Featured Image: Self-Portrait, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1542/3, black and colored chalks, 23 x 18 cm, Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi. This is the only secure self portrait in the Holbein oeuvre.
Self-portrait Hans Holbein The Younger, Oil on paper, mounted on oak, 16.5 x 14 cm, inscribed on the left and right of the head: H H; on the left above the shoulder: AN [N] O. 1554 / ETATIS SVE/45, Kunstmuseum Basel, donated by Prof. J.J. Bachofen-Burckhardt Foundation in 2015. While Lüdin was probably working from a graphic reproduction, the unknown painter of this picture, if not Holbein’s own drawing, surely had one of the copies made shortly after his death in the narrow workshop environment. This is one more Hans Holbein self-portrait based on the secure Florentine drawing.
Self-Portrait Hans Holbein, copy by Johannes Lüdin, c. 1647-1667, Oil on canvas, 61.5 x 47.5 cm, Kunstmuseum Basel. In fall 1526 twenty-nine-year-old Hans Holbein crossed the channel from Antwerp to England where the German immigrant’s first concerns were to find work, useful friends, and a place to stay. While Lüdin’s painting was given as a gift to a major art collector in Basel and probably based on a graphic model whose type proliferated after 1600, it is the drawing in the Uffizi (see Featured Image) that remains the only secure self-portrait image according to current Holbein scholarship.
Introduction by John P. Walsh
Hans Holbein the Younger was born in Augsburg, Germany, in 1497. After 1515, he lived and trained in Basel, Switzerland. Over two visits, one starting in 1526 and another in 1532, Holbein spent a total of thirteen years in Henry VIII’s England until the artist’s death in 1543. The focus for this post is Holbein’s first visit to England which lasted two years – specifically, from around September 1526 to mid-August 1528. His second, more permanent, visit to England started in 1532 (Holbein likely arrived in the spring) and lasting to his death, almost certainly from plague, in late 1543. It was during that second, longer visit in England that Holbein became the most important court artist in the time of Henry VIII. His first visit is characterized by the activity of a young immigrant German artist – Holbein was about 29 years in 1526 – getting established in a foreign land and developing a mastery of his craft.
Holbein arrived in England in late 1526 with a letter of introduction from Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) addressed to Sir Thomas More (1478-1535). This was not the first time Erasmus wrote to More asking him to temporarily lodge a friend.1 More would be appointed Lord Chancellor in 1529, but in 1526 Sir Thomas was the Speaker of the House of Commons and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. By 1526, Erasmus and More had been friends for more than a quarter century. They met during Erasmus’s first high-spirited stay in England in summer 1499. In that year, Erasmus was 33 years old and More twelve years his junior. Other major protagonists in this story – namely, Hans Holbein the Younger and the future King Henry VIII – were just children in 1499.2 While Erasmus began writing seriously on theological topics during his first English stay he also reveled in the gentle and happy personality of More. Part of More’s reception to Holbein in 1526 by way of Erasmus’s request may go back to the two old friends’ first meeting in England in 1499. After Erasmus had been encouraged by More to bring his money into England which More assured the relatively poor scholar would be safe, most of it was confiscated by English customs at Erasmus’ departure. This unpleasant shock not only left Erasmus with keen anger towards England for months afterwards—he never, however, blamed More (and one other English friend) for the misinformation—but left him lacking for money in Paris and elsewhere for several years thereafter.3 Similar to Holbein’s effort in 1526, Erasmus returned to England in 1505 to improve his fortunes by staying with his new friends, including Thomas More, and working to establish a network of influential English contacts. Erasmus emigrated in large part to access various English scholars as well as to counteract friends in the Netherlands who were mostly ignoring his work. It was by way of a new English contact that Erasmus in June 1506 ventured to Italy where he stayed for three years.4 Back in England on his third visit in 1509, Erasmus wrote his Praise of Folly, probably his most enduringly famous work, while living in the house