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Holbein, Hans, the youngerlocked

  • Susan Foister

Hans Holbein the younger (1497/88–1543)

by unknown artist, c. 1542–3 [possibly a self-portrait]

Collection Uffizi Museum, Florence; © reserved in the photograph

Holbein, Hans, the younger (1497/8–1543), artist, was born in Augsburg in southern Germany, the second son of the artist Hans Holbein the elder (1465–1524) and his wife, Anna Mair. He was the younger brother of the painter Ambrosius Holbein, and his age is given as fourteen in a metalpoint drawing of the two brothers by their father dated 1511 (Staatliche Museen, Berlin). However, copies of a lost self-portrait bear an inscription giving the date 1543 and indicating that Holbein was then in his forty-fifth year. Hans Holbein the elder arrived in Augsburg in 1494 after working in Ulm. Presumably Ambrosius and the slightly younger Hans took their places in his workshop, which produced many large altarpieces, often in collaboration with sculptors, but there is no record of their training. There is no documentation at all of the younger Holbein in Augsburg.

Basel, 1515–1526

By 1515 both Hans and his brother appear to have migrated to Basel in Switzerland, where they worked on a variety of projects, largely separately. The date 1515 is established by the survival of a copy of Erasmus's Praise of Folly (Kunstmuseum, Basel), in which the margins are illustrated in pen and ink by Holbein and his brother. From this point onwards there are a number of documentary references to Holbein in Basel, and also a number of paintings and other works signed or documented as his work. He was active there not only as a painter of portraits, religious pictures, and wall paintings, but also as a designer of woodcuts, engravings, and stained glass.

Holbein's earliest surviving dated paintings are the portraits of Jacob Meyer, burgomeister or mayor of Basel, and his second wife, Dorothea Kannengiesser, painted in 1516, and originally joined together to form a diptych (Kunstmuseum, Basel). These vivid but sober and carefully designed images, taken from still surviving drawings carefully recording the sitters' likenesses (Kunstmuseum, Basel), and set within ambitious architectural space made sumptuous by Renaissance ornament, established the artistic foundations for the making of Holbein's reputation in Basel, as well as his later career. In 1517, however, he went to work at Lucerne, where the elder Holbein had a commission to decorate the house of Jacob von Hertenstein (1460–1527), chief magistrate and merchant. Holbein there produced the Portrait of Benedict von Hertenstein (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), which includes a frieze in the manner of Mantegna's Triumphs. He had returned to Basel by 25 September, when he was admitted as a master in the town's painters' guild. On 3 July 1520 he became a citizen of Basel. Before this date it is likely he had married Elsbeth Schmid, the widow of a tanner, shown with their two elder children, Philip and Catherine (the third, Jacob, not yet born), in the monumental and moving portrait painted on paper of about 1529 (Kunstmuseum, Basel).

Much of the success of Holbein's art in the decade before he left Basel for England depended on extending the possibilities of the depiction of depth and movement in space. His reputation in Basel, where he was appointed town painter in 1518/19, was made as a house painter of a most spectacular kind: in his decorative painting for the Haus zum Tanz (destroyed, but recorded in drawings) peasants danced along narrow ledges, musicians leant over balconies, and a rider on a rearing horse was poised to jump from on high out into the street below. Holbein, with his knowledge of the Renaissance architectural repertory and, above all, his extraordinary facility in the representation of moving figures from all angles, took the convention of illusionistic wall painting to its limits. His work for the town hall, for which he was paid between 1521 and 1522 and again in 1530, is also lost, but according to surviving drawings consisted of interior wall paintings on classical and Old Testament themes.

It is a remarkable aspect of Holbein's art that his designs for the façades of buildings are as convincing as the smallest of his woodcuts, just as, later on in England, his portrait miniatures, when enlarged to the scale of the full-size portraits, maintain an entirely convincing solidity and sense of design. His designs for Basel printers, notably the two famous series the Dance of Death and the Old Testament, designed in the 1520s but not published for another decade, show in abundance his mastery of composition which here happens to be on a miniature scale. Above all, the figures in these woodcuts display a characteristic sense of movement which played an increasingly pivotal role in all Holbein's artistic production.

That many of his Basel paintings survive and can be identified as Holbein's work is the result of the patronage of the Amerbach family of that city: they collected his work and listed it in the inventory of their art collections made in 1586. These works passed into the public collections of the city of Basel. They include not only Holbein's head-and-shoulders portrait of the young Bonifacius Amerbach in 1519, with Latin verses composed by the sitter (Kunstmuseum, Basel), but a number of religious works, including the Dead Christ of 1522 (Kunstmuseum, Basel). The precise function and original location of this work is unknown, its power to disturb the viewer with its graphic depiction of the corpse of Christ undisputed: the body is shown stiffened, the flesh around the wounds and in the face becoming green. Yet this is no straightforward realism: Holbein has constructed the composition with immense care, manipulating space and lighting to create the most dramatic effects, and employing a surprisingly free technique.

