [49] In May 1527, "Master Hans" also painted a panorama of the siege of Thérouanne for the visit of French ambassadors. With Kratzer, he devised a ceiling covered in planetary signs, under which the visitors dined. [50] The chronicler Edward Hall described the spectacle as showing "the whole Earth, environed with the sea, like a very map or cart". [51]

Basel, 1528–1532 Edit

On 29 August 1528, Holbein bought a house in Basel, in St Johanns-Vorstadt. He presumably returned home to preserve his citizenship, since he had been granted only a two-year leave of absence. [52] Enriched by his success in England, Holbein bought a second house in the city in 1531.

During this period in Basel, he painted The Artist's Family, showing Elsbeth, with the couple's two eldest children, Philipp and Katherina, evoking images of the Virgin and Child with St John the Baptist. [53] Art historian John Rowlands sees this work as "one of the most moving portraits in art, from an artist, too, who always characterized his sitters with a guarded restraint". [54]

Basel had become a turbulent city in Holbein's absence. Reformers, swayed by the ideas of Zwingli, carried out acts of iconoclasm and banned imagery in churches. In April 1529, the free-thinking Erasmus felt obliged to leave his former haven for Freiburg im Breisgau. [55] The iconoclasts probably destroyed some of Holbein's religious artwork, but details are unknown. [56] Evidence for Holbein's religious views is fragmentary and inconclusive. "The religious side of his paintings had always been ambiguous," suggests art historian John North, "and so it remained". [57] According to a register compiled to ensure that all major citizens subscribed to the new doctrines: "Master Hans Holbein, the painter, says that we must be better informed about the [holy] table before approaching it". [58] In 1530, the authorities called Holbein to account for failing to attend the reformed communion. [59] Shortly afterwards, however, he was listed among those "who have no serious objections and wish to go along with other Christians". [60]

Holbein evidently retained favour under the new order. The reformist council paid him a retaining fee of 50 florins and commissioned him to resume work on the Council Chamber frescoes. They now chose themes from the Old Testament instead of the previous stories from classical history and allegory. Holbein's frescoes of Rehoboam and of the meeting between Saul and Samuel were more simply designed than their predecessors. [61] Holbein worked for traditional clients at the same time. His old patron Jakob Meyer paid him to add figures and details to the family altarpiece he had painted in 1526. Holbein's last commission in this period was the decoration of two clock faces on the city gate in 1531. [54] The reduced levels of patronage in Basel may have prompted his decision to return to England early in 1532. [62]

England, 1532–1540 Edit

Holbein returned to England, where the political and religious environment was changing radically. [63] In 1532, Henry VIII was preparing to repudiate Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, in defiance of the pope. [64] Among those who opposed Henry's actions was Holbein's former host and patron Sir Thomas More, who resigned as Lord Chancellor in May 1532. Holbein seems to have distanced himself from More's humanist milieu on this visit, and "he deceived those to whom he was recommended", according to Erasmus. [65] The artist found favour instead within the radical new power circles of the Boleyn family and Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell became the king's secretary in 1534, controlling all aspects of government, including artistic propaganda. [66] More was executed in 1535 along with John Fisher, whose portrait Holbein had also drawn. [67]

Holbein's commissions in the early stages of his second English period included portraits of Lutheran merchants of the Hanseatic League. The merchants lived and plied their trade at the Steelyard, a complex of warehouses, offices, and dwellings on the north bank of the Thames. Holbein rented a house in Maiden Lane nearby, and he portrayed his clients in a range of styles. His portrait of Georg Giese of Gdańsk shows the merchant surrounded with exquisitely painted symbols of his trade. His portrait of Derich Berck of Cologne, on the other hand, is classically simple and possibly influenced by Titian. [68] For the guildhall of the Steelyard, Holbein painted the monumental allegories The Triumph of Wealth and The Triumph of Poverty, both now lost. The merchants also commissioned a street tableau of Mount Parnassus for Anne Boleyn's coronation eve procession of 31 May 1533. [69]

Holbein also portrayed various courtiers, landowners, and visitors during this time, and his most famous painting of the period was The Ambassadors. This life-sized panel portrays Jean de Dinteville, an ambassador of Francis I of France in 1533, and Georges de Selve, Bishop of Lavaur who visited London the same year. [70] The work incorporates symbols and paradoxes, including an anamorphic (distorted) skull. According to scholars, these are enigmatic references to learning, religion, mortality, and illusion in the tradition of the Northern Renaissance. [71] Art historians Oskar Bätschmann and Pascal Griener suggest that, in The Ambassadors, "Sciences and arts, objects of luxury and glory, are measured against the grandeur of Death". [72]

No certain portraits survive of Anne Boleyn by Holbein, perhaps because her memory was purged following her execution for treason, incest, and adultery in 1536. [73] It is clear, however, that Holbein worked directly for Anne and her circle. [74] He designed a cup engraved with her device of a falcon standing on roses, as well as jewellery and books connected to her. He also sketched several women attached to her entourage, including her sister-in-law Jane Parker. [75] At the same time, Holbein worked for Thomas Cromwell as he masterminded Henry VIII's reformation. Cromwell commissioned Holbein to produce reformist and royalist images, including anti-clerical woodcuts and the title page to Myles Coverdale's English translation of the Bible. Henry VIII had embarked on a grandiose programme of artistic patronage. His efforts to glorify his new status as Supreme Head of the Church culminated in the building of Nonsuch Palace, started in 1538. [76]

By 1536, Holbein was employed as the King's Painter on an annual salary of 30 pounds—though he was never the highest-paid artist on the royal payroll. [77] Royal "pictor maker" Lucas Horenbout earned more, and other continental artists also worked for the king. [78] In 1537, Holbein painted his most famous image: Henry VIII standing in a heroic pose with his feet planted apart. [79] The left section has survived of Holbein's cartoon for a life-sized wall painting at Whitehall Palace showing the king in this pose with his father behind him. The mural also depicted Jane Seymour and Elizabeth of York, but it was destroyed by fire in 1698. It is known from engravings and from a 1667 copy by Remigius van Leemput. [80] An earlier half-length portrait shows Henry in a similar pose, [81] but all the full-length portraits of him are copies based on the Whitehall pattern. [82] The figure of Jane Seymour in the mural is related to Holbein's sketch and painting of her. [83]

