Holbein was born in the free imperial city of Augsburg during the winter of 1497–98. He was a son of the painter and draughtsman Hans Holbein the Elder, whose trade he and his older brother, Ambrosius, followed. Holbein the Elder ran a large and busy workshop in Augsburg, sometimes assisted by his brother Sigmund, also a painter.
By 1515, Hans and Ambrosius had moved as journeymen painters to the city of Basel, a centre of learning and the printing trade. There they were apprenticed to Hans Herbster, Basel's leading painter. The brothers found work in Basel as designers of woodcuts and metalcuts for printers. In 1515, the preacher and theologian Oswald Myconius invited them to add pen drawings to the margin of a copy of The Praise of Folly by the humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam. The sketches provide early evidence of Holbein's wit and humanistic leaning. His other early works, including the double portrait of Basel's mayor Jakob Meyer zum Hasen and his wife Dorothea, follow his father's style.
The young Holbein, alongside his brother and his father, is pictured in the left-hand panel of Holbein the Elder's 1504 altar-piece triptych the Basilica of St. Paul, which is displayed at the Staatsgalerie in Augsburg.
In 1517, father and son began a project in Lucerne (Luzern), painting internal and external murals for the merchant Jakob von Hertenstein. While in Lucerne Holbein also designed cartoons for stained glass. The city's records show that on 10 December 1517, he was fined five livres for fighting in the street with a goldsmith called Caspar, who was fined the same amount. That winter, Holbein probably visited northern Italy, though no record of the trip survives. Many scholars believe he studied the work of Italian masters of fresco, such as Andrea Mantegna, before returning to Lucerne. He filled two series of panels at Hertenstein's house with copies of works by Mantegna, including The Triumphs of Caesar.
In 1519, Holbein moved back to Basel. His brother fades from the record at about this time, and it is usually presumed that he died. Holbein re-established himself rapidly in the city, running a busy workshop. He joined the painters' guild and took out Basel citizenship. He married Elsbeth Schmid, a widow a few years older than he was, who had an infant son, Franz, and was running her late husband's tanning business. She bore Holbein a son of his own, Philipp, in their first year of marriage.
Holbein was prolific during this period in Basel, which coincided with the arrival of Lutheranism in the city. He undertook a number of major projects, such as external murals for The House of the Dance and internal murals for the Council Chamber of the Town Hall. The former are known from preparatory drawings. The Council Chamber murals survive in a few poorly preserved fragments. Holbein also produced a series of religious paintings and designed cartoons for stained glass windows.
In a period of revolution in book design, he illustrated for the publisher Johann Froben. His woodcut designs included those for the Dance of Death, the Icones (illustrations of the Old Testament), and the title page of Martin Luther's bible. Through the woodcut medium, Holbein refined his grasp of expressive and spatial effects.
Holbein also painted the occasional portrait in Basel, among them the double portrait of Jakob and Dorothea Meyer, and, in 1519, that of the young academic Boniface Amerbach. According to art historian Paul Ganz, the portrait of Amerbach marks an advance in his style, notably in the use of unbroken colours. For Meyer, he painted an altarpiece of the Madonna which included portraits of the donor, his wife, and his daughter. In 1523, Holbein painted his first portraits of the great Renaissance scholar Erasmus, who required likenesses to send to his friends and admirers throughout Europe. These paintings made Holbein an international artist. Holbein visited France in 1524, probably to seek work at the court of Francis I. When Holbein decided to seek employment in England in 1526, Erasmus recommended him to his friend the statesman and scholar Thomas More. "The arts are freezing in this part of the world," he wrote, "and he is on the way to England to pick up some angels".
Holbein broke his journey at Antwerp, where he bought some oak panels and may have met the painter Quentin Matsys. Sir Thomas More welcomed him to England and found him a series of commissions. "Your painter, my dearest Erasmus," he wrote, "is a wonderful artist". Holbein painted the famous Portrait of Sir Thomas More (Holbein) and another of More with his family. The group portrait, original in conception, is known only from a preparatory sketch and copies by other hands. According to art historian Andreas Beyer, it "offered a prelude of a genre that would only truly gain acceptance in Dutch painting of the seventeenth century". Seven fine related studies of More family members also survive.
