Born in Augsburg c. 1497, Hans Holbein the Younger learned to paint from his father, Hans Holbein the Elder.
Holbein traveled to England in 1526 in search of work, with a recommendation from Erasmus. He was welcomed into the humanist circle of Thomas More, where he quickly built a high reputation. After returning to Basel for four years, he resumed his career in England in 1532. This time he worked under the patronage of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell. By 1535, he was King’s Painter to King Henry VIII. In this role, he produced not only portraits and festive decorations but designs for jewelry, plate and other precious objects. His portraits of the royal family and nobles are a record of the court in the years when Henry was asserting his supremacy over the English church.
There are a couple sketches believed to Anne Boleyn that are attributed to Hans Holbein the Younger. “One portrays a woman with rather plump features dressed in a plain nightgown and coif. Some have said that this shows the queen during pregnancy, sometime between 1533 and 1535, but recent research shows that the subject is most likely one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, possibly Lady Margaret Lee or her sister, Anne Wyatt. It seems more likely that the finished portrait Holbein painted of Anne Boleyn was destroyed after she was beheaded on May 19, 1536 on false charges of treason, adultery and incest.”
Holbein painted many of the most well-known figures of the Tudor court, including: Henry VIII, Thomas More, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, Jane Seymour, Elizabeth Seymour (Jane’s sister), Thomas Cromwell, Anne of Cleves and many more. Today, we will look at those portraits and zoom in on some of the amazing artistry that Holbein had. I hope you enjoy looking as closely at it as I have.
Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk
The detail in Holbein’s painting of Thomas Howard is magnificent. Look at the details in his face and his clothing. When I look at this portrait I feel like I’m looking at the real man. Look at the details in his chain – marvelous details.
King Henry VIII
Holbein was known for his details in portraits. We see in Henry’s right hand him clenching his gloves tightly, while his left rests very near his dagger as if he is always ready for an unknown attack.
Sir Thomas More
This portrait of Thomas More is absolutely magnificent. The detail is amazing. The close up on his chin (I wish was closer) shows his individual facial hairs! Also look at his clothing. By looking at it I feel like I could reach out and touch the velvet and fur with my own hand.
Notice the detail of the Tudor rose on the Collar of Esses Livery chain.
Holbein’s talent truly rested in his attention to detail. His portrait of Queen Jane Seymour again shows the clear design of the fabric of her dress. Just look at the tiny details!
Elizabeth Seymour (married to Gregory Cromwell and sister to Jane Seymour)
In my opinion, my favorite part of this portrait is her face and hands. Holbein truly had a way to make his subject come to life. When I look at her face I feel like I’m staring at the perfect image of this amazing woman and sister to a queen. The color of her skin is amazing as well – so life like!
Compared to Holbein’s other portraits of Tudor politicians, Cromwell seems reduced; he is placed low in the frame, deep in the pictorial space, placing a distance and diminishing him from the viewer. The table reaches into the immediate foreground as if reaching into the viewer’s personal space. Holbein presents Cromwell as somewhat sour, cold and grim, yet the portrait has been described as “a softened version of the subject”.
The inscription on the border reads “To our trusty and right well, beloved Councillor, Thomas Cromwell, Master of our Jewel House”. Cromwell sits on a bench before a table holding a legal document. His left hand has a patterned gold ring with a large green gemstone. He is dressed in sober colours, comprising a black fur lined overcoat, a black hat and a “severe expression”. The table is covered with a green cloth. Some of his effects are placed on it, including a quill, a devotional book, scissors and a leather bag. (Wikipedia about the portrait)
Anne of Cleves
In the summer of 1539 Hans Holbein was sent by King Henry VIII to Düren to paint the portrait of Anne of Cleves whom the king was considering as his fourth Queen. He wanted to know what she looked like. The portrait, now in the Louvre, is unusually painted on parchment suggesting that Holbein did indeed paint the portrait while in Düren, not later in London from a sketch. As first and foremost an artist true to his calling (and not the king’s), how did Holbein portray the Queen as an aspect of his own mind without upsetting the bloodthirsty and dangerous tyrant?
Anne’s hands are clasped at her waist but, if you turn your head, you will see what few but artists are ever likely to have seen before: a face formed from her joined hands looking up towards her head. (Every Painter Paints Himself)
The following are more of his amazing portraits for your viewing pleasure…
Lady with Squirrel
Portrait of a Woman in a White Coif
This painting has some of the most hidden messages/symbols of any of Holbein’s paintings. To learn more please watch the video below and prepare to be amazed!