Artists Who Died Before 50: Hans Holbein the Younger
Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543)
The memory keepers and great historians of the past are the artists who meticulously recorded the details of people and places we will never see without their help. They are the honored few who did for us what cameras do today: record faithfully. What we artists do is immortalize a time, an era, a community, a person in a portrait. It is why we are still fascinated with a little known lady captured in the Mona Lisa. It is why an era that lasted a little more than 11 years and dancers who only danced 2 years at best, are immortalized forever in the posters of the Moulin Rouge by the artist Toulouse-Lautrec. It is why the era of this artist will be forever remembered. He recorded for us the much loved and talked about King Henry VIII and his many wives. This is the artist who has been studied and renown for his realism and detail. It’s too bad his life was rather short. This is the story of Hans Holbein the Younger.
One of the Greatest German Painters
After Durer, Holbein is the greatest of the German painters of his time. The fascinating portrait of “The Ambassadors” is still considered one of the most enigmatic paintings of art history.
Hans Holbein is called the “younger” to distinguish him from his father, also an accomplished artist, Hans Holbein the Elder, who painted in the Late Gothic style. Born in Augsburg, Bavaria, Germany, he became a highly accomplished portrait artist.
Married a Young Widow
He married a young widow, Elsbeth Schmid, who had an infant son already. She bore Hans a son, Philipp, in their first year of marriage. At first, as a young painter, Holbein painted murals and religious works. He even designed stained glass windows and printed books. It was only occasionally that he was asked to paint a portrait, but finally, he made his mark after painting a portrait of the humanist Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam. With a recommendation from Erasmus, he traveled to England in 1526 looking for work and was welcomed into the circle of Thomas More. In England, Thomas More found him several commissions. Some of the portraits of the More family are lost but those that lasted came to be influential to the Dutch paintings of the seventeenth century.
Have you ever heard of Hans Holbein before?
Likeness and Symbolism
Unlike many famous painters before and after him, he founded no school but was still considered a master and his work was highly prized. After his death, some of his work was lost, although highly collected and sought after. He drew and painted with rare precision; painting mostly a true likeness of the people he painted. Not to be content with the mere likeness, he often embedded layers of symbolism, allusion, and paradox in his art for the fascination of scholars and viewers.
His time in Basil coincided with the arrival of Lutheranism in the city. About this time also, the printing press had made its debut and books were being printed for the masses, not just the rich. With this influx of printed books, illustration was needed and Holbein designed several woodcut designs for the publisher Johan Froben. He also created the illustrations of the Old Testament and title page of Martin Luther’s Bible, which was a translation from Latin to the vernacular (German) so the average person could read the bible for himself.
Patronage of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell
After returning to Basel in 1528, he worked under the patronage of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell. Many things had changed in Basel while Holbein was gone. With the influence of Reformers like Zwingli, the imagery was being banned in churches. This, of course, has a profound effect on artists. It was the iconoclasts who probably destroyed some of Holbein’s religious artwork during this time. As a citizen of Basel, Holbein was required to register like all other citizens to ensure that all went along and subscribed to the new doctrines of the church. It is not truly known what Holbein’s feelings were on this subject but he is listed among those “who have no serious objections and wish to go along with other Christians.” He was commissioned to resume work on the Council Chamber frescos. However, it was probably the reduced levels of artistic commissions that prompted Holbein to return to England early in 1532 looking for work to support his family.
However, things, political and religious, were changing in England as well. In 1532, Henry VIII repudiated his wife, Catherine of Aragon, in defiance of the pope. Holbein’s former host and patron were among those who opposed Henry’s actions and resigned as Lord Chancellor in May 1532. The painter, however, found favor within the new power circles of the Boleyn family, Anne Boleyn, the new queen, and Thomas Cromwell. By 1535, he was an official painter to King Henry VIII, producing not only portraits but also decorations, jewelry, plates and other objects for the royal family. Thomas More was executed in 1535. In a climate so dangerous, I would guess an artist needed to watch who his friends were or he’d find himself facing a beheading. Also, as many times as he painted King Henry in all his girth and pomp, I would worry that the King may not have taken kindly to the artist not taking off a few pounds. I know when I painted my father, he was actually offended that I painted him exactly as I saw him. He figured he didn’t have that much weight or that many chins. I learned early that you better take off 10 years and 10 pounds or your clients may be mad at what they see.