of Thomas More. But writing and lecturing (at Cambridge) brought Erasmus little profit.5 It was only when the Archbishop of Canterbury, another English friend, gave him a stipend in 1512 that Erasmus was relieved of practical destitution. But the favored scholar would remain chronically in need of money and wrote more books to help fill the need. A scholar’s life in cold Britain, however, following three years in Italy’s southern climes, proved tiresome for Erasmus. He found his many months of writing and teaching at Cambridge to be like “a snail’s life, staying at home and plodding.”6 Erasmus was lonely; the plague was frequently about; and, for whatever his labors, he was making literally no money. Further, a state of war between England and France commenced in June 1513 which alarmed and depressed Erasmus, prompting him to publish his first anti-war writings and resolved to leave the island as soon as he could. He sailed for Antwerp in the summer of 1514.7
In 1526 when Erasmus wrote to More asking him to welcome German artist Han Holbein the Younger, both old friends had achieved literary fame in Europe. Thomas More’s Utopia appeared in Latin in 1516, edited by Erasmus and published in Louvain. During the first years of the Reformation, Erasmus remained More’s link to the Continent as they continued their amiable correspondence following Erasmus’ settling in Basel, Switzerland, in 1521. That city would be Erasmus’s dwelling place for the next eight years. Erasmus relied on More’s friendship in the 1520’s as the disputes of the Reformation intensified.8 In 1523 when Hans Holbein the Younger painted two portraits of Erasmus, the young German artist and the older Dutch humanist had been acquainted for some years. Before Holbein joined the workshop of Hans Herbst (c. 1470-1552) in 1516 or had been taken into the Basel painters’ guild in 1519, the teenage Holbein provided a pen and ink drawing for the Basel edition of Erasmus’s Praise of Folly in 1515 which apparently pleased the humanist. From 1519 to 1526 before his first visit to England, Holbein, now in his 20’s, was a whirlwind of artistic activity in Basel. His expressive drawings and paintings were a leading feature, but he demonstrated talent and skill in the many topical arts of his time, including printmaking, metal engraving, frescoes, and altarpieces.9
By 1523 Holbein desired to focus his talent on portrait painting.10 Basel’s most famous resident of Basel was certainly Erasmus. Before his relocation to the Swiss city, the writer and theologian had been famously embroiled in controversies swirling around German reformer Martin Luther (1482-1546). Erasmus came to Basel from Louvain to escape these difficulties and live in relative tranquility.11 In 1523 in Basel Holbein painted three portraits of Erasmus of Rotterdam. One exists today in Basel (in the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung), in Paris (Louvre) and in London (on loan from the Longford Castle collection to the National Gallery). The Reformation was, for the foreseeable future, taking its toll in terms of the visual and plastic arts. Erasmus described to More the state of the arts on the Continent, citing Basel in particular: “Here the arts freeze.”12
Historian David Starkey has called Holbein’s three-quarter profile portrait of Erasmus which was sent to the Archbishop of Canterbury William Warham (c.1450-1532) as a gift in 1524 as “the most important portrait in England”13 Starkey claims the painting is the beginning of portraiture itself when so-called “realism” was introduced into art. By way of Erasmus’s portrait to Warham, Thomas More learned of Holbein’s artwork up to two years prior to the young artist’s arrival in England. It is probable that like Erasmus before him, Holbein lodged in More’s house during his first English visit. Such accommodation provided practical hospitality to a friend’s friend on many levels including the fact that immigrant artists in England were disallowed from dwelling within the city gates of London (More’s house was in nearby Chelsea). Further, More, as a rising political figure in England, became Holbein’s first patron and in that way could secure Holbein’s modern art portraiture for himself. Indeed, the major work of Holbein’s first stay in England between 1526 and 1528 is the portrait of the household of Thomas More as well as the famous portrait of Sir Thomas painted around the same time. In this first two-year period in England Holbein also set to work on a variety of artistic projects, but the portraits highlighted the stay.