Holbein is usually thought of as a supremely realistic painter, yet drama, artifice, and a love of rich colour, allied to his father's exceptional ability as a colourist, played an equally significant part in his work. This is evident in the boldness with which he approaches the composition of the other religious works painted at Basel, which include the Passion altarpiece doors, the Last Supper (both Kunstmuseum, Basel), and the Meyer Madonna (priv. coll.). In all three, usually dated to the middle years of the 1520s, Holbein demonstrates the combination of controlled arrangement of figures in shallow space with the depiction of sumptuous colour and texture. Secular works such as the Venus and Cupid and Lais Corinthiaca (1526; Kunstmuseum, Basel), similarly show an increased richness and a subtle use of shadow sometimes associated with the visit to France Holbein made about 1524, when drawings of tomb sculpture show he had visited Bourges. He may also have had the opportunity to see works by Leonardo at the French court, though this is uncertain, as is the proposition that he journeyed to Italy during his years in Switzerland.

Holbein's Basel work foreshadows the imagination, the inventiveness, the richness of technique, and the ability to concentrate meaning into gestures of significance with great economy that is reflected in his English portraits. Yet he painted relatively few portraits while working there. The most important are undoubtedly those he produced of the humanist Erasmus in 1523: two profile portraits (Musée du Louvre, Paris; Kunstmuseum, Basel), and a more elaborate half-length (priv. coll., on loan to the National Gallery, London), in which Erasmus is shown against an interior evoking a scholar's study, with his hands resting on a book designated as the fruits of his ‘Labours of Hercules’, his classical studies in the service of Christianity. In a letter of 3 June 1524 Erasmus mentioned he had sent one version of his portrait to England, almost certainly the latter type. On 29 August 1526 Erasmus wrote to his friend Pieter Gillis (Petrus Aegidius) in Antwerp. He told him that 'the arts in Basel were freezing' and Holbein was on his way to England to 'pick up some angels [a pun on the English coins]' (Opus epistolarum, 6.392, no. 1740).

First visit to England, 1526–1528

It was presumably the lure of the possible rewards of royal service that tempted Holbein to leave Basel for England in 1526 (and may also have taken him to France earlier). It appears his quest was successful almost immediately, for, if the identification of Holbein as 'Master Hans' is accepted as valid, he was within a few months employed as a decorative painter at court, for the festivities at Greenwich in 1527. He was paid the large sum of £4 10s. for a 'plat' showing the defeat of the French in battle, and the highest daily wage of any artist, 4s., for creating a ceiling painting of the heavens in collaboration with the king's astronomer, Nikolaus Kratzer. No doubt he was assisted by the powerful connections that the patronage of Erasmus could have provided for him: Sir Thomas More's brother-in-law John Rastell was one of the creators of the Greenwich revels, and Sir Henry Guildford, one of the humanist's English correspondents, and comptroller of the royal household, was in charge of the whole project.

Holbein's portrait of Erasmus seems to have spawned a group of half-length paintings which took the juxtapositions of figure and background in the work of 1523 as their starting point, and varied and elaborated them. The portrait of Warham, patron of Erasmus (Musée du Louvre, Paris), flatters both artist and scholar by imitating the 1523 portrait most closely, substituting the mitre and crozier of the archbishop for the classical column, flask, and books used in the earlier work. In the portrait of the royal astronomer and fellow German Nikolaus Kratzer of 1528 (Musée du Louvre, Paris) the subject faces the opposite direction and his instruments are introduced as the accessories. The portraits of Sir Henry and Lady Guildford (in the Royal Collection and the Museum of Art, St Louis, Missouri) of 1527 abandon the convention of tables or parapets at the lower edges of the compositions, and, while a lively and elegant variant on the classical pilaster of the portrait of Erasmus balances the smaller figure of Lady Guildford, the green curtain seen in the scholar's portrait reappears behind the massive figure of Sir Henry, its rail reappearing in the pendant uniting the pair. The portrait of Sir Thomas More (1527; Frick Collection, New York), defines him as statesman rather than scholar: his gilded collar of Tudor SSs lies over his deep fur collar, and Holbein draws a brilliant contrast between the dark green of the curtain looped behind him and the rich red velvet folds of his sleeve.

For More, Holbein also painted a remarkable group portrait on linen cloth (lost, known only through copies and a series of original drawings). One drawing (Kunstmuseum, Basel), shows the whole composition, with annotations by Holbein recording changes which More had presumably requested. The composition is modelled on contemporary depictions of the holy kindred, adapted to include a Tudor interior and the likenesses of More's own immediate kin, who were identified on the drawing by Nikolaus Kratzer, so that the sketch could be sent to their friend Erasmus in Basel; the latter recorded his delight on receiving it. The portrait drawings for the heads in this group and for those of most of the other portraits mentioned from this period are still preserved (in the Royal Collection; that of Lady Guildford is at Basel). Both portrait drawings and the corresponding painted heads are notable for Holbein's sensitivity to characterization and to details such as the light glinting on the stubble of More's beard in the painted portrait or the wrinkles of Warham's face. Yet Holbein would not be averse to some adaptation of such realities if the results required it: the faces of both Sir Henry and Lady Guildford were altered between drawing and painting—the latter radically, a smile being changed to a stern countenance. The portrait of the still unidentified Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling (National Gallery, London), underwent a transformation during painting: the pet squirrel on a chain was added, presumably at the lady's request. The brilliant blue background with its pattern of leaves and branches is typically ambiguous, hovering between convincing as sky and outdoor vegetation and deluding as background decoration.

