Overview

Hans Holbein

(1497—1543) artist


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(b Augsburg, probably 1497; d London, Oct./Nov. 1543).

German painter and designer, chiefly celebrated as one of the greatest of all portraitists. He trained in Augsburg with his father, HansHolbeinthe Elder (c.1465–1524), one of the leading artists of the day there; his brother, Ambrosius (c.1494–?c.1519), was also a painter. By 1515 the brothers had moved to Basle. There Hans quickly found employment as a designer for printers, and in 1516 he painted portraits of Jacob Meyer, mayor of the city, and his wife (Kunstsmuseum, Basle). From 1517 to 1519 he worked in Lucerne, assisting his father on the decoration of a house for the city's chief magistrate (only a fragment of the work survives, in the Lucerne museum). It is possible that during this time Holbein crossed the Alps to Lombardy, for on his return to Basle, where he was to remain until 1526, his work had more dignity and authority and his modelling had become softer. The harrowing Christ in the Tomb (1521 or 1522, Kunstmuseum, Basle), for example, has a power of expression combined with a mastery of chiaroscuro that almost rivals Leonardo.

Holbein was now the leading artist in Basle, producing a highly varied output, including portraits, altarpieces, murals, and designs for stained glass. He also continued to work for printers, producing between about 1523 and 1526 his best-known work in this field, the series Dance of Death. This was not published until 1538 (in Lyons) but then enjoyed enormous popularity, running into many editions, with accompanying texts in various languages. His most notable portraits in these years are three of Desiderius Erasmus, all dating from c.1523 (Louvre, Paris; Earl of Radnor Coll., Longford Castle, Wiltshire; and Kunstmuseum, Basle). In them, perhaps by the sitter's wish, he used the formula of the scholar in his study, first devised by Quentin Massys, also for a portrait of Erasmus. A visit to France in 1524 gave Holbein further knowledge of Renaissance painting, notably through the works of Raphael in the royal collection, and the effect may be seen in the Meyer Madonna (1526, Schlossmuseum, Darmstadt). Mother and Child alike have an ideal beauty that is quite un-German, though the donor portraits have a splendid naturalism.

The disturbances of the Reformation meant a decline of patronage in Basle, and in 1526, armed with an introduction from Erasmus to Sir Thomas More, Holbein sought work in England. His great group portrait of the More family (lost, but later copies in NPG, London, and Nostell Priory, Yorkshire) is a landmark in European art, for no previous artist had produced a group portrait of full-length figures in their own home. A number of single portraits of eminent sitters also date from this visit and Holbein seems to have prospered financially. However, in 1528 he returned to Basle, probably because there was a risk of losing his citizen's rights if he were absent too long. He bought a house in the city soon after his return and again was in demand for a variety of work. His biggest commission in Basle was the decoration of the council chamber of the town hall with murals (of which only fragments remain) on the theme of Justice; they were begun in 1521 and completed after his return from England. While he had been away the religious strife in Basle had intensified, and in 1532 he returned to England, leaving behind his wife and two children. He saw them only once more, on a brief visit to Basle in 1538, and was based in London for the rest of his life.

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