Jane died in October 1537, shortly after bearing Henry's only son Edward VI, and Holbein painted a portrait of the infant prince about two years later, clutching a sceptre-like gold rattle. [84] Holbein's final portrait of Henry dates from 1543 and was perhaps completed by others, depicting the king with a group of barber surgeons. [85]

Holbein's portrait style altered after he entered Henry's service. He focused more intensely on the sitter's face and clothing, largely omitting props and three-dimensional settings. [86] He applied this clean, craftsman-like technique to miniature portraits such as that of Jane Small, and to grand portraits such as that of Christina of Denmark. He travelled with Philip Hoby to Brussels in 1538 and sketched Christina for the king, who was appraising the young widow as a prospective bride. [87] John Hutton, the English ambassador in Brussels, reported that another artist's drawing of Christina was "sloberid" (slobbered) compared to Holbein's. [88]

In Wilson's view, Holbein's subsequent oil portrait is "the loveliest painting of a woman that he ever executed, which is to say that it is one of the finest female portraits ever painted". [89] The same year, Holbein and Hoby went to France to paint Louise of Guise and Anna of Lorraine for Henry VIII. Neither portrait of these cousins has survived. [90] Holbein found time to visit Basel, where he was fêted by the authorities and granted a pension. [91] On the way back to England, he apprenticed his son Philipp to Basel-born goldsmith Jacob David in Paris. [92]

Holbein painted Anne of Cleves at Burgau Castle, posing her square-on and in elaborate finery. This was the woman whom Henry married at Düren at the encouragement of Thomas Cromwell in summer 1539. [93] English envoy Nicholas Wotton reported that "Hans Holbein hath taken the effigies of my Lady Anne and the lady Amelia [Anne's sister] and hath expressed their images very lively". [94] Henry was disillusioned with Anne in the flesh, however, and he divorced her after a brief, unconsummated marriage. There is a tradition that Holbein's portrait flattered Anne, derived from the testimony of Sir Anthony Browne.

Henry said that he was dismayed by her appearance at Rochester, having seen her pictures and heard advertisements of her beauty—so much that his face fell. [95] No one other than Henry ever described Anne as repugnant French Ambassador Charles de Marillac thought her quite attractive, pleasant, and dignified, though dressed in unflattering, heavy German clothing, as were her attendants. [96] [97] Some of the blame for the king's disillusionment fell on Thomas Cromwell, who had been instrumental in arranging the marriage and had passed on some exaggerated claims of Anne's beauty. [98] This was one of the factors that led to Cromwell's downfall. [99]

Last years and death, 1540–1543 Edit

Holbein had deftly survived the downfall of his first two great patrons, Thomas More and Anne Boleyn, but Cromwell's sudden arrest and execution on trumped-up charges of heresy and treason in 1540 undoubtedly damaged his career. [100] Though Holbein retained his position as King's Painter, Cromwell's death left a gap no other patron could fill. It was, ironically, Holbein's portrait of Anne of Cleves which largely led to Cromwell's downfall: furious at being saddled with a wife he found entirely unattractive, the King directed all his anger at Cromwell. Granted, Cromwell had exaggerated her beauty, [101] but there is no evidence that Henry blamed Holbein for supposedly flattering Anne's looks.

Apart from routine official duties, Holbein now occupied himself with private commissions, turning again to portraits of Steelyard merchants. He also painted some of his finest miniatures, including those of Henry Brandon and Charles Brandon, sons of Henry VIII's friend Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk and his fourth wife, Catherine Willoughby. Holbein managed to secure commissions among those courtiers who now jockeyed for power, in particular from Anthony Denny, one of the two chief gentlemen of the bedchamber. He became close enough to Denny to borrow money from him. [103] He painted Denny's portrait in 1541 and two years later designed a clock-salt for him. Denny was part of a circle that gained influence in 1542 after the failure of Henry's marriage to Catherine Howard. The king's marriage in July 1543 to the reformist Catherine Parr, whose brother Holbein had painted in 1541, established Denny's party in power.

Holbein may have visited his wife and children in late 1540, when his leave-of-absence from Basel expired. None of his work dates from this period, and the Basel authorities paid him six months salary in advance. [104] The state of Holbein's marriage has intrigued scholars, who base their speculations on fragmentary evidence. Apart from one brief visit, Holbein had lived apart from Elsbeth since 1532. His will reveals that he had two infant children in England, of whom nothing is known except that they were in the care of a nurse. [105]

Holbein's unfaithfulness to Elsbeth may not have been new. Some scholars believe that Magdalena Offenburg, the model for the Darmstadt Madonna and for two portraits painted in Basel, was for a time Holbein's mistress. [106] Others dismiss the idea. [107] One of the portraits was of Lais of Corinth, mistress of Apelles, the famous artist of Greek antiquity after whom Holbein was named in humanist circles. [108] Whatever the case, it is likely that Holbein always supported his wife and children. [109] When Elsbeth died in 1549, she was well off and still owned many of Holbein's fine clothes on the other hand, she had sold his portrait of her before his death. [110]

Hans Holbein died between 7 October and 29 November 1543 at the age of 45. [111] Karel van Mander stated in the early 17th century that he died of the plague. Wilson regards the story with caution, since Holbein's friends attended his bedside and Peter Claussen suggests that he died of an infection. [112] Describing himself as "servant to the king's majesty", Holbein had made his will on 7 October at his home in Aldgate. The goldsmith John of Antwerp and a few German neighbours signed as witnesses. [113]

Holbein may have been in a hurry, because the will was not witnessed by a lawyer. On 29 November, John of Antwerp, the subject of several of Holbein's portraits, legally undertook the administration of the artist's last wishes. He presumably settled Holbein's debts, arranged for the care of his two children, and sold and dispersed his effects, including many designs and preliminary drawings that have survived. [114] The site of Holbein's grave is unknown and may never have been marked. The churches of St Katherine Cree or St Andrew Undershaft in London are possible locations, being located near to his house. [115]

Influences Edit

The first influence on Holbein was his father, Hans Holbein the Elder, an accomplished religious artist and portraitist [116] who passed on his techniques as a religious artist and his gifts as a portraitist to his son. [117] The young Holbein learned his craft in his father's workshop in Augsburg, a city with a thriving book trade, where woodcut and engraving flourished. Augsburg also acted as one of the chief "ports of entry" into Germany for the ideas of the Italian Renaissance. [118] By the time Holbein began his apprenticeship under Hans Herbster in Basel, he was already steeped in the late Gothic style, with its unsparing realism and emphasis on line, which influenced him throughout his life. [119] In Basel, he was favoured by humanist patrons, whose ideas helped form his vision as a mature artist. [120]