Return to Basel, 1528–1531/2

Holbein's first visit to England lasted only two years, and he was probably concerned at this stage to retain his links with Basel. He also had work to complete there, but the advent of the Reformation, with the violent destruction of many religious works in 1529, must have done considerable damage to the livelihood of artists and encouraged Holbein's swift return to England; the last record of his presence in Basel is a payment for painting a clock face on 7 October 1531. He appears to have returned a protestant, although initially a reluctant convert: records of the attendance of Basel citizens at the new protestant service show that he had asked for a better explanation of it before agreeing to join the congregation; shortly afterwards his attendance is recorded. It is possible that Erasmus's outburst against him in a letter of 1533, in which he claims that 'Olpeius', probably to be identified with Holbein, has 'deceived those to whom he was recommended' in England (Opus epistolarum, 10.193, no. 2788), relates to this conversion to protestantism.

Holbein may not have intended to settle in England permanently. He retained his membership of the painters' guild in Basel and seems not to have wanted to sever his links with the town. Two years was the normal maximum period of absence allowed to a Basel citizen, and the town council ruled in 1521 that no citizen could enter the service of a foreign prince. However, the council made an exception for Holbein, in the constant expectation of his imminent return; his presence in Basel is documented in 1538, and it is possible he went back on other occasions. This arrangement no doubt suited Holbein well, for the council maintained his family in his absence, while his will reveals that by the time of his death in 1543 he was keeping a second family in London.

England, 1531/2–1543: painter to Henry VIII

A letter with the date 26 July 1532 in a portrait called Hans of Antwerp, a royal jeweller, but probably representing a German merchant (Royal Collection), gives the earliest indication of Holbein's return to England in that year, though he may have travelled back the previous year. The ‘Master Hans’ who in 1533/4 painted a gilded statue of Adam and Eve made by the royal goldsmith Cornelis Hayes, listed in an account immediately after references to a cradle for Princess Elizabeth, is likely to have been Holbein, and Holbein was certainly the designer of a table fountain, the drawing for which (Kunstmuseum, Basel), accords with a description of a new year's gift from Anne Boleyn to Henry VIII. The latter confirms Holbein's presence at court soon after his return from Basel in 1532, even if the evidence of his work as a court portrait painter is uncertain until Jane Seymour became queen in 1536.

In 1536 the Paidagogeion of the French humanist poet Nicholas Bourbon was published, with a woodcut of the poet after a drawing by Holbein. Bourbon had been exiled in England from France on account of his protestant sympathies. In a prefatory letter he addresses the friends he had made at the English court, including Holbein, the king's painter: 'D. Hansi pictori Regio, huius aevi Apelli'. This is the first known reference to Holbein as the king's painter, and suggests that the artist's appointment dates from 1535, when Bourbon was in England, or even earlier. The royal accounts in which payments to Holbein are recorded do not survive as a complete sequence, and the first accounts which mention his salary are those of 1537; for this reason it is even conceivable that he was also engaged as a salaried painter during the period of his first visit to England, in 1526–8. In the royal accounts of the 1530s and 1540s Holbein is not consistently called king's painter, but this title is used when special payments and advances of salary are made to him concerning his trips abroad. In his will Holbein calls himself 'the Kinges Majesties servaunte'.

Holbein is assumed to have been employed by Henry VIII principally as a portrait painter. Certainly his most important documented function was to supply vital pictorial information on the appearance of the king's prospective brides. In March he was sent to Brussels to paint the portrait of Christina of Denmark, duchess of Milan, with whom Henry was contemplating marriage. After a three-hour sitting he arrived back in London with an image which contemporaries record delighted the king. This was presumably a drawing or series of drawings, the basis for the surviving full-length painted portrait (National Gallery, London), in which Christina, dressed in the black satin of mourning for her husband, seems to advance seductively towards the viewer; the portrait was kept in Henry's collection even though he did not proceed with the marriage. In June 1538 Holbein was sent to Le Havre in France to depict two further potential brides, and in August to Burgundy for three further candidates, two of whom were portrayed; after this he travelled on to Basel. None of these portraits survives. In 1539 the artist was sent abroad again to take the portraits of Anne and Amelia of Cleves. Two portraits of Anne survive, a three-quarter-length one on parchment (Musée du Louvre, Paris) and a miniature head and shoulders (V&A). Both were presumably based on a lost drawing, and made for Henry's inspection; disenchantment came with Anne's arrival in person, but Holbein's record of her appearance is not known to have been put in question.

