“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,1 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 houses themselves.

Several years later, Erasmus, weary of his ceaseless travels throughout Europe, also settled in Basel. He had long been a friend of Froben and now acted as editor at his publishing establishment, where Holbein most likely made his acquaintance. Though not particularly interested in the visual arts, the great philologist, like most of the other humanists, wanted his portrait as well as his writings to be known to posterity. Albrecht Dürer and Quentin Metsys had already engraved or painted his likeness, but it is Holbein’s several portraits from the 1520s that best capture the character of the prince of the humanists. One of these famous portraits, now in the Louvre, was sent to his English patron, William Warham, the archbishop of Canterbury. Erasmus could live virtually anywhere in Europe where printers and books were available, but, like Holbein, he seemed never really at home anywhere. It was perhaps not by chance that Erasmus had a hand in Holbein’s next move.

In 1524 the painter went to France, possibly to seek work at the court of Francis I. During this trip Holbein must have become acquainted with the work of the leading French court painter, Jean Clouet, whose finely detailed portraits may have provided Holbein with an important example to follow. With his brief excursion to France, Holbein fully set himself apart from the provincialism of art in the German cities and small German courts. Henceforth he became an international figure, a new type of versatile artist like those migrant Italian talents such as Rosso Fiorentino, Francesco Primaticcio, and Benvenuto Cellini, all of whom worked for the court at Fontainebleau. He went on to England in 1526, recommended by Erasmus to Sir Thomas More, whose portrait he painted (it is now to be seen in the Frick Collection in New York). He then returned to Basel for four years between 1528 and 1532, and from then on he remained in England until his early death in 1543.


As important as his early work at Basel may have been, it was only in London that the painter from Augsburg became the most brilliant court portraitist in Northern Europe and one of the eminent artists of the Renaissance. “Hansus me pingens major Apelle fuit“—“In painting me, Hans was greater than Apelles,” wrote the Huguenot French poet Nicolas Bourbon (1503-1550), who had sought refuge from religious persecution at the English court in 1535. King Henry VIII, his queens, and his courtiers are known to us most vividly in Holbein’s portraits. If we have a sense of Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, the Duke of Norfolk, the Earl of Bedford, and the Baron of Clinton as real people rather than historical phantoms, we owe it to Holbein’s exquisitely precise pencil portraits.

Holbein remains for both connoisseurs and the general public the most famous painter active in England before van Dyck, but he is not easy to grasp. We know little of his personal life. We have none of his letters and no journal, and he produced no theoretical writings. In his diaries and books Dürer writes about painting, human proportion, and measurement; Holbein remains silent. Even his art is cool, discreet, avoiding any direct expressiveness, discernible emotional shading, or peculiarity. Companion to the humanists, a virtuoso of the same generation as the masterly Dürer and the virtuoso Cellini, he produced work of such elegant versatility that it resists specific characterization. Holbein adjusted his pencil or his pen to each given task: religious imagery and portraits, monumental decoration and tiny printer’s marks, the design of precious goblets, expensive timepieces, and luxurious daggers. That he was willing to move so freely throughout Europe—his emigration from the guilds to the court, for example—not only shaped his career and the type of commissions he received but also contributed to the impersonal character, the perceptive “neutrality,” of his work. It is for this reason that he never became a part of the nineteenth-century Romantic cult of the German primitives. Indeed, in spirit, his work was the very opposite of theirs.

It is not by chance that the last serious English biographical monograph on Holbein was published in 1913, in two volumes written by A.B. Chamberlain. The absence of sources for his life and the cool impenetrability of his style present difficulties. Even in Germany, until recently, the last serious study of Holbein, by Wilhelm Waetzold, was written in 1938; and it is so marred by its absurd attempt to apply racial theory to Holbein’s sitters that it is unreadable.

