“Spirit and genius are not bound to locality or family.” With these words Karel van Mander, known as the Northern Vasari, praised the genius of Hans Holbein. In his essay of 1604, van Mander, known for his admira-tion of his fellow Northern artists, may simply have been using a eulogizing figure of speech. But it provides a poignant characterization of Holbein, whose entire career had been shaped by his detachment from each of the many places in which he lived.
Born in 1497 or 1498 in Augsburg, the leading trade center of South Germany, Holbein came from the world of late medieval craftsmanship. His father, Hans Holbein the Elder, had been the most prominent painter in the city, cultivating a sensitive and soft late Gothic style without the crudity that is so often observed in German paintings of this period. He painted altarpieces for many important churches in South Germany: for the Cistercians at Kaisheim, for the Benedictines at Weingarten, and for the Dominicans at Frankfurt. His preparatory drawings show him to be a keen observer of human physiognomy, a gift his son, Hans the Younger, seems to have inherited.
By 1500 Augsburg, with its commercial interests closely related to Italy’s, began to turn into a Renaissance city. For an artist working in the traditional late medieval manner—with its abundance of Gothic architectural detail and emphasis on craftsmanship—such a change of taste may have posed difficulties for the aging artist. His son Hans, who was then seventeen or eighteen years old, had moved to Basel the previous year, leaving behind not only his home city, but also Germany’s late medieval craftsmanship, its parochialism, its pious awkwardness. With astonishing speed the young Holbein would become a new kind of artist, one “not bound to locality or family,” as van Mander was to write.
Basel in 1515 was an active trading city on the upper Rhine, situated close to the French border along the route to Italy. It had flourishing printing houses, second in importance only to Venice; and it was quickly becoming a center of European humanism. Young Holbein was soon drawn into a cosmopolitan coterie of humanists and printers. He must have been seen as a prodigy. During his first year in the city, when he was, officially, only an apprentice, he painted the portraits of the mayor, Jakob Meyer zum Hasen, and his wife, and he was then commissioned to paint scenes decorating the façade of the large Hertenstein house in Lucerne. Several years later he was asked to provide paintings for the council chamber of the Basel town hall. Above all he worked for Basel’s great printing houses—for Johannes Froben, Adam Petri, Andreas Cratander, and Valentinus Curio. He drew illustrations for printed Bibles and for other publications; he invented a famous series of images of death, which appeared in the Dance of Death; he designed title pages for the books of the humanists and highly original identifying marks for the printing …