Holbein appears to have painted few other portraits for Henry VIII. It is not certain that an individual likeness of the king such as the exquisite small portrait in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, was painted for Henry himself. The list of portraits of Henry VIII's immediate family in the inventory of his collection is surprisingly small, but it is possible that Holbein made some portraits of Henry to be sent abroad of which there is no record. The portrait of Edward, prince of Wales, with its Latin verses by a Tudor propagandist, Richard Morison (National Gallery of Art, Washington), is almost certainly that given to the king by Holbein himself as a new year's gift in 1539.

Holbein's great dynastic portrait of Henry VIII, his third wife, Jane Seymour, and his parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, was painted on the wall of the Palace of Whitehall in 1537, probably in the privy chamber (destroyed in the fire of 1698). Its appearance can be reconstructed from the survival of the cartoon for the left half (NPG), showing the life-size figure of Henry with his father, and from the copy by Remigius van Leemput made for Charles II in 1667 (Royal Collection); the veracity of the Latin inscription celebrating the two heroes of the dynasty on a stone altar between the kings is confirmed by a record of it made by a foreign visitor to Whitehall in 1600. Between the cartoon—where the head is close to the image of the Thyssen portrait—and the finished portrait Holbein reorientated the face of the king so that it looks directly at the viewer, an imposing confrontation with the monarch which was to be reiterated in numerous painted copies of the full-length image. None of these individual portraits of Henry is indubitably Holbein's work; however, a portrait of Jane Seymour (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) by Holbein, showing the queen against a plain blue background and wearing slightly less elaborate dress and jewellery, relates to the image of the queen in the wall painting and to a preparatory drawing connected to both. It is not known for whom this portrait was produced.

Sixteenth-century court painters were also on occasion required to provide designs for goldsmiths' work, and there is some evidence that Holbein might have done so. The payment to a Master Hans for painting a statue of Adam and Eve made by the royal goldsmith Cornelis Hayes, the design for a table fountain given to the king by Anne Boleyn, both referred to above, as well as the designs for a cup for Jane Seymour (AM Oxf. and BM), suggest royal requirements in this area, though other work, such as another elaborate design, for a clocksalt, commissioned by Sir Anthony Denny to give to the king in 1544, was given by courtiers rather than the king. Of a number of surviving designs for jewellery and other decorative items (BM and Kunstmuseum, Basel), a few might be associable with royal requirements; others were probably for courtiers.

Court ceremony often required decorative paintings to be produced at speed, and Holbein's work at Greenwich in 1527, for which he was well paid, is one such instance. There were fewer and less elaborate revels of this kind in the next decade. However, an undated entry in an account connected with the office of revels survives, but is difficult to interpret. This is a payment for a 'peynted boke of Mr. Hansse holby makyng', perhaps a book of designs, or conceivably a stage property (Losely MS 1891, Surrey HC).

Holbein's position as a court artist must have established his position in London, contributed considerably to his prosperity, and resulted in his decision to further his career there, rather than in Basel. At £7 10s. a quarter, amounting to £30 a year, Holbein's salary fell a little short of Lucas Horenbout's remuneration of £33 6s., but was higher than that of any other court painter during Holbein's own lifetime. He seems to have achieved some degree of prosperity, or at least the show of it, to judge from records of his return to Basel in 1538, monied and wearing fine clothes. Like other court artists he was granted a licence to export 600 tuns of beer in May 1538. However, despite this, his will mentions no assets such as property or even the tools of his trade, and there were debts of £16 13s. to be paid.

It is unlikely that Holbein ever lived at court. The so-called Holbein Gate at Whitehall Palace was not connected with the painter until many years after his lifetime. Holbein is known to have been living in the parish of St Andrew Undershaft in Aldgate ward in the city of London in 1541, but there are no records which might indicate his occupancy before this date. Holbein would have been affected by the regulations forbidding foreigners to have workshops in the city. Those who were not denizens were not entitled to take on apprentices and journeymen. However, there is no evidence to suggest that he worked at Whitehall Palace. Conceivably Holbein was given facilities near the palace, outside the city but within Westminster, which was to become increasingly favoured by painters, but there is no proof of this. It is likely that his position as king's painter allowed him some degree of freedom and protection from the tightly drawn laws otherwise applying to foreigners without denizenship. Lucas Horenbout had become a denizen in 1534, but Holbein did not take the decision in favour of denizen status until June 1541, along with many others from abroad whose livelihood was suddenly threatened by the enforcement of earlier legislation. Presumably Holbein's royal position both permitted him to take on commissions from those who were not themselves royal, and ensured that other painters were unable to prevent him, as a foreigner, from doing so. The regular payment of a salary meant that the king could call on the painter when he was needed, and that he would not return to Basel. The high daily wages paid to ‘Master Hans’ in 1527, and the responsibility of the tasks given by Henry VIII, including bringing him vital pictorial information on the appearance of his prospective brides, suggests that Holbein's capabilities were highly valued by the king or his advisers.