During his Swiss years, when he may have visited Italy, Holbein added an Italian element to his stylistic vocabulary. Scholars note the influence of Leonardo da Vinci's "sfumato" (smoky) technique on his work, for example in his Venus and Amor and Lais of Corinth. [121] From the Italians, Holbein learned the art of single-point perspective and the use of antique motifs and architectural forms. In this, he may have been influenced by Andrea Mantegna. [122] The decorative detail recedes in his late portraits, though the calculated precision remains. Despite assimilating Italian techniques and Reformation theology, Holbein's art in many ways extended the Gothic tradition. [123]

His portrait style, for example, remained distinct from the more sensuous technique of Titian, and from the Mannerism of William Scrots, Holbein's successor as King's Painter. [124] Holbein's portraiture, particularly his drawings, had more in common with that of Jean Clouet, which he may have seen during his visit to France in 1524. [125] He adopted Clouet's method of drawing with coloured chalks on a plain ground, as well as his care over preliminary portraits for their own sake. [126] During his second stay in England, Holbein learned the technique of limning, as practised by Lucas Horenbout. In his last years, he raised the art of the portrait miniature to its first peak of brilliance. [127]

Religious works Edit

Holbein followed in the footsteps of Augsburg artists like his father and Hans Burgkmair, who largely made their living from religious commissions. Despite calls for reform, the church in the late 15th century was medieval in tradition. It maintained an allegiance to Rome and a faith in pieties such as pilgrimages, veneration of relics, and prayer for dead souls. Holbein's early work reflects this culture. The growing reform movement, led by humanists such as Erasmus and Thomas More, began, however, to change religious attitudes. Basel, where Martin Luther's major works were published, became the main centre for the transmission of Reformation ideas. [128]

The gradual shift from traditional to reformed religion can be charted in Holbein's work. His Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb of 1522 expresses a humanist view of Christ in tune with the reformist climate in Basel at the time. [129] The Dance of Death (1523–26) refashions the late-medieval allegory of the Danse Macabre as a reformist satire. [130] Holbein's series of woodcuts shows the figure of "Death" in many disguises, confronting individuals from all walks of life. None escape Death's skeleton clutches, even the pious. [131]

In addition to the Dance of Death Holbein completed Icones or Series of the Old Gospel (It contains two works: The images of the stories of the Old Gospel and Portraits or printing boards of the story of the Old Gospel). These works were arranged by Holbein with Melchior & Gaspar Trechsel near 1526, later printed and edited in Latin by Jean & Francois Frellon with 92 woodcuts. These two works also share the first four figures with the Dance of Death.

It appears that the Trechsel brothers initially intended to hire Holbein for illustrating Bibles. [132] In fact, some of Holbein's Icones woodcuts appear in the recently discovered Biblia cum Glossis [133] by Michel De Villeneuve (Michael Servetus). Holbein woodcuts appear in several other works by Servetus: his Spanish translation of The images of the stories of the Old Gospel, [134] printed by Juan Stelsio in Antwerp in 1540 (92 woodcuts), and also of his Spanish versification of the associated work Portraits or printing boards of the story of the Old Gospel, printed by Francois and Jean Frellon in 1542 (same 92 woodcuts plus 2 more), as it was demonstrated in the International Society for the History of Medicine, by the expert researcher in Servetus, González Echeverría, who also proved the existence of the other work of Holbein & De Villeneuve, Biblia cum Glossis or " Lost Bible". [135] [136]

Holbein painted many large religious works between 1520 and 1526, including the Oberried Altarpiece, the Solothurn Madonna, and the Passion. Only when Basel's reformers turned to iconoclasm in the later 1520s did his freedom and income as a religious artist suffer. [137]

Holbein continued to produce religious art, but on a much smaller scale. He designed satirical religious woodcuts in England. His small painting for private devotion, Noli Me Tangere, [138] has been taken as an expression of his personal religion. Depicting the moment when the risen Christ tells Mary Magdalene not to touch him, Holbein adheres to the details of the bible story. [139] The 17th-century diarist John Evelyn wrote that he "never saw so much reverence and kind of heavenly astonishment expressed in a picture". [140]

Holbein has been described as "the supreme representative of German Reformation art". [57] The Reformation was a varied movement, however, and his position was often ambiguous. Despite his ties with Erasmus and More, he signed up to the revolution begun by Martin Luther, which called for a return to the Bible and the overthrow of the papacy. In his woodcuts Christ as the Light of the World and The Selling of Indulgences, Holbein illustrated attacks by Luther against Rome. [141] At the same time, he continued to work for Erasmians and known traditionalists. After his return from England to a reformed Basel in 1528, he resumed work both on Jakob Mayer's Madonna and on the murals for the Council Chamber of the Town Hall. The Madonna was an icon of traditional piety, while the Old Testament murals illustrated a reformist agenda.

Holbein returned to England in 1532 as Thomas Cromwell was about to transform religious institutions there. He was soon at work for Cromwell's propaganda machine, creating images in support of the royal supremacy. [142] During the period of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, he produced a series of small woodcuts in which biblical villains were dressed as monks. [143] His reformist painting The Old and the New Law identified the Old Testament with the "Old Religion". [144] Scholars have detected subtler religious references in his portraits. In The Ambassadors, for example, details such as the Lutheran hymn book and the crucifix behind the curtain allude to the context of the French mission. [145] Holbein painted few religious images in the later part of his career. [146] He focused on secular designs for decorative objects, and on portraits stripped of inessentials.

