Hans Holbein the Younger
Hans Holbein the Younger (1498-1543) was a German artist and printmaker known primarily for his portraiture work, but also created religious art, Reformation propaganda and made great contributions to book design. His designation of ‘the Younger’ sets him apart from Hans Holbein the Elder, his father and an accomplished Gothic painter.
Holbein was born in Ausburg in 1498 and he and his brother Ambrosius both followed their
father in the painting trade. Hans and Ambrosius moved to Basel to work as journeymen painters by 1515, having been apprenticed to Basel’s foremost painter, Hans Herbster and travelled around northern Europe for the next few years. Hans Holbein moved back to Basel by himself in 1519, his brother is no longer mentioned in records and presumably died. In Basel, Holbein married Elsbeth Schmid and had a son, Philipp, a year later. Holbein worked on many projects at this time, including murals for the Council Chamber of the Town Hall, religious paintings and illustrations for the publisher Johann Froben, including the title page of Martin Luther’s Bible.
Holbein began painting portraits around 1519 and painted renowned scholar Erasmus in 1523, making Holbein an internationally recognized artist. Erasmus recommended Holbein to Sir Thomas More, an English scholar and statesman, when Holbein decided to pursue employment in England. Between 1526-1528 Holbein greatly impressed More and many others who had ties to Erasmus. Holbein returned to Basel until 1532, which had become turbulent and incendiary in his absence. Holbein retained favour under the new regime, due partly to the ambiguity of the religious aspects of his paintings. Holbein returned to a radically changed England, where Henry VIII was preparing to defy the Pope and break with the Catholic Church in order to marry Anne Boleyn and produce a much hoped for male heir. Holbein distanced himself from More and instead found favour with Thomas Cromwell and the Boleyn family. By 1936, Holbein was employed in the King’s service and in 1537 created his most recognizable image; that of Henry VIII standing, feet planted firmly apart, in a proud and heroic pose. Holbein’s style changed in England, his primary focus was on the face and dress of the subject with little attention paid to the background.
Holbein owes part of his fame to his subjects, because in their fame and infamy his portraits have become elevated to the status of cultural icons. Holbein has been called ``the cameraman on Tudor history’’, thanks to his portraits of many important historical figures of that era. Although Holbein survived the fall of Thomas More and Anne Boleyn, his career was damaged when Cromwell was arrested and executed in 1540. Holbein died at the age of 45 of unknown causes, but an infection or the plague has been suggested. His unerring eye for detail and prolific portraiture has given the modern world a glimpse into 16th century life, the English Tudor court, the German Reformation and the humanism movement in Europe.