Open main menu


HOLBEIN, HANS (1497–1543), painter, born at Augsburg in Swabia in 1497, was the younger son of Hans Holbein, a painter of that town, and grandson of Michel Holbein, who some time before 1454 came from the neighbouring village of Schönenfeld to settle in Augsburg. The name of Holbein's mother has not been ascertained. His father was a painter of great merit, and has left many pictures and drawings; in some cases his work has been with difficulty distinguished from that of his son. The latter and his elder brother Ambrosius were no doubt educated as painters in Augsburg by their father, and perhaps under their uncle Sigmund, also a painter there. In the elder Holbein's picture of the ‘Basilica of St. Paul’ (in the Augsburg Gallery), a group of an elderly man and two boys has been conjectured to represent the father and his two sons, and a silver-point drawing by the father (in the print room at Berlin) gives a portrait of the two brothers in 1511, Hans Holbein the younger being then fourteen. Only one unimportant picture by the younger Holbein, a Madonna dated 1514, can be regarded as authentic among the pictures now preserved at Augsburg. He has been credited, however, with a share in the splendid ‘St. Sebastian’ altarpiece by the elder Holbein (in the Munich Gallery). In or before 1515 the Holbein family left Augsburg. It seems probable that the father removed with his family to Lucerne, where he found a patron in the chief magistrate, Jacob von Hertenstein, but the sons soon appear as resident in Basle. Basle was the centre of the humanist revival in literature, and from its printing-presses the humanists' principal works were issued. Johann Froben, the chief printer of Basle, was the first to draw on classical antiquity for illustrations and title-pages to his books. The third title-page of this description printed by him, that to Leo X's ‘Breve ad Erasmum,’ 1515, is the first one known to have been designed by Hans Holbein for engraving on wood or metal. Others by him or Ambrosius appear in the works of Froben's press during the next few years. The corrector for Froben's press was Beatus Rhenanus, to whom the employment of Holbein was possibly due. Curious relics of Holbein's work at this time are preserved in the Zürich Library in a painted allegorical table, done for the wedding of Hans Bär in Basle, on 24 June 1515, and in the so-called ‘Schulmeisterbild’ in the museum at Basle. For another distinguished humanist scholar and reformer at Basle, Oswald Molitor or Myconius of Lucerne, Holbein drew a series of marginal illustrations, or pictorial glosses, in a copy of Erasmus's ‘Encomium Moriæ,’ published by Froben in 1515; these drawings were done under Myconius's supervision, and probably in his house, and were finished on 29 Dec. 1515. A manuscript note by Myconius states that Erasmus derived much entertainment from them. The book is now in the museum at Basle. Holbein at this time also showed signs of his pre-eminence as a portrait-painter. In 1516 he painted the two portraits of the burgomaster Jacob Meyer ‘zum Hasen’ and his wife (in the museum at Basle), and the portrait of the painter Hans Herbster (in the Earl of Northbrook's collection). In 1517 he was resident in Lucerne, where he (or his father) was elected into the guild of St. Luke there. On 10 Dec. 1517 he was fined for a brawl, and seems to have quitted Lucerne for a time. He is supposed to have gone to Italy, and appears to have painted pictures at Altorf; the Italian influence, however, detected in his pictures may be easily traced to the study of engravings. In 1518 he was back in Lucerne and engaged in painting the inside and outside of Jacob von Hertenstein's new house. This house with Holbein's paintings was standing till 1824, when it was destroyed for local improvements; hasty copies of the paintings were made at that time, and are preserved in the town library at Lucerne. Holbein painted a ‘Passion’ series for the Franciscan convent, made designs for banners, glass windows, and was employed on other local services in Lucerne. In 1519 he was back in Basle, and on 25 Sept. was admitted into the guild ‘zum Himmel,’ composed of barbers, surgeons, and painters. In October of that year he painted the beautiful portrait of Bonifacius Amerbach, another eminent humanist (in the museum at Basle). On 3 July 1520 he paid the fees for burgher's rights at Basle. He received many commissions for designs for glass windows, and painted the outside of many houses, such as the ‘Haus zum Tanz,’ some drawings for which are preserved in the museum at Basle. He was soon employed on a more important task, perhaps under the direction of Rhenanus, namely, to paint large mural paintings, with scenes chosen from classical history, in the town hall at Basle. Holbein commenced there in June 1521, but in November 1522 the series was broken off. In most of the paintings mentioned Holbein showed a great sense of humour and skill in treating secular or domestic subjects. He executed, however, some important religious works, such as ‘The Last Supper,’ the eight ‘Passion’ pictures, ‘The Dead Christ,’ and other pictures in the museum at Basle; ‘The Nativity’ and ‘The Adoration of the Magi’ at Freiburg-im-Breisgau, ‘St. Ursula and St. George’ at Karlsruhe, the great ‘Madonna and Saints’ at Solothurn, and the still greater ‘Madonna with the Meyer family’ in the picture gallery at Darmstadt. This picture was painted about 1526 for Holbein's patron, the ex-burgomaster Jacob Meyer ‘zum Hasen.’ The famous picture of the same subject in the Dresden Gallery is now universally acknowledged to be an excellent and possibly contemporary copy, though not a replica, of the picture at Darmstadt. Two portraits of Dorothea Offenburg (in the museum at Basle), as ‘Venus’ and as ‘Lais Corinthiaca,’ of a rather different character from the others, belong to this period.