Portraits Edit

For Holbein, "everything began with a drawing". [147] A gifted draughtsman, he was heir to a German tradition of line drawing and precise preparatory design. Holbein's chalk and ink portraits demonstrate his mastery of outline. He always made preparatory portraits of his sitters, though many drawings survive for which no painted version is known, suggesting that some were drawn for their own sake. [148] Holbein produced relatively few portraits during his years in Basel. Among these were his 1516 studies of Jakob and Dorothea Meyer, sketched, like many of his father's portrait drawings, in silverpoint and chalk. [149]

Holbein painted most of his portraits during his two periods in England. In the first, between 1526 and 1528, he used the technique of Jean Clouet for his preliminary studies, combining black and coloured chalks on unprimed paper. In the second, from 1532 to his death, he drew on smaller sheets of pink-primed paper, adding pen and brushwork in ink to the chalk. [150] Judging by the three-hour sitting given to him by Christina of Denmark, Holbein could produce such portrait studies quickly. [147] Some scholars believe that he used a mechanical device to help him trace the contours of his subjects' faces. [151] Holbein paid less attention to facial tones in his later drawings, making fewer and more emphatic strokes, but they are never formulaic. [152] His grasp of spatial relationships ensures that each portrait, however sparely drawn, conveys the sitter's presence. [153]

Holbein's painted portraits were closely founded on drawing. Holbein transferred each drawn portrait study to the panel with the aid of geometrical instruments. [154] He then built up the painted surface in tempera and oil, recording the tiniest detail, down to each stitch or fastening of costume. In the view of art historian Paul Ganz, "The deep glaze and the enamel-like lustre of the colouring were achieved by means of the metallic, highly polished crayon groundwork, which admitted of few corrections and, like the preliminary sketch, remained visible through the thin layer of colour". [154]

The result is a brilliant portrait style in which the sitters appear, in Foister's words, as "recognisably individual and even contemporary-seeming" people, dressed in minutely rendered clothing that provides an unsurpassed source for the history of Tudor costume. [155] Holbein's humanist clients valued individuality highly. [156] According to Strong, his portrait subjects underwent "a new experience, one which was a profound visual expression of humanist ideals". [157]

Commentators differ in their response to Holbein's precision and objectivity as a portraitist. What some see as an expression of spiritual depth in his sitters, others have called mournful, aloof, or even vacant. "Perhaps an underlying coolness suffuses their countenances," wrote Holbein's 19th-century biographer Alfred Woltmann, "but behind this outward placidness lies hidden a breadth and depth of inner life". [158] Some critics see the iconic and pared-down style of Holbein's later portraits as a regression. Kenyon Cox, for example, believes that his methods grew more primitive, reducing painting "almost to the condition of medieval illumination". [159] Erna Auerbach relates the "decorative formal flatness" of Holbein's late art to the style of illuminated documents, citing the group portrait of Henry VIII and the Barber Surgeons' Company. [160] Other analysts detect no loss of powers in Holbein's last phase. [161]

Until the later 1530s, Holbein often placed his sitters in a three-dimensional setting. At times, he included classical and biblical references and inscriptions, as well as drapery, architecture, and symbolic props. Such portraits allowed Holbein to demonstrate his virtuosity and powers of allusion and metaphor, as well as to hint at the private world of his subjects. His 1532 portrait of Sir Brian Tuke, for example, alludes to the sitter's poor health, comparing his sufferings to those of Job. The depiction of the Five wounds of Christ and the inscription "INRI" on Tuke's crucifix are, according to scholars Bätschmann and Griener, "intended to protect its owner against ill-health". [162] Holbein portrays the merchant Georg Gisze among elaborate symbols of science and wealth that evoke the sitter's personal iconography. However, some of Holbein's other portraits of Steelyard merchants, for example that of Derich Born, concentrate on the naturalness of the face. They prefigure the simpler style that Holbein favoured in the later part of his career. [163]

Study of Holbein's later portraits has been complicated by the number of copies and derivative works attributed to him. Scholars now seek to distinguish the true Holbeins by the refinement and quality of the work. [164] The hallmark of Holbein's art is a searching and perfectionist approach discernible in his alterations to his portraits. In the words of art historian John Rowlands:

This striving for perfection is very evident in his portrait drawings, where he searches with his brush for just the right line for the sitter's profile. The critical faculty in making this choice and his perception of its potency in communicating decisively the sitter's character is a true measure of Holbein's supreme greatness as a portrait painter. Nobody has ever surpassed the revealing profile and stance in his portraits: through their telling use, Holbein still conveys across the centuries the character and likeness of his sitters with an unrivalled mastery. [165]

Miniatures Edit

During his last decade, Holbein painted a number of miniatures small portraits worn as a kind of jewel. His miniature technique derived from the medieval art of manuscript illumination. His small panel portrait of Henry VIII shows an inter-penetration between his panel and miniature painting. [166] Holbein's large pictures had always contained a miniature-like precision. He now adapted this skill to the smaller form, somehow retaining a monumental effect. [167] The twelve or so certain miniatures by Holbein that survive reveal his mastery of "limning", as the technique was called. [168]

His miniature portrait of Jane Small, with its rich blue background, crisp outlines, and absence of shading, is considered a masterpiece of the genre. According to art historian Graham Reynolds, Holbein "portrays a young woman whose plainness is scarcely relieved by her simple costume of black-and-white materials, and yet there can be no doubt that this is one of the great portraits of the world. With remarkable objectivity Holbein has not added anything of himself or subtracted from his sitter's image he has seen her as she appeared in a solemn mood in the cold light of his painting-room". [169]

Designs Edit

Throughout his life, Holbein designed for both large-scale decorative works such as murals and smaller objects, including plate and jewellery. In many cases, his designs, or copies of them, are the sole evidence for such works. For example, his murals for the Hertenstein House in Lucerne and for the House of the Dance in Basel are known only through his designs. As his career progressed, he added Italian Renaissance motifs to his Gothic vocabulary.

Many of the intricate designs etched into suits of Greenwich armour, including King Henry's own personal tournament harnesses, were based on designs by Holbein. His style continued to influence the unique form of English armour for nearly half a century after his death.

Holbein's cartoon for part of the dynastic Tudor wall painting at Whitehall reveals how he prepared for a large mural. It was made of 25 pieces of paper, each figure cut out and pasted onto the background. [170] Many of Holbein's designs for glass painting, metalwork, jewellery, and weapons also survive. All demonstrate the precision and fluidity of his draughtsmanship. In the view of art historian Susan Foister, "These qualities so animate his decorative designs, whether individual motifs, such as his favoured serpentine mermen and women, or the larger shapes of cups, frames, and fountains, that they scintillate on paper even before their transformation into precious metal and stone". [153]

Holbein's way of designing objects was to sketch preliminary ideas and then draw successive versions with increasing precision. His final draft was a presentation version. He often used traditional patterns for ornamental details such as foliage and branches. When designing precious objects, Holbein worked closely with craftsmen such as goldsmiths. His design work, suggests art historian John North, "gave him an unparalleled feel for the textures of materials of all kinds, and it also gave him the habit of relating physical accessories to face and personality in his portraiture". [171] Although little is known of Holbein's workshop, scholars assume that his drawings were partly intended as sources for his assistants.

