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Hans Holbein the Younger was born in Augsburg into a family of artists. His father Hans Holbein the Elder (c. 1465-1524) was an artist, as was his uncle Sigismund Holbein (active 1501-died 1540) and his older brother Ambrosius (probably 1494-1519?). The date of Hans Holbein the Younger's birth is not documented, but can be deduced from a silverpoint drawing of Hans and Ambrosius by their father which is dated 1511 and gives Hans' age as 14 and his brother's as 17, as well as a miniature portrait dated 1543 and giving the artist's age as 45. It is most likely that Hans Holbein was first trained by his father.
It is not known exactly when Holbein left Augsburg, but he was in Basel in 1515 and was joined there by Ambrosius, who had been working in Stein-am-Rhein. One of Hans' earliest commissions was the marginal pen illustrations to an edition of The Praise of Folly by Erasmus published in Basel in 1515. The book belonged to the humanist schoolmaster Oswald Geisshüsler, known as Myconius or Molitor, for whom Hans and Ambrosius each painted one side of a signboard, dated 1516, advertising his profession. In the same year Hans painted a double portrait of the burgomaster of Basel, Jacob Meyer, and his wife, which was influenced by the design of a woodcut portrait by Hans Burgkmair.
For much of the time between 1517 and 1519 Holbein worked in Lucerne, where his father had settled in 1517. Whether or not Holbein journeyed to Italy is unknown, but he was back in Basel sometime after May, 1519, and on 25 September became a master in the painters' guild. He married Elsbeth Binzenstock, the widow of Ulrich Schmidt, a tanner, and became a citizen of Basel on 3 July. Holbein's success was virtually immediate and he received both municipal and private commissions for altarpieces, religious scenes, and portraits.
In 1524 Hans Holbein journeyed to France. His exact itinerary is unknown; he may have visited Lyons or possibly the courts of Francis I at Amboise and Fontainebleau. Holbein's presence in Bourges, is, however, indicated by his drawings of the tomb sculptures of Jean, Duc de Berry, and his wife, which were in the Ducal Palace. As a result of this trip the influence of Jean Clouet's portrait drawings and of French and Italian art becomes evident in Holbein's book.
As the Reformation gained an increasing foothold in Basel, it became more difficult for artists to earn a living. In late August of 1526 Holbein left Basel for Antwerp, furnished by Erasmus with a letter of introduction to Pieter Gillis, the Town Clerk. Holbein did not stay long, for in a letter of 18 December 1526, Sir Thomas More informed Erasmus that the artist was in England. Here, Holbein worked primarily as a portraitist, often depicting intellectuals and humanists from More's circle. Unfortunately the major work of this period, the Family of Sir Thomas More, was destroyed and is known only through a drawing by Holbein and later copies.
Holbein returned to Basel in the summer of 1528 and on 29 August purchased a house. He completed a mural for the Council Chamber of the Town Hall and revised an altarpiece begun earlier. Holbein also painted a portrait of his wife and two eldest children which is imbued with a haunting sadness, and was possibly influenced by Leonardo da Vinci's late compositions.
As demonstrated by an outbreak of iconoclasm in 1529, the religious and political climate of Basel was still "freezing", to use Erasmus' word, and so by early September of 1532 Holbein was back in England. Here too the situation had altered with the death of Archbishop Wareham and the removal from power of Sir Thomas More, and Holbein's first portraits were of the German merchants of the Hanseatic League housed in the Steelyard in London. His circle of clients quickly broadened, however, and one of his largest and most complex works, The Ambassadors, dated 1533, is a double portrait of the French envoys to England, Jean de Dintville and Georges de Selve.
Because the account books are missing it is not known exactly when Holbein began working for the King of England, but it was no later than 1536. The most important commission from Henry VIII was for the fresco in Whitehall Palace depicting Henry VIII and Queen Jane Seymour and his parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, accompanied by Latin verses praising Henry VIII for suppressing the Popes and thus restoring religion. The wall painting was destroyed by fire in 1698, but part of Holbein's cartoon is preserved, as are later copies of the entire composition.
In addition to depicting the King and members of the nobility, Holbein was called upon to travel to Europe to make portraits of potential brides for Henry. It was on one of these trips in 1538 that the artist returned to Basel where a banquet was held in his honor and the city council attempted without success to persuade him to stay. Holbein died of the plague in London sometime between 7 October, the date of his Testament and Will, and 29 November 1543.
Although he was a skillful and inventive draftsman, printmaker, miniaturist and jewelry designer, Hans Holbein the Younger is best known as a painter, in particular as a portraitist. An assured, meticulous technician, Holbein's insights into the character of his
sitters are achieved, somewhat paradoxically, through his cool, emotional detachment and objective, astonishing realism. Working primarily in Switzerland and England, he is nonetheless one of the greatest German artists of the sixteenth century.
[Hand, John Oliver, with the assistance of Sally E. Mansfield. German Paintings of the Fifteenth through Seventeenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1993: 82-83.]