In 1522 Luther's translation of the New Testament into German was published, with woodcut illustrations, at Wittenberg. Numerous reprints quickly followed, and the Basle printers were in the front. At Christmas 1522 Adam Petri published a reprint with a title-page and eight illustrations designed by Holbein, and the edition was frequently reissued. In 1523 Thomas Wolff published another reprint with twenty-one designs to illustrate the ‘Apocalypse’ by Holbein. These designs and others were cut on the block by Hans Lützelberger, who came to Basle at the time for the purpose. The blocks for the ‘Apocalypse’ eventually came into the possession of Christoph Froschauer at Zürich, and were used for Tyndale's English translation, published in 1536. Luther's German translation of the ‘Pentateuch,’ published at Wittenberg in 1523, was reprinted in the same year at Basle by Thomas Wolff, with a title-page and eleven illustrations by Holbein and Lützelberger. Adam Petri, in a later edition of Luther's ‘Pentateuch’ (1524), printed six new illustrations by the same artists. In all these designs Holbein drew freely from the Wittenberg illustrations as originals. About 1523 the brothers Trechsel, printers at Lyons, planned a new series of illustrations to the ‘Vulgate Old Testament.’ They employed Lützelberger as cutter and Holbein as designer of the blocks. These were about ninety in number, and the designs were freely adapted from the preceding series. Before, however, the series was complete, Lützelberger died in 1526; the blocks passed into the hands of Trechsel, and were not published for several years.

A similar fate attended the famous series illustrating ‘The Dance of Death,’ designed by Holbein and cut by Lützelberger between 1523 and 1526. These designs reveal Holbein as one of the leading agents in the spread of the reformed doctrines, to which the humanist culture of the Basle scholars had given notable impetus. The chief of these, Erasmus, may be ranked among Holbein's patrons, though they were not necessarily on such intimate terms as has been supposed. He employed Holbein to paint his portrait in 1523 at least three times; two he sent to England (one now at Longford Castle, and the other in the Louvre at Paris), and the third he sent to Bonifacius Amerbach at Avignon, probably conveyed by the painter himself during a professional visit to the printers at Lyons. Holbein and his brother Ambrosius had also provided designs to illustrate not only the works of Erasmus himself, but also those of his friend and correspondent in England, Sir Thomas More. Holbein about 1520 married a widow, Elsbeth Schmid, with a son, and had a family of his own. In 1526, after Lützelberger's death, and from the general paralysis of art due to the spread of the new doctrines and to the dissensions which they caused, Holbein found his profession an unprofitable one at Basle, and determined on carrying out a previously conceived plan of visiting England in the hope of making a fortune there. Erasmus provided him with an introduction to Sir Thomas More, and sent him by way of Antwerp with a letter to Petrus Ægidius, and a further introduction to the painter Quentin Matsys, who had painted the double portrait of Erasmus and Ægidius, previously sent by Erasmus as a present to Sir Thomas More. A fine drawing of a ship (in the Städel Institut at Frankfurt) is supposed to be a record of Holbein's journey on this occasion.

