Hans Holbein, the Younger, was a printmaker and painter of German origin. He was one of the most renowned artists of the Northern Renaissance and aimed to compete with masters like Albrecht Dürer and Andrea Mantegna. He produced portraits, satire, religious art, and Reformation propaganda, as well as contributing to the historical account. The painter created portraits of significant figures, such as the Dutch philosopher Erasmus. The monarch Henry VIII and the statesman Thomas Cromwell were also his subjects. Throughout his career, Holbein became known and admired for his ability to capture his subjects' liveliness. His work is beautifully subtle and somewhat ambiguous, as he precisely portrayed texture and detail.
Hans Holbein was born in the year 1497 in Augsburg, one of the most important commercial centers in the German region. He was named "the Younger", to differentiate himself from his father, Hans Holbein, the Elder, a painter of the Late Gothic Era.
Holbein, the Elder, worked with religious commissions. He also made a significant number of portraits during his life, a characteristic that undoubtedly influenced his son. At the time Hans Holbein was born, his father was working in southern Germany, while his uncle, Sigmund, was working in a studio in Augsburg.
In 1515, Hans and his brother Ambrosius Holbein became part of the studio of the Swiss painter Hans Herbst in Basel, Switzerland. Ambrosius participated in his first commercial work in the monastery of Stein am Rhein. In the same year, they contacted a theologian, Oswald Myconius, and began attending his Latin classes.
In the next year, Hans painted Portrait of Dorothea Meyer (1516), and her husband Jakob Meyer, the newly elected mayor of Basel. In Jakob's portrait, the german painter signed "HH", which opened to speculations that the commission was assigned to his master. During this period, Holbein was still his apprentice. In the same year, there are records of Ambrosius and Hans getting involved in a brawl.
Hans Holbein became employed under Jakob von Hertenstein, mayor of Lucerne, to decorate his new house. The commission was received by his father, who then involved the two brothers, and Hans was responsible for the building's facade. Because of his work, he was commissioned to create Portrait of Benedikt von Hertenstein (1517). Yet again, there is documentation that shows that the artist was involved in another brawl, this time with a knife, which resulted in him being finned.
Holbein returned to Basel and entered the city's guild, no longer as an apprentice. In 1519, he married Elsbeth Binzenstock, depicted in Portrait of the Artist's Wife (1517). The painter began working with the city's publishers, making book designs. From 1520 on, the artist was happy to receive generous commissions at the town, works such as decorating the city council.
In 1521 he made the hauntingly detailed masterpiece entitled The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521). The artwork is today at the Kunstmuseum of Basel. Christ's face is invaded by a morbid green pigment. His punctured hands are grabbing at the white cloth, and the format of an exact coffin of the piece results as a testament to the artist's ability.
In 1523 the German painter concluded his first portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam, a great Renaissance Scholar who required high likeness. Erasmus wished to send the portrait to his family, friends, and admirers throughout Europe, making Holbein an international artist. He was also a historical painter, giving the present-day images of influential personalities of his time.
Through his career in Basel, Holbein was very prolific and eventually became a citizen. He took many commissions, not only portraits but also stained glass and book designs. Holbein was a printmaker as well as a painter, and his woodcuts include the Dance of Death series, the title page of Martin Luther's bible, and the Icones (illustrations of the Old Testament).
Holbein worked for reformist clients as well as traditional religious patrons. His Late Gothic style was immensely enriched during his career, and he developed his authentic aesthetic. He learned from working with artistic trends in France, Italy, and the Netherlands. The artist was also influenced by Renaissance humanist ideas and was inspired by great masters like Leonardo da Vinci. In 1524, he departed to French territories in the hopes of finding new patrons and, by this time, started experimenting with colored chalks.
Holbein left Basel in 1526. He was seeking work in England. Promptly, he became under the patronage of Sir Thomas More, thanks to Erasmus' recommendation. Soon, More commissioned several artworks from Holbein. In 1527, the artist created one of his most famous portraits, Portrait of Sir Thomas More. Holbein, the Younger, also executed portraits of other distinguished figures, such as Archbishop of Canterbury William Warham, and Nicholas Kratzer, a Bavarian mathematician, and astronomer. Some of the King's court members are also present in his depictions.
After some time in Basel, where he bought a house and created another portrait of Erasmus, he returned to England. Holbein's patrons were primarily merchants. He also executed portraits of landowners, courtiers, and visitors. Probably his most famous painting from this period is The Ambassadors, created for the French ambassador Jean de Dinteville.
The Ambassadors depicts Dinteville and Georges de Selve, a diplomat and scholar. The masterwork is known for its uncanny and clever use of perspective. A shell, depending on the position of the spectator, becomes a skull. In the upper shelf, in the center of the picture, lies various measurement instruments, such as a sun clock. In the lower part, there is a book of hymns and a lute. At the top left of the image, almost hidden from sight, is a crucifix.
The composition brings forth a lot of symbols that reference intellectual themes, bringing subjects such as the church, science, and mortality. If anything, it's one of the most elaborated articulations of the memento mori motif. In this theme, artists - usually depicting a skull - bring the question of life and death into the pictorial field. Holbein's palette often displayed more subdued tonal values. However, the artist would counterpoint this with smaller elements with more saturated tones of yellow, red, and white, resulting in a far more dynamic composition.
In 1533, the artist was appointed as the King's Painter. Although there is no portrait of Anna Boleyn attributed to Holbein, probably because her memory was purged following her execution in 1536, certainly, he worked directly for her. Henry VIII had him employed to design jewelry for Boleyn. Paintings such as Portrait of Thomas Cromwell (1533) are examples of the kind of work the painter was making at the time.
The painter received a commission on the continent and then returned for some time in Basel. There, the city council offered him a yearly salary of 50 florins for his return. Granted permission to stay away for two years, the artist traveled to London and only returned at the end of the period.
In the next year, 1539, he portrayed the two-year descendant of the throne, Portrait of Edward, Prince of Wales (1539). In the next year, Sigmund Holbein, his uncle that helped educate him, and Ambrosius passed away. The painter received his inheritance.
Hals Holbein, the Younger, died between October and November of 1543, probably a victim of the plague.