Like his famed classicist sponsor Erasmus before him, Holbein came to England to improve his fortunes as an artist. Holbein had visited France in 1524 with the hope for a royal commission but was ignored.14 While English guild artists required Holbein’s exclusion from London proper, the time restriction on his stay was owed to the city of Basel. At the cost of losing his citizenship, Holbein was allowed no more than two-year’s absence from the Swiss city. On August 29, 1528, Holbein returned to Basel.15 This marked the end of Holbein’s first visit to England, but not before he had developed many new influential contacts and established his mastery of craft within the orbit of one of Europe’s most dynamic royal courts. Little more than three years later, in spring 1532, with his old friend Thomas More in the last throes of service as Lord Chancellor (More would almost immediately resign that year as dangerous political storms grew), Holbein returned to England. The Continent’s political and religious revolution was creeping across the channel for England’s own idiosyncratic reasons such that the English world Holbein visited in the 1520’s was rapidly declining. A revolutionary zeal was emerging, especially under Thomas Cromwell between 1535 and 1539, which would inspire new challenges for artistic accomplishment which Hans Holbein the Younger met and engaged throughout his second rewarding visit in England from 1532 to 1543.16
Hans Holbein the Younger: Portrait of Erasmus, 1523, oil on wood, 42 x 32 cm, Louvre, Paris.
One of Holbein’s study drawings of Erasmus’s hands for the profile portraits, silverpoint and chalks, 1523. Louvre.
Hans Holbein the Younger: Portrait of Erasmus, 1523, oil on wood, 73.6 x 51.4 cm, London, National Gallery. Erasmus gifted this portrait to the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1524. The humanist is shown in three-quarter profile wearing a fur collar overcoat seated behind a table with his hands on an inscribed book. Behind the classicist and theologian are painted symbolic elements of the sitter’s profession and achievements: a Renaissance pilaster, green curtain and shelf of books with glass bottle. David Starkey of the National Gallery called this portrait “arguably the most important portrait in England” where “portraiture actually begins.”
Hans Holbein the Younger: Portrait of Erasmus, 1523, paper mounted on wood, 36.8 x 30.5 cm, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel. Closely related to the Louvre portrait, it is lightly smaller but offers the same strict profile of the sitter. The profile derives from an ancient classical pose signifying political or intellectual power. In this painting Erasmus’s writing can be discerned: it is the opening of a commentary on the gospel of St. Mark dedicated to the king of France. (Wolf, p. 39)
Hans Holbein the Younger in England, 1526 to 1528.
Hans Holbein the Younger: Thomas More (1477-1535), 1527, oil on oak panel, 29.5 in x 23.7 in. (74.9 cm x 60.3 cm), Frick Collection, New York. More became Lord Chancellor in 1529 where thereafter the great humanist scholar, author, and statesman, who resigned in 1532, defied the Act of Supremacy of 1534 that made Henry VIII head of the Church in England and was beheaded on July 6, 1535 for high treason. The “S-S” chain of office More wears in Holbein’s painting is an emblem of service to the King. (Frick, p. 48) More’s execution, coming in quick succession to John Fisher’s two weeks earlier, grieved Erasmus in Basel. Later, Erasmus in a letter lamented More’s involvement in “that dangerous business” which should have been left to “the theologians,” and ignored More’s plea on behalf of his conscience. (Huizinga, p. 183).
Hans Holbein the Younger: Thomas More, 1526/1527, black and colored chalks, 9.8 x 29.9 cm sheet of paper, outlines pricked for transfer. The inscription is a later addition (18th century). Royal Collection Windsor.
Hans Holbein the Younger: Thomas More, black and colored chalks, and brown wash on paper, 37.6 x 25.5 cm. Royal Collection Windsor. More’s career included study at Oxford and becoming a lawyer. He became a MP in 1504, King’s Councillor in 1518, was knighted in 1521, and became Speaker of the House of Commons in 1523. More became Lord Chancellor of England in 1529, but practical politics proved outside More’s forte. He resigned the office in 1532 and was beheaded for high treason in 1535. Thomas More was Holbein’s first patron in England, the German artist to enjoy a happier fate as the preeminent painter in the court of Henry VIII starting in the 1530’s. (Ganz, pp. 231-232)
Frick Collection, New York City. Holbein the Younger’s Thomas More (1527) and Thomas Cromwell (1533) with El Greco’s Saint Jerome (1610) above the fireplace.