During this first stay in England, Holbein worked largely for a humanist circle with ties to Erasmus. Among his commissions was the portrait of William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, who owned a Holbein portrait of Erasmus. Holbein also painted the Bavarian astronomer and mathematician Nicholas Kratzer, a tutor of the More family whose notes appear on Holbein's sketch for their group portrait. Although Holbein did not work for the king during this visit, he painted the portraits of courtiers such as Sir Henry Guildford and his wife Lady Mary, and of Anne Lovell, recently identified as the subject of Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling. In May 1527, "Master Hans" also painted a panorama of the siege of Thérouanne for the visit of French Ambassadors. With Kratzer, he devised a ceiling covered in planetary signs, under which the visitors dined. The chronicler Edward Hall described the spectacle as showing "the whole Earth, environed with the sea, like a very map or cart".
On 29 August 1528, Holbein bought a house in Basel, in St Johanns-Vorstadt. He presumably returned home to preserve his citizenship, since he had been granted only a two-year leave of absence. Enriched by his success in England, Holbein bought a second house in the city in 1531.
The Artist's Family
. 1528. Oil and tempera on paper, cut out and mounted on wood. Kunstmuseum Basel
During this period in Basel, he painted The Artist's Family, showing Elsbeth, with the couple's two eldest children, Philipp and Katherina, evoking images of the Virgin and Child with St John the Baptist. Art historian John Rowlands sees this work as "one of the most moving portraits in art, from an artist, too, who always characterized his sitters with a guarded restraint".
Basel had become a turbulent city in Holbein's absence. Reformers, swayed by the ideas of Zwingli, carried out acts of iconoclasm and banned imagery in churches. In April 1529, the free-thinking Erasmus felt obliged to leave his former haven for Freiburg im Breisgau. The iconoclasts probably destroyed some of Holbein's religious artwork, but details are unknown. Evidence for Holbein's religious views is fragmentary and inconclusive. "The religious side of his paintings had always been ambiguous," suggests art historian John North, "and so it remained". According to a register compiled to ensure that all major citizens subscribed to the new doctrines: "Master Hans Holbein, the painter, says that we must be better informed about the [holy] table before approaching it". In 1530, the authorities called Holbein to account for failing to attend the reformed communion. Shortly afterwards, however, he was listed among those "who have no serious objections and wish to go along with other Christians".
Holbein evidently retained favour under the new order. The reformist council paid him a retaining fee of 50 florins and commissioned him to resume work on the Council Chamber frescoes. They now chose themes from the Old Testament instead of the previous stories from classical history and allegory. Holbein's frescoes of Rehoboam and of the meeting between Saul and Samuel were more simply designed than their predecessors. Holbein worked for traditional clients at the same time. His old patron Jakob Meyer paid him to add figures and details to the family altarpiece he had painted in 1526. Holbein's last commission in this period was the decoration of two clock faces on the city gate in 1531. The reduced levels of patronage in Basel may have prompted his decision to return to England early in 1532.
Holbein returned to an England where the political and religious environment was changing radically. In 1532, Henry VIII was preparing to repudiate Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, in defiance of the pope. Among those who opposed Henry's actions was Holbein's former host and patron Sir Thomas More, who resigned as Lord Chancellor in May 1532. Holbein seems to have distanced himself from More's humanist milieu on this visit, and, according to Erasmus, "he deceived those to whom he was recommended". The artist found favour instead within the radical new power circles of the Boleyn family and Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell became the king's secretary in 1534, controlling all aspects of government, including artistic propaganda. More was executed in 1535, along with John Fisher, whose portrait Holbein had also drawn.
Holbein's commissions in the early stages of his second English period included portraits of Lutheran merchants of the Hanseatic League. The merchants lived and plied their trade at the Steelyard, a complex of warehouses, offices, and dwellings on the north bank of the Thames. Holbein rented a house in Maiden Lane nearby. He portrayed his clients in a range of styles. His portrait of Georg Gisze of Gdańsk shows the merchant surrounded with exquisitely painted symbols of his trade. His portrait of Derich Berck of Cologne, on the other hand, is classically simple, possibly influenced by Titian. For the guildhall of the Steelyard Holbein painted two monumental allegories, The Triumph of Wealth and The Triumph of Poverty, both now lost. The merchants commissioned from Holbein a street tableau of Mount Parnassus for Anne Boleyn's coronation eve procession of 31 May 1533.
