Hans Holbein the Younger
Summary of Hans Holbein the Younger
One of the greatest portraitists of the sixteenth century, Holbein painted the English ruling elite, producing images that came to define their public personas, both in their own time and in later centuries. Beyond portraiture, Holbein was also a very versatile artist who turned his hand to religious paintings, frescoes, jewelry and clothing design, and book illustrations throughout his lifetime. Predominantly linked to the Northern Renaissance, Holbein also incorporated elements and ideas from the Italian Renaissance into his work to create sumptuous and detailed images with their own unique appearance. Holbein is particularly well known for his mastery of light and texture, and his exquisite portrayals of fabric, fur, and glass are a testament to his skill.
- Holbein's art is considered realist in that he represented people with detail and precision, and was renowned for creating a true likeness (albeit, perhaps, a flattering one) of his sitters. His portraits are characterized by strong gazes, a diversity of appearance and carefully rendered clothing and accessories. Despite the meticulous nature of his portrayals, however, the images are often inscrutable, revealing little of the character of the sitter.
- Many of Holbein's portraits are rich in background details, often consisting of trompe l'oeil objects such as letters, flowers, and tools and these are believed to be symbolic. With some of the meanings now lost, however, their intended messages have become an area for modern art historical debate.
- Holbein's most famous images are those he painted of the English royal court and particularly of Henry VIII. These were created and utilized as propaganda to convey authority, masculinity, wealth, succession, and the divine right of royalty to rule to a wider audience. This was particularly important in a period of religious turmoil such as the Reformation.
Biography of Hans Holbein the Younger
Despite his works being half a millennium old, Holbein’s depictions influence portrait artists to this day.
Important Art by Hans Holbein the Younger
In this panel, Holbein has created a life-size image of Christ, lying in his tomb. The greenish hue to the skin, in particular around the wounds on the hand, feet and torso, as well as on his face suggest the putrefaction of flesh and results in an almost grotesque image. Rather than creating a sense of calm or peace, the mouth and eyes are shown wide open, so that the pain endured on the cross seems to continue into the tomb. These elements emphasize Christ's humanity over his divine status and this is compounded by the unnaturally stretched and emaciated body being confined in an uncomfortably narrow space, imbuing it with an uneasy claustrophobia.
The recess in which Christ is laid is painted with an incredible sense of depth and this adds to the realism of the piece. This is further enhanced by the loose strands of Christ's hair which have fallen over the edge of the surface upon which he lies and his finger which also reaches over the edge and into the viewer's plane, reinforcing the dimensionality of the space. This is an early example of Holbein's use of trompe l'oeil, a technique that he would later apply to great effect in many of his portraits.
It is possible that the panel was intended as part of a Holy Tomb, in place of a sculpture or perhaps as a lid over a sepulchre. Above the body, angels hold instruments of the Passion and a Latin inscription reads 'Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.' Art Historian Oskar Bsatschhmann notes that "Holbein transformed the image of the Christ at rest into the dreadful vision of a corpse, that of a man who had been condemned to death. Only the specific character of the wounds betray the identity of Christ." Although a fascination with the macabre was a common trait of early Protestant artists, their minds steeped in the apocalyptic horrors of the Reformation, this is not the only way in which to view Holbein's gory interpretation. The rotting flesh can also be seen to stress the sheer miracle of the Resurrection, occurring even after the human body has decayed.
This Schutzmantelbid, or 'Virgin of Pity' painting, is also known as the Madonna of Jakob Meyer zum Hasen, shows Jakob Meyer, a Basel official, having invoked divine protection for himself and his family. He is portrayed to the left, his eyes looking upwards to heaven. Opposite him are his two wives, his first wife, Magdalena Baer, who died in 1511 is positioned behind in profile, and in front, is his second wife, Dorothea Kannengiesse, in three-quarter view. Before them kneels their only surviving child, Anna, but to the left, in front of Meyer, are thought to be his two deceased sons. Above them all towers the Madonna, cradling the infant Christ. The buckled carpet upon which they stand demonstrates Holbein's skill in creating life-like texture and light, but also serves as a symbol of wealth and to draw the viewer into the pictorial space, so that they too are welcomed into the group, sharing the divinity bestowed by the Madonna and Christ child. This is one of Holbein's most famous religious works and art historian Helen Langdon attributes its success to "its depiction of individual human identities combined with spectacular spatial control and illusionism".