Hans Holbein the Younger: Portrait of a Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling (Anne Lovell), 1528, oil on oak, 56 x 38.8 cm, National Gallery, London. Recent scholarship has produced interesting speculations as to the identity of this unknown woman who, in any case, was in Thomas More’s circle (Foister, p. 30; Ganz, p. 232).
Hans Holbein the Younger: Alice Middleton, Lady More, 1527, Corsham Court (private collection) near Bath, England, oil and tempera on oak, 14 1/2 x 10 5/8 in. This is a color study for the large family picture. The color chalk study is missing. Alice was Thomas More’s second wife.
Hans Holbein the Younger: Portrait of Thomas More with his family, 1527, pen and black ink on paper, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel. This is the preparatory drawing for a group portrait of the family of Sir Thomas More that was the major work of Holbein’s first period in England. The finished painting, whether on canvas or wood or a mural, is missing and was probably destroyed. It is the first nondevotional or ceremonial group portrait made north of the Alps (Ganz, p. 276). This is the household into which Holbein had taken up residence during his first visit to England. Thomas More lived outside London in a country house with his second wife Alice, his father John, his son John and bride to be Anne, three married daughters, eleven grandchildren and a live-in relative (Margaret Giggs). From left is Elizabeth Dauncy, More’s second daughter; Margaret Giggs; More’s father; Thomas More’s future daughter-in-law, Anne Cresacre; Sir Thomas More; More’s son; court entertainer Henry Patenson; More’s youngest daughter, Cecily Heron; eldest daughter, Margaret Roper; and More’s second wife, Alice. The Latin inscriptions in brown ink of the sitters’ names and ages were added a by astronomer-in-residence Nikolaus Kratzer (whose portrait was painted by Holbein).
Holbein’s preparatory drawing of Elizabeth Dauncey, middle daughter of Thomas More. In 1525 she married Sir William Dauncey who served Henry VIII and was a member of parliament. This drawing’s later inscription (not by Nikolaus Kratzer) is inaccurate in its identification. (see – https://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/400046/sir-henry-guildford-1489-1532)
Margaret Giggs Clement was Thomas More’s foster daughter. In 1526 she married John Clement, a court physician. Margaret eventually had eleven children and died in exile in the Netherlands in 1570. While the extant More family group drawing by Holbein shows Margaret leaning towards John More, this drawing may actually have served as the now-lost or destroyed painting’s final study. The exact meaning of the inscription “Mother Iak” is unknown. Royal Collection, Windsor.
Hans Holbein the Younger: Anne Cresacre (c.1511-1577), for the More family portrait. Royal Collection, Windsor.
Hans Holbein the Younger: Cecily Heron (b, 1506 or 1507), youngest daughter of Sir Thomas More. She was married to Giles Heron, a Member of Parliament who was hanged for treason in 1540. Royal Collection, Windsor.
Hans Holbein the Younger: Sir John More (c.1451 – 1530), black and colored chalks, 35.1 x 27.3 cm. Thomas More’s father was a respected judge and described by a biographer as “very virtuous” and “merry.” Royal Collection, Windsor.
Hans Holbein the Younger: John More, black and colored chalks, 38.1 x 28.1 cm. Thomas More’s son. Royal Collection, Windsor.
Hans Holbein the Younger: Sir Henry Guildford (1478-1532), Controller of the Royal Household, inscribed and dated, 1527, oil and tempera on wood, 32 1/8 x 26 in. (82.6 x 66.4 cm), Royal Collection, Windsor. Wearing the collar of the garter for his military service – which was the occasion for the portrait – Guildford, a physical giant of a man, holds the wand of office as Comptroller of the King’s Household. Sir Henry stands against a deep blue background, decorated with the twisting vine found in several Holbein portraits. Above the sitter’s head is a curtain rail, from which hangs a rich green curtain. This detail has lost context in the separation of the portrait from its companion, that of Guildford’s wife Mary.
Sir Henry Guildford, Black and colored chalks, and pen and ink on paper, 38.3 x 29.4 cm. The drawing is a study for the painted portrait. Sir Henry was one of Henry VIII’s closest friends and an early patron of Holbein.
