Hans Holbein (häns hôl´bīn) the elder, c.1465–1524, German painter and draftsman.
Holbein worked principally in Augsburg and Ulm, painting altarpieces for churches and probably creating portraits as well. Such early works as the altarpiece depicting the Life of the Virgin (Augsburg Cathedral) and the large Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore altarpiece (Augsburg) show little divergence from the common practice of the Swabian school, which was influenced by the Flemish style.
In later altarpieces done after c.1500, such as those of the Basilica of St. Paul (Augsburg) and of St. Catherine (Augsburg) and especially in his masterly St. Sebastian altarpiece (Munich), Holbein's art shows the influence of Italy. In addition to his painting, Holbein designed stained glass windows for the cathedral at Eichstatt and for the Church of Saints Ulrich and Afra at Augsburg. He also produced a number of remarkable silverpoint portrait drawings that show something of the same talent for which his son Hans became renowned.
Hans Holbein's older son, Ambrosius Holbein, c.1495–c.1519, is best known for his detailed book illustrations and portraits done in his father's manner. The Basel Museum has several works attributed to him.
Hans Holbein the Younger
The younger and better known son, Hans Holbein the younger, c.1497–1543, was an outstanding portrait and religious painter of the Northern Renaissance, was influenced by his father and by Hans Burgkmair. The first half of his life was spent in Basel except for short intervals in Lucerne, Lombardy, and France. He showed his diverse talents early in his career by designing woodcuts and glass paintings, illustrating books, and painting portraits and altarpieces. From youth he enjoyed the friendship of the great humanist Erasmus, and he made pen drawings illustrating Erasmus's Praise of Folly. Of this period are the portraits of Jacob Meyer and his wife and the beautiful preliminary drawing of Meyer in red chalk and silverpoint (all: Basel).
In 1519 Holbein was admitted to the painters' guild of Basel. Between 1519 and 1526 he decorated many buildings there, including the Town Hall, and painted the Passion Scenes and the celebrated Dead Christ (both in Basel), the altarpiece in Solothurn of the Madonna with St. Ursus and a Bishop Saint, and the famous Madonna of Burgomaster Meyer altarpiece (Darmstadt). Also of this period are several of his numerous portraits of Erasmus and a portrait of Boniface Amerbach (Basel). In these works the artist, now mature, shows his full genius without relinquishing the polished surface and enameled color of the earlier paintings. He reveals Italian influence in his larger conception and monumental composition and in the design and idealism of the characterization. A bold and subtle line, both precise and flowing, distinguishes these works.
From 1526 to 1528, Holbein was in England, where he painted a fine group of portraits, including those of Sir Thomas More (Frick Coll., New York City) and Sir Henry Guildford (Windsor Castle) and his wife (City Art Mus., St. Louis). After another residence (1528–32) in Basel, where he executed a second group of frescoes for the Town Hall (both series later destroyed), he settled in England and worked on portraits and wall paintings. Among the many famous portraits of these last years are those of Christine of Denmark and The French Ambassadors (both: National Gall., London). In 1536 he became court painter to Henry VIII and made numerous portraits and drawings of the king and his wives. His own wife and children, of whom there is a beautiful group portrait (Basel Mus.), remained in Basel. At 46 Holbein died of the plague in London.
In addition to his paintings, Hans Holbein the younger, left to the world magnificent preliminary portrait drawings in which he combined chalk, silverpoint, pen and ink, and other media. Today they are prized as highly as his paintings and may constitute a freer expression of his gift for exquisite characterization. In the beautiful simplicity of their design and in the subtle suggestion of both form and character, they are unsurpassed. Also famous are his woodcuts, which include the Dance of Death series and illustrations for Luther's Bible.
Many European museums possess examples of his paintings. At Windsor Castle are 80 Holbein portrait drawings. In the United States the Metropolitan Museum has several portraits; the Frick Collection, New York City, has two; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., has two.
See studies by P. Ganz (2d ed. 1956) and M. Kay (1966).