England, 1531/2–1543: portraits for courtiers and others

In addition to his role as painter to Henry VIII, Holbein took the portraits of many of his courtiers, as well as those of others living in London, among them several German Hanseatic merchants. A number of painted portraits survive, mostly unsigned, but there are a far greater number of preparatory drawings for them, the vast majority of which (more than eighty) are today in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle. These drawings include examples which can be matched to surviving painted portraits, and demonstrate that Holbein rarely departed from the method of working established early in his career in Basel—that of taking a head and shoulders likeness during a sitting, and embellishing this at the painting stage by adding background details and sometimes altering clothing. Nevertheless, the drawing, using coloured chalks and sometimes Holbein's own notations as well, was crucial in establishing the details of likeness. The faces in Holbein's painted portraits are usually identical in dimensions to those surviving corresponding drawings—for instance the painted portraits of Sir Richard Southwell (1536; Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence) and Simon George (Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt) compared to their respective drawings (both Royal Collection): this fact has helped to establish the method Holbein almost certainly used for creating his painted likenesses, one that involved tracing the outlines of the drawn portrait onto the panels he used for painting. Earlier in his career Holbein used mixtures of metalpoint and coloured chalks to make his portrait drawings, but by the 1530s he seems to have settled on the practice of drawing with chalks onto flesh-tinted paper and reinforcing the likenesses with extensive use of ink and brush, often employed at the same time in handwritten annotations recording the colour or simply the material of the costume to be painted.

The existence of inscriptions naming the sitters in many of the surviving drawings has assisted in identifying a number of those in the painted portraits, as well as testifying to the range of courtiers Holbein depicted. According to the inventory of the Lumley collection, made at the end of the sixteenth century, and in which the drawings, then bound as a book, are recorded, the identifications were made by Sir John Cheke, tutor to Edward VI. Although the current inscriptions date from a considerably later period, the assertion of the Lumley inventory is a plausible one (not at odds with the few identifications known to be inaccurate).

The drawings, considered with those painted portraits which bear inscriptions identifying their subjects, testify to Holbein's immense success at court. Early in his career he secured the patronage of Sir Thomas More, but he followed this before 1534 with that of Thomas Cromwell (the inscription on the letter he holds in his portrait in the Frick Collection, New York, gives his title as master of the jewel house, the position he held before he became king's secretary in that year), producing a half-length portrait showing Cromwell seated beside a table bearing books and papers. His three-quarter-length portrait of the third duke of Norfolk (Royal Collection) shows the duke full-face, as Henry VIII himself had been depicted, bearing his two staffs of office, while in a group of exceptionally subtle and beautiful studies for which no corresponding painted versions survive Holbein portrayed the duke's son, the earl of Surrey, his wife, and his sister (all Royal Collection). A number of sitters commissioned pairs of portraits: the humanist Sir Thomas Elyot and his wife, Margaret, were shown in this way (only drawings survive; Royal Collection), as were the royal physician Sir William Butts and his wife, Margaret (both Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston).

In addition to these full-scale portraits Holbein painted several portrait miniatures in a technique using colours mixed with gum on vellum, an illuminator's technique which his biographer Carel van Mander states he learned in England from Lucas Horenbout. His earliest known essay in this technique appears not to have been in portraiture, but in the manuscript known as the 'Canones horoptri', a manual for an astronomical instrument which the royal astronomer Nikolaus Kratzer presented to Henry VIII in 1528 (Bodl. Oxf.). His portrait of Lady Audley is dependent on a large-scale drawing (both are in the Royal Collection), but it is not known whether Holbein also made a large-scale painted portrait, or whether he invariably made drawings to prepare for the painting of the miniatures. The portrait of Mrs Small (V&A; formerly known as Mrs Pemberton) shows the sitter at half-length and is remarkable for the confident placing of the sitter within the small circle of vellum and for the degree of detailed characterization achieved on this scale, which can withstand a considerable degree of magnification with no loss of effect whatsoever. This portrait is also of interest for the fact that the sitter was from a merchant rather than a courtier family, though she had court connections. Similarly, of two small portraits on panel of a man and woman of 1534 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), one shows the man in the livery of Henry VIII's servants; they were perhaps court officials of a rank similar or only a little above that occupied by Holbein himself.

The painted portraits of Holbein's English sitters from his second visit to England differ from those of the first brief visit of 1526–8 in the simplicity of their compositions: curtains and tables are largely absent and few sitters are framed by accessories or architecture in background or foreground. A dark blue background sometimes broken by the gilt letters of an inscription giving the year and age of the sitter (not in most cases the identity) was the most common adjunct to the figures. While some were posed with the noble accessory of a falcon (such as Robert Cheseman in the portrait of 1533 in the Mauritshuis, The Hague, or the unidentified man of 1541 in the same collection) or with the lute, less commonly the attribute of a courtier (for example, the unidentified man in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin), most sitters were shown at half-length or in a head-and-shoulders composition completely alone, looking out of the picture away from the viewer, and without gesture to draw attention to them. The presence of shadows against the blue backgrounds, as well as the presence of inscriptions, however, acted as a subtle reminder of the illusionism that Holbein purveyed: the shadowed blue could not be the sky, and the inscriptions proclaimed that the likenesses were art, not reality.