As with the depiction of Christ in his tomb, Holbein includes human elements, in the individual portraits of donor and family, but more particularly in the Madonna and child. The twisting of the infant's body serves to emphasise the physical weight carried in the arms of his mother. For the Madonna herself, her face is not a stereotypical rendition in the tradition of Italian Renaissance painters such as Raphael, but rather was painted from life and is based on model, Magdalena Offenburg. In this manner, the painting retains the softness of the Italian tradition (particularly in the rendition of the two boys) but also brings to bear the realism of the Northern Renaissance, as Langdon notes, "Holbein achieved a combination of piety and grandeur, and interaction between the human and divine, to rival that of Van Eyck himself." The resulting group portrait is much more than a simple devotional image and as Holbein's final major religious work, marked his future in portraiture.
This portrait of wealthy merchant Georg Giese shows the trader in a three-quarter view, standing behind a carpet-covered counter, with various objects displayed across its surface. The sitter's name is on the wall to the left, along with his motto "no pleasure without regret". There are also letters on both walls that identify him and mark familial links to other merchant families, signalling a network of important connections. In these trompe l'oeil details, Holbein has gone as far as to recreate the writing of Giese's own hand on some of the correspondence. Amongst the many symbolic objects are carnations to signify an engagement or betrothal, a clock alluding to the passage of time, as well as a collection of tools to reinforce the profession of the sitter and a number of details indicating wealth. Giese's gaze is fixed towards the viewer and this allows him to dominate the space so that, even when surrounded by a busy collection of objects, the eye is still drawn to him. Holbein's artistic skill is particularly evident in the delicate glass vase and the sleeves of Giese's jacket, showing a Mannerist interest in surface texture. This realism later influenced 19th century advocates of naturalism in portraiture and this can be seen in the works of artists such as Bastien-Lepage, particularly in his Portrait of the Prince of Wales (1879-80).
This portrait marks the first major work by Holbein at the beginning of his second stay in London, prior to his royal appointment. It illustrates his development in portraiture and the influence of other artists of the Renaissance on him, most notably Titian. The pose and sideward glance being reminiscent of the Italian artist's Man with a Quilted Sleeve (1510). Simultaneously, the delicately painted vase with light reflecting off it was a typical feature of early Netherlandish paintings and this indicates a coalescence of influences in the artist's work, which shaped his style of portrait-making. The continued success of this portrait is illustrated in its use on the German 100,000 mark banknote in 1923.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Hans Holbein the Younger
- HolbeinBy Norbert Wolf
- Hans HolbeinBy Oskar Batschmann
- Hans Holbein: Portrait of an Unknown ManBy Derek Wilson
- Holbein: The Paintings of Hans Holbein the Younger. Complete EditionBy John Rowlands
- Hans Holbein the Younger: Painter at the Court of Henry VIIIBy Jochen Sander
- Hans Holbein: Masters of German ArtBy Stephanie Buck
- Decoding the Symbolism in Hans Holbein's "Ambassadors"By Julia Wolkoff
August 17, 2017
- How Thomas Cromwell's love of Holbein destroyed him in the endBy Diarmaid MacCulloch
September 16, 2018
- Dark arts: Holbein and the court of Henry VIIIBy Waldemar Januszczak
January 21, 2015
- From Henry VIII to the Windsors: inside the power of the royal portraitBy Alana Schetzer
March 14, 2019
- Was Hans Holbein's Henry VIII the best piece of propaganda ever?By Derek Wilson
April 23, 2009
- Hans Holbein the Younger: 'A man very excellent in taking of physionamies' - Dr Susan Foister
- Holbein's extraordinary 'Ambassadors', National Gallery
- Hans Holbein's 'Christina of Denmark', National Gallery
- Holbein: From Basel to Britain, Waldemar Januszczak, 19 January 2015
- Hans Holbein's Dating Agency: Anne of Cleves, Waldemar Januszczak, 19 January 2015