Holbein arrived in England in the eighteenth year of the reign of Henry VIII (1526–7). Sir Thomas More was then chancellor of the exchequer, and Warham, another correspondent of Erasmus, was archbishop of Canterbury. Through them Holbein obtained easy access to the leading men of the court. Portraiture was the only form of art open to him, and he made worthy use of it. He painted Sir Thomas More [q. v.] in 1527 (in Mr. Huth's collection, drawing at Windsor), Archbishop Warham [q. v.] (at Lambeth Palace, and another in the Louvre, drawing at Windsor), John Fisher [q. v.], bishop of Rochester (no original known, drawings at Windsor and in the print room, British Museum), Sir Henry Guildford [q. v.] (picture and drawing at Windsor), Lady Guildford (in Mr. Frewen's collection), Thomas and John Godsalve (at Dresden, coloured drawing of Sir John Godsalve [q. v.] at Windsor), Sir Bryan Tuke [q. v.] (at Munich, and another at Grosvenor House), Nicholas Kratzer [q. v.] the astronomer (in the Louvre), Sir Henry Wyat [q. v.] (in the Louvre), and others, including Sir Thomas Elyot [q. v.] and Lady Elyot (drawings at Windsor), whose portraits have perished. He designed, though it is not certain that he ever carried into execution, a large picture of Sir Thomas More among his family and household. Various versions exist, the best being at Nostell Priory, but none can be accepted as Holbein's work. Some large drawings for the heads are in the collection at Windsor; the drawing for the whole (in the museum at Basle) was taken by Holbein on his return to Basle in 1528, and in August 1529 presented at Freiburg-im-Breisgau to Erasmus, who expressed in a letter to Sir Thomas More his delight at seeing it.

