Hans Holbein

Hans Holbein

Hans Holbein was born in Augsburg, Germany in 1497. Later the family moved to Basle in Switzerland. The son of a painter, Holbein soon developed a reputation as a talented artist.

Like most artists of this period, Holbein mainly painted religious subjects, specializing in painting altarpieces. However, in the 1520s, Basle came under the influence of the teachings of Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther. Luther did not approve of highly decorated churches and so Holbein found it difficult to find work.

In 1526, Holbein moved to England which at that time was still a Catholic country. Soon after he arrived he was commissioned to paint a picture of Thomas More and his family. More was impressed with the painting and began telling his friends about Holbein's amazing ability to accurately represent what people really looked like.

Other wealthy people in England commissioned Holbein to paint their portraits. These included Thomas Cromwell, who was at this time one of the king's advisers. When Henry VIII saw this picture he asked Holbein to become one of the artists working for the royal family. Holbein painted several portraits of Henry. Other artists employed by the king made copies of these portraits. Some of these copies were displayed in England while others were sent to foreign monarchs. In many cases it is the copies rather than the original paintings that have survived.

One of Holbein's most important tasks was to paint pictures on the the walls of Whitehall Palace. Unfortunately, the palace was destroyed by fire in 1698. Luckily, copies were made of some of these paintings.

Christina, Duchess of Milan (1538)
Christina, Duchess of Milan (1538)

After the death of Jane Seymour, Henry began to look for another wife. Holbein was sent to Europe where he painted the portraits of five potential brides. From these portraits. Henry picked the beautiful Christina, Duchess of Milan. However, Christina eventually decided against the marriage. She is reported to have said she was worried she might lose her head if she failed to provide Henry with a son. Henry eventually married another woman that Holbein painted, Anne of Cleves.

As well as painting pictures for Henry VIII, Holbein designed furniture, banners and jewellery, and continued to work for Henry until his death from the plague in 1543.

Primary Sources

(1) Thomas More, letter to Desiderius Erasmus (18 December, 1526)

Your painter... is a wonderful artist, but I fear he is not likely to find England so fertile as he hoped; although I will do what I can.

(2) Letter of introduction from Desiderius Erasmus to his friends in England (29 August, 1526)

Here the arts are freezing, so Holbein is on the way to England to pick up some coins there.