Holbein's fame owes something to that of his sitters. Several of his portraits have become cultural icons. [172] He created the standard image of Henry VIII. [173] In painting Henry as an iconic hero, however, he also subtly conveyed the tyranny of his character. [174] Holbein's portraits of other historical figures, such as Erasmus, Thomas More, and Thomas Cromwell, have fixed their images for posterity. The same is true for the array of English lords and ladies whose appearance is often known only through his art. For this reason, John North calls Holbein "the cameraman of Tudor history". [175] In Germany, on the other hand, Holbein is regarded as an artist of the Reformation, and in Europe of humanism. [176]

In Basel, Holbein's legacy was secured by his friend Amerbach and by Amerbach's son Basilius, who collected his work. The Amerbach-Kabinett later formed the core of the Holbein collection at the Kunstmuseum Basel. [177] Although Holbein's art was also valued in England, few 16th-century English documents mention him. Archbishop Matthew Parker (1504–75) observed that his portraits were "dilineated and expressed to the resemblance of life". [178] At the end of the 16th century, the miniature portraitist Nicholas Hilliard spoke in his treatise Arte of Limning of his debt to Holbein: "Holbein's manner have I ever imitated, and hold it for the best". [179] No account of Holbein's life was written until Karel van Mander's often inaccurate "Schilder-Boeck" (Painter-Book) of 1604. [180]

Holbein's followers produced copies and versions of his work, but he does not seem to have founded a school. [181] Biographer Derek Wilson calls him one of the great "one-offs" of art history. [9] The only artist who appears to have adopted his techniques was John Bettes the Elder, whose Man in a Black Cap (1545) is close in style to Holbein. [182] Scholars differ about Holbein's influence on English art. In Foister's view: "Holbein had no real successors and few imitators in England. The disparity between his subtle, interrogatory portraits of men and women whose gazes follow us, and the stylised portraits of Elizabeth I and her courtiers can seem extreme, the more so as it is difficult to trace a proper stylistic succession to Holbein's work to bridge the middle of the century". [153]

Nevertheless, "modern" painting in England may be said to have begun with Holbein. [183] That later artists were aware of his work is evident in their own, sometimes explicitly. Hans Eworth, for example, painted two full-length copies in the 1560s of Holbein's Henry VIII derived from the Whitehall pattern and included a Holbein in the background of his Mary Neville, Lady Dacre. [184] The influence of Holbein's "monumentality and attention to texture" has been detected in Eworths' work. [185] According to art historian Erna Auerbach: "Holbein's influence on the style of English portraiture was undoubtedly immense. Thanks to his genius, a portrait type was created which both served the requirements of the sitter and raised portraiture in England to a European level. It became the prototype of the English Court portrait of the Renaissance period". [186]

The fashion for Old Masters in England after the 1620s created a demand for Holbein, led by the connoisseur Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel. The Flemish artists Anthony van Dyck and Peter Paul Rubens discovered Holbein through Arundel. [187] Arundel commissioned engravings of his Holbeins from the Czech Wenceslaus Hollar, some of works now lost. From this time, Holbein's art was also prized in the Netherlands, where the picture dealer Michel Le Blon became a Holbein connoisseur. [188] The first catalogue raisonné of Holbein's work was produced by the Frenchman Charles Patin and the Swiss Sebastian Faesch in 1656. They published it with Erasmus's Encomium moriæ (The Praise of Folly) and an inaccurate biography that portrayed Holbein as dissolute.

In the 18th century, Holbein found favour in Europe with those who saw his precise art as an antidote to the Baroque. In England, the connoisseur and antiquarian Horace Walpole (1717–97) praised him as a master of the Gothic. [189] Walpole hung his neo-Gothic house at Strawberry Hill with copies of Holbeins and kept a Holbein room. From around 1780, a re-evaluation of Holbein set in, and he was enshrined among the canonical masters. [190] A new cult of the sacral art masterpiece arose, endorsed by the German Romantics. This view suffered a setback during the famous controversy known as the "Holbein-Streit" (Holbein dispute) in the 1870s. It emerged that the revered Meyer Madonna at Dresden was a copy, and that the little-known version at Darmstadt was the Holbein original. [191] Since then, scholars have gradually removed the attribution to Holbein from many copies and derivative works. The current scholarly view of Holbein's art stresses his versatility, not only as a painter but as a draughtsman, printmaker, and designer. [192] Art historian Erika Michael believes that "the breadth of his artistic legacy has been a significant factor in the sustained reception of his oeuvre". [193]

The Humiliation of the Emperor Valerian by the Persian King Shapur, c. 1521. Pen and black ink on chalk sketch, gray wash and watercolour, Kunstmuseum Basel

Portrait of Bonifacius Amerbach, 1519. Oil and tempera on pine, Kunstmuseum Basel.

The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, and a detail, 1521–22. Oil and tempera on limewood, Kunstmuseum Basel.

Noli me tangere, possibly 1524–26. Oil and tempera on oak, Royal Collection.

Portrait of Jane Seymour, c. 1537. Oil and tempera on oak, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Henry VIII and Henry VII, part of cartoon for wall-painting at Whitehall, 1537. Pen in black, with grey, brown, black, and red wash on paper mounted on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, London.

Portrait of Christina of Denmark, c. 1538. Oil and tempera on oak, National Gallery, London.

Portrait of Anne of Cleves, c. 1539. Oil and tempera on parchment mounted on canvas, Louvre, Paris.

Henry VIII at 49 (1540), Gallerie Nazionali d'arte antica, Palazzo Barberini, Rome

Margaret Roper c. 1535–36, Bodycolour on vellum mounted on card, 4.5 cm diameter (1.8 in), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Apollo and the Muses on Parnassus 1533, Pen and black ink, grey brown wash and blue green watercolour on paper, 42,3x38,4 cm. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (kupferstichkabinett).

