What’s so great about Hans Holbein?

It is hard to imagine what the English court looked like in the sixteenth century without the works of Hans Holbein the younger. The images we have of Henry VIII, Thomas More, Anne Boleyn and many others have been constructed by him. But how come this German born painter ended up in the English court and why is his work considered the greatest among his peers?

Hans Holbein – sketch Anne Boleyn
Hans Holbein – The ambassadors – 1533

Holbein was born in Augsburg in what is now Germany and spend many years in Basel (todays Switzerland) . He was the son of a reasonably well know painter and showed early sign of great talent. He distinguished himself for his outstanding use of detail and was considered to be on his way to become one of the great masters of the time when he crafted an altar piece depicting the virgin Mary surrounded by the major of Basel and his family in 1528 (Gombrich 1997) Then however circumstances changed drastically.

Portrait of a woman from Southern
Hans Holbein – portrait of a woman of Southern Germany – 1523

The Reformation swept over Northern Europe and many religious images were destroyed in a wave of iconoclasm or packed up and stored far away from the public eye. Holbein decided to move to England to continue his work. With him, he brought a letter of recommendation written by Erasmus. In it the philosopher recommends Holbein’s work and explains his move to England with the sentence: ‘the arts are freezing in this part of the world’. England however, didn’t prove much different and Holbein had to resort to painting portraits. He soon became King’s painter to Henry VIII. A capacity in which he also crafted jewellery, furniture, costumes, the decoration of drinking cups and even the decoration of arms.

Hans Holbein – Desiderius Erasmus – 1523

So, what was it that made Holbein one of the greatest painters of the renaissance?

Looking at a portrait by Holbein for the very first time one could easily think that his work is famous for its subjects more than the artwork itself. And although this might be true for some artists, Holbein’s work is truly something extraordinary.

Dr. John Chambers
Hans Holbein – Dr John Chambers

First of all his work is greatly detailed, he has managed to create the illusion of a three-dimensional image on a flat surface, giving you the idea of viewing the subject in real life. Secondly, his compositions are perfectly balanced and calm. A feature of Holbein’s work that invokes what has been called an almost ascetic feeling. Thirdly, due to the many crooked noses and receding chins Holbein’s portraits seem to be an accurate display of what his subject actually looked like and not what they wanted to look like or something in between.

henry holbein
Hans Holbein – Henry VIII – 1540

Lastly, and I know this by experience, when looking at a Holbein portrait, one is hit by the sudden notion that you perceive something more than just an image, a pose, a face. Holbein’s portraits seem to reveal a part of the inner world of the subject. Gombrich notes that as the years past Holbein’s portraits become sober, almost temperate. The many attributes that he used to include in his compositions to demonstrate his subjects traits disappear. Remarkably though, while the attributes are gone, one is still able to deduce a great deal of insight into the character of the subject portrayed. That is in itself a showcase of true mastery.

Read More
If you want to read more on Holbein and his work of the beaten track have a look at this article byJonathan Jones in the Guardian on how Holbein created our image of Henry VIII and much more.

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