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Hans Holbein The Younger Essay, Research Paper

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/98-1543)

During the end of the fifteenth century and at the beginning of the sixteenth century lived one of the greatest portrait artists of all time. His name is Hans Holbein and was part of what is called the Northern Renaissance. He was born into a family of artists with his father, uncle, and older brother all artists. Hans Holbein is referred to as the younger because his father s name is also Hans Holbein, and he is referred to as the elder.

Holbein the younger was born in the winter of either 1497 or 1498 in a very wealthy city called Augsburg, Germany. At an early age he began to study painting with his father, who was also a recognized artist of the portraits. In the year 1515 when Hans the younger was around 17 or 18 years old he moved away from his family and established himself in Basel, Switzerland as a book illustrator. His work in Basel during the decade of 1515 to 1525 was extremely varied and sometimes derived from another s work. It was during this decade that Holbein made a trip to Italy, and there he ran into the works of the Italian Renaissance painters like Leonardo da Vinci. The impact of these and other artists on Holbein s work can be seen in the portraits of Erasmus of Rotterdam and in his Dead Christ. In each of these portraits, Holbein displayed the characteristics of the human figure with the richness of color and the detail of their figures, which characterized the work of the North Italian masters. These Italian artists were masters of the human figure studying every single body part to perfect the painting. Sometimes they dissected cadavers to learn more about the human figure and perfect it in the arts. They believed the sciences and arts work together to form the painting. It was also during Holbein s younger years and in Basel that he was active in creating woodcuts for title pages and book illustrations mostly for the scholar Erasmus. His most famous work in this area was a series of 41 scenes illustrating the medieval concept of the Dance of Death. Its scenes display a sense of order packing much information about the lifestyles and habits of death s victims into a very small format.

Regardless of Holbein s early prestige, however, he was forced to go to England because he was dissatisfied with the patronage in Switzerland, and it was difficult for him to work there because of the Reformation. The Swiss were experiencing Protestantism and it grew considerably in strength and importance during Holbein s later 20 s. Holbein s works during this period consisted of religious figures for the Protestant world to interpret. However, there were several iconoclastic riots, and strict censorship of the press swept over the city, which caused a sort of freezing of the arts in Switzerland. This led Holbein to depart for England. Arriving in 1526 with letters of introduction from Erasmus, now his friend and patron, Holbein was engaged to portray several of the great humanists of the period, including Sir Thomas More. Though only about 28 years old, he would achieve remarkable success in England portraying this mighty man. The magnificent single portrait of Sir Thomas More shows every stubble on his beard, the velvet fabric of his robe, and the decorative effects of the gold chain that he wears. Holbein also did a portrait of More s family, but that work is now lost. The copies that are presently existing portray the first example in Northern European art of a large group portrait in which the figures are not shown kneeling. This effect may have suggested individuality of each member of the family.

With the money that Holbein made in England, he was destined to return back to Basel, Switzerland a second time and buy a house. In Basel he finished portraits and murals (also called frescoes) of an unfinished work which he had done earlier for the Council Chamber of the Town Hall. The reflections of these frescoes reflected his continuing growth as an artist because one could see the dramatic impact of his new scenes on his earlier ones. Holbein was the type of artist who improved every step along the way. Unfortunately none of his frescoes there in Switzerland survived along with others in England and Germany. Their beauty is judged from his sketches and cartoons, and copies of other frescoes made by later artists. Also in Basel, Holbein painted his only psychologically penetrating portrait. This was of his wife and two sons. In spite of generous offers from Basel, Holbein left his wife and children in that city for a second time to spend the last eleven years of his life primarily in England. The family s reaction to his departure is portrayed in this painting with sadness and emotion expressed on their faces. Holbein could not make a living in Switzerland; therefore, he left for England a second time.

While in England, his portrait of the statesman Thomas Cromwell brought the artist recognition at court, and around forty years old, Holbein was established court painter to Henry the 8th. In England all Holbein painted were portraits because that is what the English people loved. The moving away from Christian subjects to more secular subjects is a characteristic of the Renaissance and Holbein. It is estimated that during the last ten years of his life, Holbein executed approximately 150 portraits, life size and miniature, of the noble and royal. These portraits ranged from German merchants working in London, to French Ambassadors, to Henry the 8th s court, to Henry s wives, and portraits of the king himself. In these and other examples, Holbein revealed his fascination with plant, animal, and decorative accessories. Also portrayed in a lot of his portraits are artifacts and new inventions, which is symbolic of the Renaissance. His portraits of his sitters contained detailed notations concerning jewelry and other costume decorations. The most significant of his works are of Henry the 8th and his wife Jane Seymour. The preliminary drawings for these paintings in which Holbein combined chalk, silverpoint, pen, and other media are among his most admired works. A group of 87 drawings is in the royal collection at the Windsor Castle in England.

Holbein s mature portraits present an intriguing play between surface and depth. The sitter s outlines and position within the frame are carefully calculated while inscriptions applied on the surface in gold leaf lock the sitter s head into place. His reputation is based on his realistic portrayals of individuals and groups. His attention to every detail of flesh, hair, and dress capture their exact texture and is seen in his paintings. One can almost touch the velvet he creates in his robes, or feel the beads around the person s neck. Holbein acted also as a fashion designer for the court. The artist made designs for all state robes of the king and drew drawings ranging from horse attire, buttons, buckles, bookbindings, and weapons for the royal household. His internationally flavored portraits are warm and honest, luminous and sensitive. His subjects present an image of history portrayed through those who lived it. Wherever he went, he studied the shapes of every detail of every object. One of the aspects Holbein did not create was the emotional or expressive sense in his artwork, except for the painting of his abandoned family. Holbein died in London in 1543 during the plague epidemic, also known as the Black Death.


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