Hans Holbein the Younger: Mary Wotton, Lady Guildford, inscribed and dated, 1527, tempera and oil on oak, 34 1/4 x 27 13/16 in.( 87 × 70.6 cm), St. Louis Art Museum. Mary was Sir Henry Guildford’s second wife. They married in 1525. She holds a devotional book.
Mary Wotton, Lady Guildford, 1527, black and colored chalk on paper, 55.2 x 38.5 cm, Kunstmuseum Basel, Kupferstichkabinett. A study from life for the painted portrait. In the portrait Holbein muted the sitter’s overall playful expression and smile. Mary outlived Sir Henry to marry again.
Hans Holbein the Younger: William Warham (1456-1532), Archbishop of Canterbury (first version), 1527, Oil and tempera on wood, 30 in x 25.75 in., Lambeth Palace, London.
Hans Holbein the Younger: William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury (second version), 1527, Tempera on wood, 32.3 in x 26.4 in. (82 cm x 67 cm), Musée du Louvre, Paris. Both versions include the episcopal crucifix of gold and jewels with Warham’s coat-of-arms and his motto, prayer books and the Archbishop’s jeweled miter. Warham had this “original replica” painted to reciprocate for a portrait of Erasmus he received. The color is richer in the replica. The brown curtain is replaced with a green one. A later copy of this painting resides in the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Hans Holbein the Younger: William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1527. Colored chalk on paper, 40.1 x 31 cm, The Royal Collection, Windsor. This is the preparatory drawing for the Louvre portrait. The sitter had been in his position since 1504 and remained there until his death in 1532. The similarities between the Holbein portrait of Erasmus (1523) and that of Warham (1527) are striking for their compositional elements and the conveyance of each sitter’s function by way of iconographical symbols so that these forms are a portrait template.
Hans Holbein the Younger: Portrait of Nikolaus Kratzer (1487-1550), 1528, Tempera on oak, 83 x 67 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. The sitter was born in Munich and studied in Cologne and Wittenberg. With an appointment as professor to Corpus Christi College in Oxford, Kratzer relocated to England. As a humanist, he became friends with Thomas More and his family and, starting in 1519, served as an astronomer to Henry VIII’s court. The painting, created during Holbein’s first stay in England, continues to exemplify Holbein’s lively style of illustrating a sitter’s career. Kratzer was a maker of mathematical and geometrical instruments and is shown in practical involvement with these tools. Compared with the Guildford portraits of the year before, Holbein expresses a new subtlety of lighting and refined range of tones.
Hans Holbein the Younger: Double Portrait of Sir Thomas Godsalve and His Son John, 1528, Resin tempera on oak, 35 x 36 cm, Gemäldegalerie, Dresden. Thomas Godsalve (1481-1542) was a notary from Norfolk. Holbein cleverly shows him writing his name and age on a sheet of paper. By 1528, the Godsalves were among London’s most wealthy and politically influential men. (Wolf, p. 51) His son John (1510-1556) later had a double portrait of himself and his wife painted by Holbein.
Hans Holbein the Younger: Sir Henry Wyatt of Allington Castle, c. 1528?, oil on oak, 15.4 × 12.2 in. (39 × 31 cm), Musée du Louvre, Paris. Sir Henry Wyatt served in the court of Henry VII and Henry VIII and a member of the latter’s Privy Council. Sir Henry was part of the circle of Thomas More. N.B. This portrait, once thought to have been painted during Holbein’s first visit to England from 1526 to 1528, is today believed to have been painted towards the end of Sir Henry’s life.
Hans Holbein the Younger: Sir Bryan Tuke, c. 1527/1528 or c. 1532/1534, oil on wood, 49 x 39 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. The sitter is about 57 years old. The date of the painting is unknown and its conjecture is based on its style although that leads to at least two possibilities. The physical mass of the body and the sitter’s expression suggest Holbein’s last year in England (mid 1528) although the painting’s other features (notably its horizontal lines of text) suggest the painting was made after Holbein’s return to London in 1532. There are further later additions after that. The subject, Bryan Tuke (1470-1545), was, starting in 1509, Clerk of the Signet and then Cardinal Wolsey’s secretary. By 1528 Sir Bryan was Treasurer of the Royal Household and secretary to the king for French affairs, a post he held until his death in 1545. There exist several versions of this portrait.