Holbein painted more than just royal portraits, although these are the ones people remember most. He also painted various courtiers, landowners, and visitors during this time. We have faithful depictions of the costumes and fabrics common during that era in England mostly because of Holbein’s paintings. He painted the ambassador of Francis I of France as well as bishops and clerics. With these paintings, he added things like a distorted skull, which would symbolize things to learn of the day. He loved adding things that spoke of mortality, religion, and illusion in the tradition of the Northern Renaissance.
“Drawing is the true test of art.”— J.A.D. Ingres
Time of Travel
It is unfortunate that no certain portraits of Anne Boleyn by Holbein survived after her execution for treason and adultery in 1536. Her memory was perhaps purged after that. It was that year that Holbein was officially employed as the King’s Painter with an annual salary of 30 pounds. He designed and painted a mural of the king in a heroic pose with feet planted apart and with his father behind him, which was destroyed by fire in 1698. Only studies and drawings for that mural still exist. He painted Jane Seymour who died shortly after the birth of Henry’s only son, Edward VI. He was sent to Brussels to sketch Christina of Denmark in 1538 as a prospective bride for Henry. The same year accompanied by a diplomat, he went to France to paint Louise of Guise and Anne of Lorraine for Henry. Unfortunately, neither of these portraits has survived. He then in 1539, painted Anne of Cleves, which was Henry’s eventual choice of wife. This meant a lot of travel for Holbein but it enabled him to go home to Basel and apprentice his son, Philip to a goldsmith before returning to England.
“A portrait is a painting with something a little wrong with the mouth.”
— John Singer Sargent
Henry married Anne of Cleves but was thoroughly unsatisfied with her in person. The entire weight of the king’s anger was directed at Cromwell, who was arrested and executed on trumped-up charges of heresy and treason. It doesn’t appear that the king blamed Holbein for the supposed flattery of Anne’s looks in her portrait. After the execution of Cromwell, Holbein was still employed by the king but had few commissions to keep him busy. The politics of the times with courtiers and diplomats jockeying for positions of power must have been somewhat of an enigma to Holbein. With so many moving up to positions of power and influence only to be cast down a few years later, it had to have been hard to know who to align oneself with. A painter, after all, has very little power and only a little influence.
“A painting is never finished—it simply stops in interesting places.”
— Paul Gardner
Died at 45
Holbein died in 1543, while still in the service to the king. Some believed he died of infection but others record that he died of the plague. Since it is recorded that there were friends at his bedside, the latter is not likely. While in England he apparently fathered two children and they were taken care of in his will, as well as his wife back home and her sons. No one knows where he was buried, and in truth, his grave may not have been marked. He was only 45 years old.
Holbein has been described as “the supreme representative of German Reformation art”. His religious works and portraiture have been copied and studied for centuries. He has influenced many artists after him. I love to look at the unrivaled mastery of the costuming, the feel of the fabrics and laces.
The Talent Survives
I appreciate the stories and struggles that artists have to endure to make the mark in history that some of them have made. Many times it is just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I know that it seems like artists who are not very talented or who show no more talent than some others who did not achieve fame did, however, it is a lot of chance, happenstance and whom you know more than talent most of the time. In the case of Holbein, who knows if he would have been as remembered and sought after if he had never left his home and traveled to England. Certainly, the mystery of Henry VIII and his many wives would have remained a mystery without Holbein’s faithful rendering of their lives and times.