The number of portraits painted by Holbein which are certainly of Hanseatic merchants is small. Merchant marks and various inscriptions in these portraits, often on letters giving the address of the sitter as the merchants' steelyard beside the Thames, identify them; records show some did business with courtiers. These portraits are distinctive in format: half-lengths, often with inscriptions of a type not found on surviving portraits of English sitters, they were almost certainly painted to be sent home. The portrait of Derich Born of 1533 (Royal Collection) includes a Latin inscription on a parapet which challenges the viewer to say whether the real Derich or a painted version is present. In the portrait of Derick Tybis the sitter holds a piece of paper with a pious reference to his age, thirty-three, the age at which Christ was crucified.

The portrait of Georg Gisze of 1532 (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin), is more elaborate than that of any other single individual painted by Holbein. It includes virtuoso representations of a glass vase with water, of pink satin seen through it, and of the coarse stitches of the Turkey carpet. Gisze's portrait is inscribed not only with the sitter's age and the date, but also, in Latin, 'No joy without sorrow', and further lines in Latin, headed in Greek, which draw attention to the veracity of the portrait as a representation of Gisze. The idea of the world's mutability is perhaps also evoked by the fragility of the glass vase, which stands on the edge of the table, by scales seeming to fall, and by the presence of the clock.

Holbein's largest and most elaborate surviving portrait is the painting of 1533 known as The Ambassadors (National Gallery, London). Its exceptional qualities derive in large part from the fact that it depicts two Frenchmen—on the left, Jean de Dinteville, French ambassador to England, who commissioned the portrait, resplendent in pink satin and a black silk gown trimmed with fur, and on the right, in a long clerical gown, Georges de Selves, bishop of Lavaur, who visited Dinteville in England in the late spring of that year. Between the two men are shelves full of objects: globes of heaven and earth, other astronomical instruments, books, and musical instruments. Behind is a green damask curtain, which in the top left-hand corner has been drawn aside just sufficiently to reveal a silver crucifix. The two men stand on an inlaid pavement of elaborate geometrical design. Between them, at a diagonal, is a long greyish shape, the distorted image of a skull, which resolves into the correct perspective if the viewer stands parallel to the picture on the right-hand side or views it through a glass cylinder from the front. Holbein signed the picture with an unusually full signature, and if seen by English courtiers Holbein's talent must have astounded. However, the details of the composition were idiosyncratic and personal to Dinteville, and the painting itself was taken back to France to adorn his château of Polisy in Champagne.

While the precise meanings of the objects on the shelves in The Ambassadors have been much debated, it seems clear that collectively, ranging across the arts and sciences from astronomy to music to mathematics, they express a vanitas theme, perhaps a particular preoccupation for Dinteville, who wears a hat badge with a tiny skull, and expressed much melancholy in letters written from the English court. Such a theme may be echoed in the broken string of the lute, but the presence of a Lutheran hymnbook has been linked to the bishop's concern for the divisions caused by the Reformation and with the exacerbation of such divisions caused by Henry VIII's marriage to Anne Boleyn while Dinteville himself was in London. Whether or not such specific events inspired the detail of the painting, there is little evidence to support theories that the astronomical instruments in it show dates and times of significance.

One more large-scale portrait, Henry VIII and the Barber–Surgeons' Company (Barber–Surgeons' Hall, London), is recorded in van Mander's biography of 1604 and survives today, along with the overpainted cartoon used to create it (Royal College of Surgeons, London). The portrait records the granting of a charter by the king in 1541 to combine the hitherto separate organizations of the Barbers and Surgeons, and includes portraits of the royal physicians William Butts and John Chambers which are similar to individual portraits by Holbein. The seated, frontal image of the king bears some relation to the image of the Whitehall painting, but the hieratic composition with its rows of heads is unexpectedly formal, closer to the woodcut on the title-page of the Coverdale Bible. Parts of the painting have been embellished at a later date, and its condition makes it difficult to ascertain today the precise extent of Holbein's contribution to the painted surface, but other painters were certainly involved.

England, 1531/2–1543: non-portrait commissions

The German Hanseatic merchant community in London did not only commission portraits from Holbein. In 1533 the city of London staged a series of nine pageants to celebrate Anne Boleyn's entry to the city on 31 May, the day before her coronation. According to Hall's Chronicle, the London Hanseatic merchants were responsible for the second pageant, which showed Apollo and the muses on Parnassus. A drawing by Holbein (Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin), shows just such a Parnassus scene, set on top of a triumphal arch of classical design. The drawing must certainly be connected with this occasion, but it is less clear whether it was made as a record or should be interpreted as evidence that Holbein was the designer of the pageant of Parnassus. It is conceivable that the commission was not a Hanseatic one, and that the English humanists John Leland and his collaborator Nicholas Udall may have involved Holbein in the plans for this or even the whole series of pageants.