The carpet and the globe: Holbein’s The Ambassadors reframed

One of the most famous portraits of the Renaissance is without question Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors from 1533. Even today, it is a favored portrait to parody, mimic, or cite in art, TV, film, and social media, and it remains an important source for contemporary artists.

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533, oil on oak, 207 x 209.5 cm (The National Gallery, London, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

This double portrait depicts two men standing beside a high table covered in objects. On the left is Jean de Dinteville, age 29, a French ambassador sent by the French king, Francis I to the English court of Henry VIII. On the right is Georges de Selve, age 25, the bishop of Lavaur, France. They stand on an elaborate abstract pavement, which has been identified as belonging to the sanctuary in Westminster Abbey—the same space where Anne Boylen, second wife of Henry VIII, had been crowned and more recently, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were married.

Cosmati paving, Westminster Abbey (left), marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at Westminster Abbey (right)

The painting is filled with carefully rendered details, in a clear style that we have come to identify with Renaissance naturalism of the sixteenth century. The anamorphic skull in the foreground continues to delight and surprise viewers, and to inspire artists.

Anamorphic skull (detail), Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533, oil on oak, 207 x 209.5 cm (The National Gallery, London, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Anamorphic skull seen at angle, Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533, oil on oak, 207 x 209.5 cm (The National Gallery, London, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

This essay focuses on two details—the carpet and the globe—that speak about the globalized trade of the sixteenth century, and specifically European imperial ambitions and colonization.

The Anatolian carpet

Draped over the top level of the table between the two men is a carpet, usually referred to as a “Holbein Carpet” because of the artist’s fondness for painting this type of textile. This name, though, would not have been used in the sixteenth century. Instead, the carpet would have reminded observers of the place from where it was produced—in this case Turkey—which was controlled, in the sixteenth century, by the Ottomans. Anatolian carpets were popular luxury objects in Europe from the fifteenth century onward. Textiles from Turkey, as well as other parts of the eastern Mediterranean were highly sought after because of their extraordinary craftsmanship and beauty.

Carpet (detail), Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533, oil on oak, 207 x 209.5 cm (The National Gallery, London, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Often, so-called “Holbein carpets” display octagonal medallions, other stylized patterns, and sometimes borders with Kufic, a type of Arabic calligraphic script (which the one in The Ambassadors does not). This type of carpet became so popular in Europe, that other textile makers began to try to copy it, often with pseudo-Kufic designs intended to mimic the script.

Carpets like the one in Holbein’s painting were expensive. They figured prominently in elite European homes, and often cost as much as paintings and sculptures. Unlike today, a carpet of such expense would not be placed on the floor. It would be draped over a table, as shown in The Ambassadors, to be displayed as a beautiful object to observe and delight in. We can find similar carpets In other Renaissance paintings, often draped over parapets or tables. Occasionally such carpets are shown on the floor underneath the Virgin Mary to convey her elevated status as a holy figure.

“Holbein carpet,” 15th–16th century, wool, from Turkey (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

So why is a carpet in Holbein’s painting? The carpet is a luxury object meant to elevate the two men’s status. It also reminds us of the power and prestige of the Ottoman Empire at the time. The Ottomans were considered a threat to the European powers, even as Europeans desired Ottoman luxuries, such as carpets.

There is also likely another reason for the carpet’s appearance in the painting. Francis I, the French King, had recently aligned with King Henry VIII of England in an attempt to reduce the power of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor who controlled much of mainland Europe. Charles V was a powerful ruler, and Francis I and Henry VIII were concerned that he might try to wrest control away from them. Francis I also tried to cultivate relationships with the Papal States and the Ottomans, and he reached out to Süleyman the Magnificent, the Ottoman ruler. The carpet in Holbein’s painting may refer to the French ruler’s attempts to strengthen political ties to the Ottomans. Francis I no doubt coveted such a relationship as it would bolster his commercial ties, strengthening his ability to acquire Ottoman commodities and giving him greater access to goods from China and India that were also highly desirable.

The carpet has multiple meanings: politically, it speaks to Francis’s attempts to forge a political connection with the Ottoman ruler, and culturally, as an expensive, imported textile from the Anatolian peninsula. The carpet is a reminder that the Ottomans were an important part of European Renaissance culture.

Globe (detail), Anamorphic skull seen at angle, Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533, oil on oak, 207 x 209.5 cm (The National Gallery, London, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The globe

On the shelf below the carpet, there are a number of intriguing objects, including a lute with a broken string, a hymn book, and a globe. The lute’s broken string is thought to reference the discord that resulted from the Protestant Reformation, which the hymn book also calls to mind. Martin Luther, who initiated the Reformation, composed the hymns shown.

Luther’s Hymn Book (detail), Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533, oil on oak, 207 x 209.5 cm (The National Gallery, London, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The globe, however, does not refer to the upheaval that resulted from the Reformation, but it does call to mind other types of transformations then taking place. The map on the globe is displayed upside down from a globe’s common orientation. Despite this, many parts of Europe have legibly written inscriptions. Holbein positioned Europe closest to the picture plane and painted it in a golden color to draw our eyes to it. We see Africa above, and beyond that parts of the Americas.

Interestingly, one of the legible inscriptions on the globe is “Brisillici R.” for Brazil. The visual clarity and reference to Brazil is important. The French crown made a claim to Brazil after it had sponsored an expedition to the Americas in 1522. Heading the expedition was Giovanni da Verrazano, who returned in 1524, helping France to stake a claim to lands across the Atlantic. Verrazano would return to Brazil in 1527 to collect Brazilwood, a valuable resource. The French crown attempted to establish trading posts in Brazil in order to claim control over this rich foreign land, an action that pit France against its colonial rival Portugal.

Globe (detail), Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533, oil on oak, 207 x 209.5 cm (The National Gallery, London, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Several red lines also run through parts of the globe in Holbein’s portrait. One, which runs through Brazil and divides the Atlantic, was the line agreed to with the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. This treaty resulted in much of the Americas being granted to Spain, while Brazil was granted to the Portuguese. Another line, one that resulted from the Treaty of Saragossa in 1529 (once again between Spain and Portugal), divided the map in the other direction, giving the Portuguese the Moluccas, or Spice Islands. The inclusion of these lines reveals the importance of the competition between colonial powers for land, resources, and people, and the far-reaching implications that European maritime voyages and colonial expeditions would have across the globe.