Holbein also portrayed various courtiers, landowners, and visitors during this time. His most famous, and perhaps greatest, painting of the period was The Ambassadors. This life-sized panel portrays Jean de Dinteville, an ambassador of Francis I of France in 1533, and Georges de Selve, Bishop of Lavaur, who visited London the same year. The work incorporates symbols and paradoxes, including an anamorphic (distorted) skull. According to scholars, these encode enigmatic references to learning, religion, mortality, and illusion in the tradition of the Northern Renaissance. Art historians Oskar Bätschmann and Pascal Griener suggest that in The Ambassadors "Sciences and arts, objects of luxury and glory, are measured against the grandeur of Death".
No certain portraits of Anne Boleyn by Holbein survive, perhaps because her memory was purged following her execution for treason, incest, and adultery in 1536. That Holbein worked directly for Anne and her circle is, however, clear. He designed a cup engraved with her device of a falcon standing on roses, as well as jewellery and books connected to her. He also sketched several women attached to her entourage, including Jane Parker, Anne's sister-in-law. At the same time, Holbein worked for Thomas Cromwell as he masterminded Henry VIII's reformation. Cromwell commissioned Holbein to produce reformist and royalist images, including anti-clerical woodcuts and the title page to Myles Coverdale's English translation of the Bible. Henry VIII had embarked on a grandiose programme of artistic patronage. His efforts to glorify his new status as Supreme Head of the Church culminated in the building of Nonsuch Palace, started in 1538.
By 1536, Holbein was employed as the King's Painter on an annual salary of 30 pounds, though he was never the highest-paid artist on the royal payroll. The royal "pictor maker", Lucas Horenbout, earned more, and other continental artists worked for the king. In 1537, Holbein painted what has become perhaps his most famous image: Henry VIII standing in a heroic pose with his feet planted apart. The left section of Holbein's cartoon for a life-sized wall painting at Whitehall Palace has survived, showing the king in this pose, with his father behind him. The mural itself, which also depicted Jane Seymour and Elizabeth of York, was destroyed by fire in 1698. It is known from engravings and from a 1667 copy by Remigius van Leemput. An earlier half-length portrait shows Henry in a similar pose, but all the full-length portraits of him based on the Whitehall pattern are copies. The figure of Jane Seymour in the mural is related to Holbein's sketch and painting of her.
Jane died in October 1537, shortly after bearing Henry's only son, the future Edward VI. About two years later, Holbein painted a portrait of the prince, clutching a sceptre-like gold rattle. Holbein's final portrait of Henry, dating from 1543 and perhaps completed by others, depicts the king with a group of barber surgeons.
Holbein's portrait style altered after he entered Henry's service. He focused more intensely on the sitters' faces and clothing, largely omitting props and three-dimensional settings. Holbein applied this clean, craftsmanlike technique both to miniature portraits, such as that of Jane Small, and to grand portraits, such as that of Christina of Denmark. Holbein travelled with Philip Hoby to Brussels and sketched Christina in 1538 for the king, who was appraising the young widow as a prospective bride. John Hutton, the English ambassador in Brussels, reported another artist's drawing of Christina as "sloberid" (slobbered) compared to Holbein's. In Wilson's view, Holbein's subsequent oil portrait is "the loveliest painting of a woman that he ever executed, which is to say that it is one of the finest female portraits ever painted". The same year, Holbein, again escorted by the diplomat Hoby, went to France to paint Louise of Guise and Anne of Lorraine for Henry VIII. Neither portrait of these cousins has survived. Holbein found time to visit Basel, where he was fêted by the authorities and granted a pension. On the way back to England, he apprenticed his son Philipp to the Basel-born goldsmith Jacob David in Paris.
