Hans Holbein the Younger: Biography, Famous Paintings & The Ambassadors

Instructor: Holly Hunt

Holly has master's degrees in history and writing, as well as an extensive background in art history.

In this lesson we'll look at the life and work of Hans Holbein, a German painter of the 16th century known for painting portraits of Henry VIII. A Renaissance painter with deep roots in the artistic traditions of northern Europe, Holbein created realistic portraits that could also express complex symbolic meanings.

Portraits of the Rich, Famous and Notorious

Even today, life at the court of Henry VIII inspires soap operas, movies, and novels. While the events surrounding Henry's six marriages are certainly dramatic, our feeling that we know the characters involved owes more than a little to the work of Hans Holbein (1497/8-1543). A German painter working at the English court, Holbein used his skills to go beyond surface accuracy and suggest both how his subjects wanted to be seen, and who they really were.

Hans Holbein, Portrait of a Man with a Falcon, 1542
Hans Holbein Portrait of a Man with a Falcon 1542


Hans Holbein the Younger was born into a family of painters in the German city of Augsburg in 1497 or 1498. He's referred to as 'the Younger', because his father, Hans Holbein the Elder, was well-known in his own right, at least in Augsburg. But Hans the Younger would become even better known, and on a bigger stage.

Holbein the Younger moved into this wider world thanks to the patronage of the well-known Renaissance humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536). Because of his fame, Erasmus received lots of requests for his portrait, requests Holbein was able to fill quickly and skillfully (he also illustrated one of Erasmus's best known works, In Praise of Folly.)

Hans Holbein, Portrait of Desiderius Erasmus, 1523
Hans Holbein Portrait of Erasmus

But these were also the years of the Lutheran Reformation, a tumultuous time that saw less art being commissioned for German churches. This may have influenced Holbein's decision to try his luck abroad, in England. Erasmus gave Holbein a letter of introduction to Sir Thomas More, the prominent lawyer and scholar. Thanks to his connection to More, Holbein was able to attract royal patronage and soon became the most important portraitist working at the court of Henry VIII.

Hans Holbein, Study for Portrait of the Family of Sir Thomas More, c.1527
Hans Holbein, Study for Portrait of the Famiily of Sir Thomas More

The Tudor court could be a dangerous place. Sir Thomas More, once a trusted royal advisor, was beheaded for treason in 1535 after he refused to recognize Henry as head of a new and separate English church. Anne Boleyn, possibly Holbein's first royal patron, would meet the same fate in 1536. Holbein managed to stay on Henry's good side -- he painted portraits of wives number three, four, and five -- but succumbed to the plague in 1543, aged 45.

Famous Paintings

By far the most famous of Holbein's works are his portraits. He shaped Henry VIII's public image so decisively that even today we imagine him exactly as Holbein portrayed him. The same can be said of Erasmus, More, and other personalities of the Tudor court.

Hans Holbein Drawing of M Zouch, possibly a maid of honor to Jane Seymour or a lady-in-waiting to Anne Boleyn, c. 1538
Holbein, Drawing of M Zouch

Holbein's success as portraitist had its roots in his skill as a draftsman and his background as a painter in the northern European tradition who also felt the influence of the Italian Renaissance. Northern painting had long emphasized a careful, almost photographically exact rendering of every detail, especially of human faces.

Holbein drew on this tradition in his portraits, which convey a strong sense of individual personality. (The Italian influence is more visible in his rare religious scenes, where he had to group multiple figures). While little is known about Holbein's technique as a painter, we do know he worked in oils but often incorporated tempera paint as well.

The most iconic image Holbein created was the full-length, full-frontal portrait of Henry VIII he incorporated into a mural in the Palace of Whitehall in 1537. The original was destroyed by fire in 1698, but a careful copy of the mural had been made a few years earlier, and the portrait had been used as the basis for many other images of Henry since its completion. In this famous portrait, Holbein manages to mold Henry's increasing weight (and increasingly difficult personality) into a memorable icon of personal dominance.

Workshop of Hans Holbein, Portrait of Henry VIII, based on Whitehall mural of 1537.
Portrait of Henry VIII After Whitehall Mural by Hans Holbein

Probably Holbein's most famous assignment was to paint the young women considered for the role of Henry's fourth queen. The most important of these historically is his image of Anne of Cleves, who 'won', only to be divorced by Henry a few months later for failing to live up to the fantasies Henry had attached to Holbein's gracefully composed portrait. Anne of Cleves appears as a rather ordinary young woman dressed up in her best, made regal by Holbein's frontal pose.

Hans Holbein, Portrait of Anne of Cleves, c.1539.
Hans Holbein Portrait of Anne of Cleves

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