19th-century facsimile of a 16th-century globe of the type depicted in Holbein’s The Ambassadors, 12 paper gores mounted on solid wood sphere, 54 cm (Beinecke Library, Yale)

What makes Holbein’s globe even more fascinating is that it replicates an actual globe from the sixteenth century. Holbein copied a globe such as the replica in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University, from around 1526. The original was a printed globe, made possible by the revolution in print technology that had transformed Europe since the middle of the 15th century. The globe was likely printed in Nuremberg, and was popular in the 1520s and 30s. On the printed globe, there are clear references to Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe which was completed in 1522. The globe then alludes to Habsburg dominance, since Charles V, a Habsburg, had sponsored Magellan. Despite Holbein’s borrowing from the printed globe, he omits the Magellan route. It has been suggested that this was an effort by Holbein, who was aware that his patron was a subject of Francis I, to downplay Habsburg power.

Peter Apian, A New and Well-grounded Instruction in All Merchants’ Arithmetic (detail), Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533, oil on oak, 207 x 209.5 cm (The National Gallery, London, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Like the globe and the Turkish carpet, the book that rests on the table just in front of the globe also alludes to the importance of trade. Holbein’s precise manner of painting the book allows us to identify it as an arithmetic text, specifically the German astronomer Peter Apian’s A New and Well-grounded Instruction in All Merchants’ Arithmetic (Eyn Newe unnd wolgegruündte underweysun aller Kauffmannss Rechnung). The book discusses profits and losses—an important aspect of mercantilism and trade in this period. The navigational instruments on the upper shelf also point to commercial activities that sponsored travel and exchange, but also imperialist expansion and colonization. Each is an important theme in this complex painting.

Additional resources

David Carrier, A World Art History and Its Objects (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2008).

Suraiya Faroqhi, A Cultural History of the Ottomans: The Imperial Elite and its Artefacts (I.B. Tauris, 2016).

Rosamund E. Mack, Bazaar to Piazza: Islamic Trade and Italian art, 1300–1600 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002).

Lisa Jardine and Jerry Brotton, Global Interests: Renaissance Art Between East and West (London: Reaktion, 2000).

Jerry Brotton, The Renaissance Bazaar: From the Silk Road to Michelangelo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)

Hans Holbein - Artist Biography with Portfolio of Paintings, Prints and Drawings

Holbein's best known paintings is a who's who of the height of English society at that time, including the likes of Henry VIII, Sir Thomas More, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves in his work. introduced to you 25 of his finest works and also discusses his influential career in great detail, tackling his works one-by-one.

Hans Holbein was undoubtably a fine artist but his career also serves as an excellent visual guide for those looking to understand this period of English history and put some faces to the names that they have been learning all about.

Henry VIII himself is the biggest name of this period and his own portraits have proven extremely popular in recent years with fine art print or poster reproductions of them being very common for fans of his work who can be found in Europe and North America in the main. You can find Holbein Henry VIII portrait paintings here with all the different ones included.

Ambassadors is the most memorable of art works from Holbein other than his series on Henry VIII and you can see it above. Ambassadors is available from the links provided as a fine art print reproduction from recommended art retailer, who also offer stretched canvases and posters of original Hans Holbein the Younger paintings.

There is a great selection available from the gallery that is also linked to above and throughout this website which aims to offer you information on where best to buy Holbein reproductions. The Holbein painters are interesting and unusual in that despite their obvious German nationality they are now very much better known in the UK because of how they produced portraits of the Monarchy which at that time represented England and there was no Britain as such.

This is not the only case of an artist who has made his name abroad, with Englishman Alfred Sisley one example, after making his reputation from French impressionist painting which led to him being much more comfortable across the English Channel in France than his own birthplace. Many have argued that Holbein's style was influenced by Dieric Bouts, Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling and Quentin Metsys, all from Northern Europe in the German and Netherlandish regions.

Sir Thomas More

Sir Thomas More was an integral figure behind the scenes of the ruling Monarchy during the time of Holbein the Younger's career and so it was almost inevitable that he would become a subject within a Holbein painting at some stage. The painting above is the best portrait that Holbein produced of Sir Thomas More, but there were many others which are also worthy of study. It is always interesting to historians to see how key individuals have been captured by any artist and these paintings can often offer great further clues as to the personality and standing of each individual.

King Henry VIII

King Henry VIII was one of the most important leaders of the English Monarchy and also boasted one of the strongest personalities of any King with a bold attitude which can be seen in many of his portraits that were created by Holbein who was an artist that the King was known to appreciate and this was backed up by the large number of times that Holbein was commissioned to paint the King over an extended period of time.

Holbein spent time on both full length works and also simpler head portraits of Henry and they all came later in the reign of this memorable king by which time his handsome young looks had long since past, partly due to the effect of natural age and partly due to an accident that he experienced earlier in his reign at a time when Holbein was still building a reputation as an artist and had yet to make his mark. King Henry VIII was a hugely powerful character who would not have accepted services of any kind that he was not happy with and so would have been a hard customer to please for any artist chosen to produce a portrait of him.

It is impressive that Holbein could some how create works that pleased him and remained unchanged when most other artists probably would have run into problems. It is likely the this painter's own self confidence may have helped to get his work appreciated and also ensure future commissions were forthcoming. Perhaps the King appreciated the openess and directness of this German painter and saw some likeness to his own brash character which successfully ran the country through a turbulent period.

Jane Seymour

Jane Seymour was a famous wife of King Henry VIII and also received a commissioned portrait from Hans Holbein. Her portrait is shown above and offers an interesting insight into a key part of Henry's life as he went about protecting his reign by trying to produce a series of sons who could take over from him. This obsession caused great frictions in his life and was the cause of his constant re-marrying. This part of the King's life has been studied in exceptional detail and as such portraits of his wives such as Jane Seymour are extremely helpful in helping us to understand more about each of them.

Anne of Cleves

Anne of Cleves was another of King Henry VIII's wives, and her best known portrait from Holbein is included above. In all there were six wives and each have played their part in the complicated dealings of the English Monarchy at this time. Holbein managed to capture each of the wives that he painted in a personal style that helps historians to compare each that he documented. There still remains some doubt as to who organised Holbein to produce each portrait of the wives but his success in portraying the King would have put him at the top of the list of suitable candidates to cover all the other major political figures around that time.