Holbein painted Anne of Cleves at Burgau Castle, posing her square-on and in elaborate finery. This was the woman that Henry would eventually marry, at Düren in summer 1539, at the encouragement of Thomas Cromwell. "Hans Holbein," reported the English envoy Nicholas Wotton, "hath taken the effigies of my Lady Anne and the lady Amelia [Anne's sister] and hath expressed their images very lively". Henry was disillusioned with Anne in the flesh, however, and he divorced her after a brief, unconsummated marriage. The tradition that Holbein's portrait flattered Anne derives from the testimony of Sir Anthony Browne.
He said that he was dismayed by her appearance at Rochester having seen her pictures and heard advertisements of her beauty, so much that his face fell. No one other than Henry ever described Anne as repugnant: Charles de Marillac, the French Ambassador, an entirely detached observer, thought her quite attractive, pleasant and dignified, though dressed in an unflattering manner, in heavy German clothing, as were her attendants. Some of the blame for the king's disillusionment about Anne fell on Thomas Cromwell, who had been instrumental in arranging the marriage and had passed on some exaggerated claims of Anne's beauty to Henry. This was one of the factors that led to Cromwell's downfall.
Last years and death, 1540–1543
Holbein had deftly survived the downfall of his first two great patrons, Thomas More and Anne Boleyn, but Cromwell's sudden arrest and execution on trumped-up charges of heresy and treason in 1540 undoubtedly damaged his career. Though Holbein retained his position as King's Painter, Cromwell's death left a gap no other patron could fill. It was, ironically, Holbein's portrait of Anne of Cleves which largely led to Cromwell's downfall: furious at being saddled with a wife he found entirely unattractive, the King directed all his anger at Cromwell. Granted, Cromwell had exaggerated her beauty, but there is no evidence that Henry blamed Holbein for supposedly flattering Anne's looks.
Apart from routine official duties, Holbein now occupied himself with private commissions, turning again to portraits of Steelyard merchants. He also painted some of his finest miniatures, including those of Henry Brandon and Charles Brandon, sons of Henry VIII's friend Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk and his fourth wife, Catherine Willoughby. Holbein managed to secure commissions among those courtiers who now jockeyed for power, in particular from Anthony Denny, one of the two chief gentlemen of the bedchamber. He became close enough to Denny to borrow money from him. He painted Denny's portrait in 1541 and two years later designed a clock-salt for him. Denny was part of a circle that gained influence in 1542 after the failure of Henry's marriage to Catherine Howard. The king's marriage in July 1543 to the reformist Catherine Parr, whose brother Holbein had painted in 1541, established Denny's party in power.
Holbein may have visited his wife and children in late 1540, when his leave-of-absence from Basel expired. None of his work dates from this period, and the Basel authorities paid him six months salary in advance. The state of Holbein's marriage has intrigued scholars, who base their speculations on fragmentary evidence. Apart from one brief visit, Holbein had lived apart from Elsbeth since 1532. His will reveals that he had two infant children in England, of whom nothing is known except that they were in the care of a nurse. Holbein's unfaithfulness to Elsbeth may not have been new. Some scholars believe that Magdalena Offenburg, the model for the Darmstadt Madonna and for two portraits painted in Basel, was for a time Holbein's mistress. Others dismiss the idea. One of the portraits was of Lais of Corinth, mistress of Apelles, the famous artist of Greek antiquity after whom Holbein was named in humanist circles. Whatever the case, it is likely that Holbein always supported his wife and children. When Elsbeth died in 1549, she was well off and still owned many of Holbein's fine clothes; on the other hand, she had sold his portrait of her before his death.
Hans Holbein died between 7 October and 29 November 1543 at the age of 45. Karel van Mander stated in the early 17th century that he died of the plague. Wilson regards the story with caution, since Holbein's friends attended his bedside; and Peter Claussen suggests that he died of an infection. Describing himself as "servant to the king's majesty", Holbein had made his will on 7 October at his home in Aldgate. The goldsmith John of Antwerp and a few German neighbours signed as witnesses. Holbein may have been in a hurry, because the will was not witnessed by a lawyer. On 29 November, John of Antwerp, the subject of several of Holbein's portraits, legally undertook the administration of the artist's last wishes. He presumably settled Holbein's debts, arranged for the care of his two children, and sold and dispersed his effects, including many designs and preliminary drawings that have survived. The site of Holbein's grave is unknown and may never have been marked.