Holbein, on returning to his family at Basle, purchased a house on 29 Aug. 1528. He probably painted at this time the portrait of his wife and two children, and also a new portrait of Erasmus (both in the museum at Basle). The reformed religion, however, now held the day in Basle, and the citizens were forced into compliance with it. In 1529 an iconoclastic outbreak took place in which many of Holbein's religious paintings perished. Holbein was, however, employed to complete the series of mural paintings in the town hall, and added the two fine compositions ‘The Meeting of Samuel and Saul’ and ‘Rehoboam,’ the memory of which is preserved by drawings in the museum at Basle. He found, however, but inadequate employment, and, in spite of the appeal of his fellow-citizens, returned to England in 1532. Here, however, he also found matters changed. More, who had become lord chancellor, was in disgrace, and Warham was dead. He found his first employment among his compatriots, the merchant goldsmiths (the bankers of the time) of the Steelyard. Several beautiful portraits of them survive, among them being John of Antwerp (at Windsor), Derich Born (at Munich, and another at Windsor), Georg Gyse (at Berlin), Derich Berck (at Petworth), Derich Tybis (at Vienna), and Cyriacus Fallen (at Brunswick). For the Steelyard merchants he designed an allegorical pageant of ‘Parnassus’ (drawing at Leipzig), on the occasion of Anne Boleyn's coronation procession. He was also employed to paint two large paintings for the walls of their hall, representing ‘The Triumph of Riches’ (drawing in the Louvre) and ‘The Triumph of Poverty.’ These pictures, which came into Charles I's collection, were sold into Flanders, and have disappeared; copies were made by Federigo Zuccaro (copies of these in Lady Eastlake's collection), and others by Jan de Bisschop (in the print room at the British Museum). The fine drawing of ‘The Queen of Sheba before Solomon’ (at Windsor) was probably a design for a similar painting. To this year belongs the portrait of Robert Cheseman, the king's falconer (in the gallery at the Hague). In 1533 Holbein painted the important picture known as ‘The Ambassadors’ (in the National Gallery, drawing for the principal head at Windsor); it is uncertain who the persons depicted are, but a suggestion (see Art Journal, January 1891) has been made (among others) that they represent Jean de Dinteville, Bailli de Troyes, ambassador from France to England in 1533 and 1535, and his friend the poet scholar, Nicholas Bourbon of Vandœuvre, known in many ways as among Holbein's most intimate friends. As a companion to this may be reckoned the ‘Morett’ portrait (picture and drawing at Dresden), representing Charles de Solier, seigneur de Morette, frequently ambassador from France, and lastly in 1534 (see S. Larpent, ‘sur le portrait de Morett à Dresde’). Holbein, as a supporter of the Reformation, now victorious in England, designed the title-pages to Coverdale's Bible, published in 1535, and Cranmer's Bible, published in 1540 (2nd edit. 1541, with Cromwell's arms erased from the title-page), a ‘Passion’ series satirising the monks (etched by Wenzel Hollar), a set of small illustrations to the New Testament, used for Cranmer's ‘Catechism’ in 1548, and a title-page used for Hall's ‘Chronicle’ in the same year. Though he painted Thomas Cromwell (at Tittenhanger; the drawing by Holbein at Wilton House is not Cromwell), he does not appear to have painted Cranmer, nor can any authentic portrait of Anne Boleyn by him be traced, except perhaps a miniature at Windsor. It is not till 1536 that any trace is found of his being in the king's service. In that year Bourbon speaks of him in a letter as ‘the king's painter,’ and in that year he painted the new queen, Jane Seymour (at Woburn Abbey, and another at Vienna, drawing at Windsor). In 1537 Holbein painted the group of Henry VIII with his father and mother and Jane Seymour on the wall of the privy chamber at Whitehall. This perished in the fire of 1698; a small copy by Remigius van Leemput (engraved by Vertue) is at Hampton Court, and the original cartoon for the figures of Henry VII and Henry VIII is at Hardwick Hall. A drawing of Henry VIII at Munich was perhaps done for this painting. Holbein does not appear to have painted in fresco. In October 1537 Jane Seymour died, and Henry VIII sought a new wife. In March 1538 Holbein was sent to Brussels to paint a portrait of Christina of Denmark, the widowed duchess of Milan. The painter, although he had but three hours to do his work in, was thoroughly successful. The portrait done in this way was probably that at Windsor, and not the exquisitely finished full-length portrait at Arundel Castle (on loan to the National Gallery). On Lady-day 1538 the first of a series of payments to Holbein is entered in the accounts of the royal household. In December 1538 he was paid 10l. for his services abroad in Upper Burgundy. This may allude to his share in the mission to negotiate for the Duchess of Milan's hand, which dragged on to January 1539. Anyhow he took the opportunity to pay a visit to his family at Basle, where he was entertained at a banquet by the citizens, who voted him an annuity and a separate one to his wife for two years, when he hoped to finally return. Possibly he also paid a visit to his friend Nicholas Bourbon, then resident at Lyons, to see after the publication of the series of illustrations to the Old Testament and to ‘The Dance of Death,’ which had remained unpublished since 1526, and were now completed and saw the light for the first time (1538). He drew a portrait of Bourbon (drawing at Windsor) which appeared in an edition of Bourbon's ‘Nugæ’ published at Lyons that year. On his way back he may have taken his son Philip and apprenticed him to Jerome David in Paris. He was back in England by New-year's day 1539, as among the New-year's gifts to the king he gave ‘a table of the pictour of the prince's grace,’ possibly the portrait of the infant Edward VI at Hanover (another in Lord Yarborough's collection). In August 1539 he was sent on another mission to Düren to paint the portraits of the daughters of the Duke of Cleves. His portrait of Anne of Cleves (perhaps the one now in the Louvre) was sufficiently attractive to decide the king in her favour. Holbein painted a great number of portraits in England at this time. Among them were Thomas, third duke of Norfolk (at Windsor, another at Arundel Castle), his son the Earl of Surrey (picture not traced, drawings at Windsor), Sir Nicholas Carew (at Dalkeith Palace, drawing at Basle), Sir Richard Southwell (in the Uffizi at Florence, drawing at Windsor), Sir John Russell (at Woburn Abbey, drawing at Windsor), Sir William Butts (formerly in Pole Carew collection), Lady Butts (the same, drawing at Windsor), Lady Rich (at Buildwas Park, drawing at Windsor), Lady Vaux (at Hampton Court, another at Prague, drawing at Windsor), Nicholas Poyntz (de la Rosière collection in Paris, drawing at Windsor), John Reskymeer (at Hampton Court, drawing at Windsor), Simon George (in the Städel Institut at Frankfurt, drawing at Windsor), Dr. John Chamber (at Vienna), and the man with a falcon (1542) (at the Hague). Holbein painted a miniature of Queen Catherine Howard (at Windsor, also drawing), but does not appear to have painted Catherine Parr. Many other notable persons appear among the collection of portrait drawings at Windsor, which form a most valuable historical, as well as artistic, record of the time.