It is certain, however, that Holbein painted two large canvases for the Hanseatic merchants, The Triumph of Riches and The Triumph of Poverty, both now lost. According to van Mander both paintings hung in the eet sael, or dining-room. Several copies survive, as well as Holbein's own drawing for The Triumph of Riches. Copies of the two works made by Lucas Vorsterman in the seventeenth century show a semi-grisaille colour scheme with a frieze-like arrangement of allegorical figures in shades of brown processing with horse-drawn chariots against a blue sky, both decorous and elegant. The two works differed in length and composition, suggesting they were designed for specific positions, Riches (AM Oxf.) occupying a long wall and Poverty (BM) a short. Poverty showed an old woman in a farm cart drawn by oxen and asses, while Riches depicted an old man seated in a chariot accompanied by figures drawn from antiquity. On one copy of Poverty are verses which refer to the turning of the wheel of fortune, and the cares brought by riches as well as poverty; there is no evidence to support the legend that these verses were composed by Sir Thomas More.

Similar in style is the exquisite miniature painting on vellum in a grisaille technique of Solomon and Sheba (Royal Collection). It would have been well suited to presentation to the king as a new year's gift, but it is not recorded in any of the surviving lists of such. It includes a biblical inscription also used by writers asserting Henry's supremacy over the English church, and is likely to have been devised as an allegory of the English Reformation, one of a small number of such images which Holbein appears to have produced in England, probably through his association with Thomas Cromwell.

Holbein's Allegory of the Old and New Testaments (NG Scot.) appears to be the only picture that he painted in England using protestant imagery. Elements of its composition are echoed in the artist's design for the title-page of the Coverdale Bible, published in 1535, and its painterly, colourful style is close to paintings of the early 1530s, such as The Ambassadors. Holbein's painting is divided into two halves by the presence of a tree, which is bare of leaves on the left-hand side and in full leaf on the right. Underneath the tree sits a naked man with the prophet Isaiah and John the Baptist. On the left are Old Testament scenes: Moses receiving the tablets, Adam and Eve, the brazen serpent, and manna being showered from heaven, as well as a decayed tomb with a skeleton. On the right are the annunciation to the Virgin, the annunciation to the shepherds, the crucifixion, Christ and the apostles, and the resurrected Christ trampling a skeleton and the devil. The composition has a close relationship with one of the key images of the protestant Reformation, which was produced in several versions by Lucas Cranach the elder.

Holbein's title-page for the Coverdale Bible, although based on the opposition between the law and grace displayed in other contemporary bibles, is tailored specifically to English circumstances: the lower part of the design here is occupied by the king enthroned, distributing the Bible to the bishops in the presence of the laity. The image of Henry VIII is placed directly underneath the tetragrammaton, in apparent acknowledgement of his position as the direct representative of God on earth, without the mediation of the pope. Holbein's design also includes a clear emphasis on the propagation of the word of God, placing Moses receiving the tablets opposite Christ and the apostles, and Esdras opposite the apostles preaching. The clarity and economy of the title-page show his mature powers of illustration and design to the full.

In addition to the Bible title-page, Holbein produced a New Testament title-page and a design for Melanchthon's Loci communes, all of which were possibly intended to be produced as a gift for the king in 1535. Three small woodcuts by Holbein were used in later books, but seem not to appear in publications during his lifetime—perhaps because the political climate made texts and images alike seem too radical: all three images show monks in the role of the biblical pharisees in scenes from Christ's ministry in the New Testament. Had Holbein lived into the reign of Edward VI he might perhaps have made a greater contribution to the development of a specifically English protestant iconography. His sudden death in November 1543, probably from the plague, prevented this.

Holbein's achievement, influence, and reputation

Holbein's surviving portrait paintings and drawings, their likenesses remarkably unaffected by the conventions and fashions of their time, provide a unique and unparalleled depiction of the men and women of the Tudor court, including an image of Henry VIII so powerful that its influence in shaping our vision of Henry has endured to the present day. The loss of several of Holbein's largest and most spectacular paintings in both Basel and London distorts the degree of his achievement, more readily appreciated today in the design of book illustrations, portraits large and small, and altarpieces than in large-scale decorative designs. The range of his abilities in a number of media and artistic forms was remarkable: one of the greatest of European portraitists, Holbein was also instrumental in introducing the decorative styles of the Renaissance to England through his wall paintings and goldsmiths' designs, and he set a standard of extraordinary technical and artistic skill for the new form of the portrait miniature.