Hans Holbein the Younger: St. Thomas, 1527, Pen and black ink, brush and gray wash, heightened with white gouache, 8 1/16 x 4 1/8 in. (20.4 x 10.5 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Holbein produced a diversity of art in England, including design and decorative works (at Greenwich), book illuminations, and sacred art. St. Thomas is part of a series of apostles of which nine are known. The ultimate application of these drawings is not known and even may have reached their final form in these studies. (Foister, p. 128)
Hans Holbein the Younger: Noli Me Tangere, 1526-1528?, Oil on oak panel, 76.7 x 95.8 cm, Royal Collection Windsor. Holbein paints the gospel narrative of Mary Magdalen meeting Jesus Christ at his resurrection, with angels illuminating the tomb and night breaking for dawn. Between the major figures, a rushing Peter and John in the background are discussing matters. Royal Collection, Windsor.
Hans Holbein the Younger: Sir Nicholas Carew, 1527, black and colored chalk sheet: 54.8 x 38.5 cm, Kunstmuseum Basel, Kupferstichkabinett, Amerbach-Cabinet. Sir Nicholas was Henry VIII’s Master of the Horse until he was implicated in one of the various popular uprisings against the same king’s religious policies in the mid-1530’s, and summarily executed in 1539. (Foister, p.121)Hans Holbein the Younger: Portrait of an Unknown Englishman, 1527, black and colored chalk and leadpoint on prepared paper; outlines traced blind, 38.9 x 27.7 cm, Kunstmuseum Basel, Kupferstichkabinett.
Hans Holbein the Younger: Portrait of an Unknown Englishwoman, 1527, black and colored chalk and leadpoint on prepared paper; outlines traced blind, 38.9 x 27.7 cm, Kunstmuseum Basel, Kupferstichkabinett. These two drawings were prepared for transfer to panels for painting portraits, neither of which survive.
- Erasmus and the Age of Reformation, Johan Huizinga, Harper & Brothers, New York, reprint 1957, p. 223.
- Huizinga, p. 29.
- Huizinga, pp. 35-36.
- Huizinga, p. 58.
- Huizinga, pp. 79-81.
- Huizinga, p. 83.
- Huizinga, p. 85.
- Huizinga, p. 87.
- Hans Holbein The Younger: The German Raphael, Norbert Wolf, Taschen, Cologne, Germany, 2006, p. 28.
- Wolf, p. 38.
- Huizinga, p. 161.
- Wolf, p. 45.
- See podcast – https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/hans-holbein-the-younger-erasmus.
- Wolf, p. 39.
- Holbein in England, Susan Foister, Tate Publishing, London, 2006, p. 13.
- An Advanced History of Great Britain: From the Earliest Times To the Death of Edward VII, T.F. Tout, M.A., Longmans, Green, and Co, New York, London, Bombay and Calcutta, 1913, p.342.
An Advanced History of Great Britain: From the Earliest Times To the Death of Edward VII, T.F. Tout, M.A., Longmans, Green, and Co, New York, London, Bombay and Calcutta, 1913.
Erasmus and the Age of Reformation, Johan Huizinga, Harper & Brothers, New York, reprint 1957.
Five centuries of British painting: from Holbein to Hodgkin, Andrew Wilton, London: Thames & Hudson, 2001.
Holbein in England, Susan Foister, Tate Publishing, London, 2006.
Hans Holbein The Younger: The German Raphael, Norbert Wolf, Taschen, Cologne, Germany, 2006.
The Frick Collection /A Tour, Edgar Munhall, et.al, The Frick Collection, New York, 1999.
The Paintings of Hans Holbein: First Complete Edition, Paul Ganz, Phaidon, London, 1950.
https://www.flickr.com/groups/536163@N24/ – retrieved February 26, 2018
Hans Holbein the Younger: ‘A man very excellent in taking of physionamies’ (sic) – Dr Susan Foister – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3UnbWlZnYv4 – retrieved February 26, 2018.
http://sammlungonline.kunstmuseumbasel.ch/eMuseumPlus – retrieved February 26, 2018.
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