In 1542 Holbein commenced the large picture (in the Barber-Surgeons' Hall) of Henry VIII giving the charter to the newly incorporated company of the Barber-Surgeons, which resembled his own guild at Basle. He did not live to finish this. Although the two years were long past after which he had promised to return to Basle, he had not as yet carried out his intention. In 1543 a pestilence broke out in London, to which Holbein fell a victim between 7 Oct. and 29 Nov. of that year. On the former date he made a hasty will (see Archæologia, xxxix. l), administration of which was granted on the latter date to a legatee, the goldsmith, John of Antwerp. Holbein lived in the parish of St. Andrew Undershaft, and was rated there as a stranger, showing that he was not a permanent resident in England. He is supposed to have been buried in the church of St. Katherine Cree. He mentions in his will two children at nurse, who must have been illegitimate, as he had by his wife Elsbeth two sons, Jakob and Philipp, and two daughters, Margaret and Cunigunde, who were grown up at Basle at the time of his death, while his wife survived him till 1549. Holbein left no pupils, having had no fixed residence, or intention to remain permanently in England.

Holbein has claims to rank as one of the best portrait-painters in the world. He combined artistic beauty and precision of technical execution with extraordinary truth to nature and power of interpretation of character. He was most careful in his treatment of accessories, making free use of real gold, yet they never intrude on the composition; every detail in the hands, ears, &c., was carefully elaborated, yet producing complete unity and harmony in the whole. He usually made an outline drawing in chalk on paper, with notes of costume and accessories; this he traced or copied on to a panel, and then painted the portrait over it, a method which probably saved many sittings. He was fond of a pale greenish blue back-ground, which strengthened the outline of the face. He was very minute in his execution, and painted small medallion pictures to fit into round ivory boxes; hence he became one of the earliest painters of portraits in miniature, which he is said to have learnt from his contemporary, Lucas Horembault. At Windsor there are miniatures of, besides Catherine Howard, the two sons of the Duke of Suffolk, and Lady Audley (also drawing). He also painted Anne of Cleves in miniature. In his miscellaneous drawings, scattered about in public collections, Holbein shows the same general excellence. The drawings of jewellery and other ornaments in the museum at Basle and in the print room at the British Museum show him to have been experienced in the goldsmith's craft, and the two drawings in the latter collection, of a clock (for Sir Anthony Denny) and a chimney-piece for one of the royal palaces, with the design for the so-called ‘Jane Seymour’ cup in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, show his powers of executing ornamental works on a larger scale. In his drawings of domestic life he shows a sense of humour and of human feeling which appeals to all ages.

Holbein drew his own portrait at various times. A coloured drawing at Basle shows him at the age of twenty-three, and a portrait at the age of thirty-six is in a private collection at Vienna. A circular portrait, done in the last year of his life, cannot be safely traced; there is a drawing of it in the Uffizi Gallery at Florence, and a similar portrait, when in the Arundel collection, was engraved by Hollar and by Vorsterman. A similar portrait was formerly in the Strawberry Hill collection, and is now in the collection of the Duke of Buccleuch; other versions exist elsewhere. The so-called portraits of Holbein and his wife at Windsor have no claim to represent them; they are, moreover, painted on canvas, and signed by Hans Bock, a later painter at Basle. No artist's name has been so frequently and so wilfully misused in England as that of Hans Holbein. Very few authentic portraits by him remain in England. Among the many which bear his name, none can safely be considered authentic, in addition to those already mentioned, except the anonymous portrait of a man in the collection of Sir J. E. Millais, and the exquisite small square portrait of Henry VIII at Althorp.

[Woltmann's Holbein und seine Zeit, 2 vol. edition, 1874; Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie; Wornum's Life and Works of Holbein; P. Mantz's Hans Holbein; Carel van Mander's Livre des Peintres, ed. Hymans, 1884; Th. von Liebenau's Hans Holbein d. J. Fresken am Hertenstein Hause in Luzern; Archæologia, xxxix. 1, xl. 71 sq.; Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft, ii. 162, 312, v. 179, x. 345; Zahn's Jahrbücher für Kunstwissenschaft, i. 185, iii. 113, iv. 75, 186, 209, 223, 251, v. 54, 141, 193; Zeitschrift für bildende Kunst, vi. 116, vii. 35, x. 315, xvi. 99, xxiii. 302; The Portfolio, xiii. 12, &c.; Gazette des Beaux-Arts, April 1869, December 1871; Cat. of the Tudor Exhibition, 1890; E. His's Dessins d'Ornements d'Hans Holbein.]

L. C.