Holbein was one of the very few early northern European artists to achieve lasting fame. His name endured from the sixteenth century through to the nineteenth, although it was frequently misapplied, particularly to English portraits of Tudor appearance and especially to images of Henry VIII. Holbein himself appears to have left no lasting stylistic legacy in England as a portrait painter, and his foreign status may have precluded the establishment of a workshop, but many copies of the portraits were produced, and his work appears to have continued to be well known to artists and collectors. Nicholas Hilliard wrote in the reign of Elizabeth I: 'Holbein's manner of limning I have ever imitated and hold it for the best' (Hilliard, 68–9). In the following century the fourteenth earl of Arundel, much preoccupied with collecting antiquities and the works of artists such as Rubens, confessed his particular 'weakness' for the work of Holbein, many of which he collected. Holbein's first biographer was Carel van Mander, whose life appeared with those of other artists in his Schilderboek of 1604; it includes much information on Holbein's work in London, although van Mander himself appears never to have visited England. In 1676 a detailed list of Holbein's œuvre was published by Charles Patin and Sebastian Faesch. One hundred years later in England Horace Walpole created his own tribute to Holbein in the Holbein Chamber at Strawberry Hill, adorned with tracings of the Holbein drawings in the Royal Collection made by his compatriot George Vertue. In the nineteenth century the first art historical studies of his work were published, including the first in German by Alfred Woltmann and the first in English by Ralph Wornum. It was for long erroneously believed that Holbein lived through the reign of Edward, dying in 1554, permitting a number of later portraits to be wrongly ascribed to him; the publication of his will in 1861 revealing the date of his death as 1543 led inevitably to a reassessment of the documentary and pictorial sources for the study of his work, culminating in the comprehensive study of life and work by A. B. Chamberlain published in 1913.

A number of portraits depicting Holbein survive, some showing him holding a paintbrush, possibly based on a self-portrait (such as the miniature version attributed to Lucas Horenbout, Wallace Collection, London). A drawing held to be a self-portrait is in the Uffizi. All show a bearded face and features which can plausibly be related to the portrait drawing of 1511 by his father.


  • BL, accounts of Henry VIII, accounts of the treasurer of the chamber, Arundel MS 97, Stowe MS 554
  • A. B. Chamberlain, Hans Holbein the younger, 2 vols. (1913)
  • J. Rowlands, The paintings of Hans Holbein the younger (1985)
  • C. van Mander, Het schilderboek (1604)
  • N. Bourbon, Paidagogeion (Lyons, 1536)
  • Opus epistolarum Des. Erasmi Roterodami, ed. P. S. Allen and others, 12 vols. (1906–58)
  • will, GL, MS 9171, vol. 11, fols. 116r, 116v, 121r
  • Surrey HC, Losely MS 1891
  • ‘Treasury of the receipt, miscellaneous books’, TNA: PRO, E 36/227 (LP 1V (2) 3104) [Greenwich revels accounts]
  • Folger, MS Zd 11 (LP XIII (2) 1280, pp. 538–9)
  • K. T. Parker, The drawings of Hans Holbein in the collection of his majesty the king at Windsor Castle (1945)
  • S. Foister, Drawings by Holbein from the Royal Library, Windsor Castle (1983)
  • J. Rowlands and G. Bartrum, Drawings by German artists in the department of prints and drawings in the British Museum: the fifteenth century, and the sixteenth century by artists born before 1530, 2 vols. (1993)
  • ‘Canones horoptri’, Bodl. Oxf., MS Bodley 504
  • S. Foister, Holbein and the court of Henry VIII (1978) [exhibition catalogue, Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace, 1978]
  • Hans Holbein der Älterer und die Kunst der Spätgotik (1965) [exhibition catalogue, Augsburg Rathaus, 1965]
  • E. Foucart-Walter, Les peintures de Hans Holbein le jeune au Louvre (1985) [exhibition catalogue, Musée du Louvre, Paris, 1985]
  • L. Campbell, ‘Holbein's miniature of “Mrs Pemberton”: the identity of the sitter’, Burlington Magazine, 129 (1987), 366–71
  • L. Campbell, ‘Holbein's miniature of Jane Pemberton: a footnote’, Burlington Magazine, 132 (1987), 213–14
  • S. Foister, A. Roy, and M. Wyld, Holbein's Ambassadors: making and meaning (1997)
  • C. Müller, ed., Die Zeichnungen von Hans Holbein dem jüngeren und Ambrosius Holbein: Katalog der Zeichnungen des Kupferstichkabinetts Basel (1996)
  • S. Foister, A. Roy, and M. Wyld, ‘Hans Holbein's Lady with a squirrel and a starling’, National Gallery Technical Bulletin, 15 (1994), 6–19
  • S. Foister, ‘Holbein and the English Reformation’, MA diss., Courtauld Inst., 1977
  • N. Hilliard, A treatise concerning the art of limning, ed. R. K. R. Thornton and T. G. S. Cain (1981)
  • S. Foister, ‘“My foolish curiosity”: Holbein in the collection of the earl of Arundel’, Apollo, 144 (1996), 51–6
  • S. Foister, Holbein and England (2005)


  • H. Holbein the younger, self-portrait, drawing, chalks, 1523–1524, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel, Switzerland
  • chalk drawing, 1542–1543 (self-portrait?), Uffizi, Florence [see illus.]
  • attrib. L. Horenbout, miniature, Wallace Collection, London

Wealth at Death

will mentions no assets; debts of £6 13s. to be paid: will, GL, MS 9171, vol. 11

Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
J. S. Brewer, J. Gairdner, & R. H. Brodie, eds., , 23 vols. in 38 (1862–1932); repr. (1965)
Bodleian Library, Oxford
Guildhall Library, London
Surrey History Centre, Woking