Henry VII Portrait

Henry VII portraits are continued directly above with another included. There was a whole series from Holbein in total, all produced several years apart and serving as a visual diary to the progress of this national figurehead who made many changes to the country which are still very much felt today, many centuries later. For those looking to learn more about the artist's list of paintings, or even buy their own copies as an art print, poster or stretched canvas, please see the list at the bottom of the page which includes all of his notable contributions to the European art scene of that time.

John Fisher Bishop of Rochester

John Fisher Bishop of Rochester was another influential nobleman during that time and his portrait can be found above. Such people would feel that using the same painter that the King used would immediately make their status appear more important and their own portraits would always be hung in their own residence, often somewhere in the countryside.

Families of that era would use these portraits to serve as a record of the long history of success within their own families who would have built up large amounts of wealth over several generations through a variety of means.

List of Hans Holbein the Younger Paintings

Further on from those listed above there are more Holbein pictures included below as well as this comprehensive list of famous oil paintings from the career of Hans Holbein the Younger.

Hans Holbein, the Younger, "Sir Thomas More"

Hans Holbein came to London from Switzerland in 1526, only a year before he dated this portrait. With a letter of introduction from the philosopher Erasmus, Holbein entered the rarefied circle of Sir Thomas More (1477/78-1535) and was soon living near him in Chelsea. More, in a letter back to Erasmus, spoke of Holbein as "a wonderful artist." Famed as a humanist scholar and author of the Utopia, More was a powerful statesman as well. By this time, he had already served Henry VIII as privy councillor for over a decade and became his lord chancellor in 1529. But More subsequently refused to subscribe to the Act of Supremacy, making the king head of the Church of England, and for this he was convicted of high treason and beheaded on July 6, 1535. A drawing by Holbein at Windsor Castle was the model for this painting, but the artist made numerous changes from it. As an evocation of one man's mind and character, this portrait has few equals. The gold S-S chain was an emblem of service to the king. The letters stand for the motto Souvent me souvien, or, Think of me often.

4. Holbein Painted His Most Famous Masterpieces At The Royal Court

The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533, via The National Gallery

Along with his iconic portrait of Henry VIII, The Ambassadors is among Holbein’s most celebrated works. The painting shows two Frenchmen who were in residence at the English court in 1533 and is packed with hidden meaning. Many of the objects shown represent the division of the church, such as the half-hidden crucifix, the broken lute string, and the hymn written on the sheet music. Such intricate symbolism demonstrates Holbein’s mastery of detail.

The most striking sign, however, is undoubtedly the distorted skull that dominates the lower foreground. From straight on, the rough outline of the skull can just about be perceived, but by moving to the left, the full form becomes clear. Holbein thus harnesses his command of perspective to mirror the mysterious but undeniable nature of mortality.


M icrofashion of the 1530s continued to reflect adult trends. As Hill wryly remarks: “Even the hose of prepubescent boys were fashioned with the exaggerated shape of the a padded codpiece” (355). Edward VI, son of Henry VIII (see Fashion Icon above) and Jane Seymour (Fig. 14 above), is dressed much like his father with cloth-of-gold doublet sleeves and a red velvet jerkin ornamented with gold cord and tied with golden aiguillettes. His red velvet bonnet decorated with ostrich feather and again with aiguillettes closely resembles his father’s. Davenport notes that the use of aiguillettes here and by the gentry generally was to elevate this “enormously popular hat” to higher status (431).

Two portraits of the young Maximilian of Austria (Figs. 2-3) show the high collars and cropped hair typically seen on young boys (Davenport 496). The bald head of the toddler John, brother of Maximilian, comically contrasts with his lavish adult clothing.

Fig. 1 - Hans Holbein the Younger (German, 1497-1543). Edward VI as a Child, ca. 1538. Oil on panel 56.8 x 44 cm (22 3/8 x 17 15/16 in). Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1937.1.64. Andrew W. Mellon Collection. Source: NGA

Fig. 2 - Jakob Seisenegger (Austrian, 1505-1567). Portrait of Maximilian of Austria (1527-1576), Aged Three, 1530. Oil on panel 43 x 34.4 cm. The Hague: Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery, 271. Source: Mauritshuis

Fig. 3 - Jakob Seisenegger (Austrian, 1505-1567). Maximilian and his younger brothers Ferdinand II and John, 1539. Oil on canvas 40 x 60 cm. Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum, GG_8191. Source: Kunsthistorisches

Jan van Scorel’s portrait of a young student (Fig. 4) offers a rare look at the dress of a non-royal individual. Jane Huggett and Ninya Mikhalia describe his outfit in The Tudor Child (2013):

“This middle-class schoolboy is plainly but respectably dressed in black with a red knitted cap. He wears a shirt of finely-gathered linen fastened with two thread buttons and loops. Over this, he has a double with a standing collar cut in one piece with the body. His coat has pleated skirts and an opening covered by a front-fastening flap with points on either side of the chest. It also has an integral standing collar.” (29)

The rosy-cheeked Eleanor (Fig. 5) was the eighth child of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria (before his election as Holy Roman Emperor) and his wife Anna of Bohemia and Hungary, which explains her more Germanic style of dressing with narrow pink sleeves ornamented with black velvet bands and transparent puffs of fabric.

Jan Gossaert’s portrait of a young princess, perhaps Dorothea of Denmark (Fig. 6) shows her in a square-cut bodice with a slight rise at the center, with large cream sleeves depicting interlocking blue knots and ornamented with hundreds of pearls. Her French hood style headdress is edged again with many pearls—not an outfit for romping around on the playground!

Fig. 4 - Jan van Scorel (Netherlandish, 1495-1562). Portrait of a Young Student, 1531. Oil on panel 46.5 x 35 cm. Rotterdam: Museum Boijmans, 1797. Aankoop / Purchase: 1864. Source: Boijmans

Fig. 5 - Jakob Seisenegger (Austrian, 1505-1567). Archduchess Eleanor (1534-1594), Duchess of Mantua as a two-year-old, ca. 1536. Oil on basswood 34 x 27 cm. Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum, 872. Source: KHM

Fig. 6 - Jan Gossaert (Netherlandish, active 1508 died 1532). A Young Princess (Dorothea of Denmark?), ca. 1530-32. Oil on oak 38.2 x 29.1 cm. London: National Gallery, NG2211. Source: National Gallery

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