In his recent biography Hans Holbein: Portrait of an Unknown Man, Derek Wilson promises to deal with Holbein’s obscure personal history as well as with his art. And indeed he does so imaginatively. The author of two books on Reformation England (as well as books on the Astors and the Rothschilds), Wilson is familiar with the intrigues and social connections of Holbein’s patrons and free of the preoccupations of professional art historians. He writes with considerable fluency, although his prose is sometimes florid and he seems too anxious to supply colorful detail. He attempts to recreate Holbein’s life, his successes and failures, even his relations with his mistresses, and he does not seem boastful when he writes, “I feel that Holbein is no longer for me an ‘unknown man.”‘ He starts by contrasting Augsburg, with its streets “thronged with the garishly caparisoned horses and liveried retainers of another mercantile elite” with the Swiss city of printers and humanists, with its “air of sweet reasonableness.”

It quickly becomes apparent, however, that the borderline between a documented life and a romance is not always clearly marked. Wilson verges on melodramatic psychologizing when, in describing Holbein’s second departure from Switzerland to London, he writes that his wife, whom he left behind, “walked down to the landing stage and saw him board the boat that would take him away from the uncertainties and insecurities of Basel,” where he could not depend on lucrative commissions, “to a London which seemed full of promise.” Such speculative prose hardly seems justified by the difficulty of reconstructing a purposely obscure life.

Wilson does provide valuable information about Holbein’s patrons and explores the painter’s ambivalence toward Reformation religious doctrines in both Basel and London. But his book becomes distorted when he tries to bring Holbein’s work itself into his story. To take only one example, some female figures in Holbein’s paintings in Basel have long been said to show the features of Magdalena Offenburg, a woman, Wilson writes, “well known in Basel for her beauty and loose morals.” He continues, “It is reasonable to assume that Magdalena was, for a time, Holbein’s mistress.” Wilson sees her in two paintings in the Kunstsammlung in Basel, first as a beautiful young Venus with Cupid, and second as Lais of Corinth, a famous Greek courtesan, here shown with a pile of coins beside her open hand.


The two paintings are evidently companion pieces, and for Wilson the second was undertaken by Holbein as a kind of revenge after “the affair came to an end, perhaps because Magdalena found a wealthier lover,” a comment that reveals only confusion on Wilson’s part. The two paintings pose interesting questions about the difference between portraying a goddess and portraying a courtesan, but Wilson’s fanciful talk of revenge clarifies nothing about the paintings. Here we see the basic weakness of his book. In my view monographs on artists ought to concentrate on their work and not on their life, as Proust famously argued against Sainte-Beuve.2 With an artist such as Holbein, whose wonderfully impersonal work concentrates the attention so thoroughly on the painter’s subject rather than on his personal preoccupations, this confusion becomes a serious error.

Otto Bätschmann and Pascal Griener’s book on Holbein could hardly be more different from Wilson’s. While Wilson’s volume contains only a small number of badly reproduced illustrations, the many color plates in Bätschmann and Griener’s book are excellent and they are usefully connected to a text that often refers to images. In contrast to Wilson’s lively prose, however, the two scholars—austere Swiss professors of art history—use a German academic jargon that sounds clumsy in translation. (“The painted surface is the raw material used by the painter to produce the magical effects of volume and life.”) Rather than follow any chronological or biographical sequence, as Wilson does, the authors present seven thematic essays on different aspects of Holbein’s work, including, for example, “Artistic Competition and Self-definition,” “Figure and Movement, Invention and Narration,” “Religious Works: The Making of Erasmian Art,” “The Portrait, Time and Death,” and “Holbein’s Fame.” (Only the last two are by Griener.)

Hans Holbein is a stimulating book with many new insights and suggestions. Bätschmann’s five essays concentrate on Holbein’s activities in Basel and Lucerne between 1515 and 1526 and then again between 1528 and 1532. His discussion of the humanist inscriptions on Holbein’s paintings from the early period is particularly illuminating. The elegant Latin of these epigrams by Erasmus praises the young Holbein as the peer of the famous ancient painters mentioned in Pliny’s Natural History. One of Holbein’s portraits of Erasmus shows on a shelf behind the sitter a book on which Holbein has written his name. (See illustration on page 76.) The humanist painter, writes Bätschmann, thus declares himself to be on a par with the humanist author.

At some moments Bätschmann and Griener overdo their argument. They make much of Holbein having sketched a partly human winged creature—the Chimaera—in the margin of the Praise of Folly at the point where Erasmus refers to Horace’s disdain for such bizarre creations. Bätschmann and Griener believe that here Holbein is asserting his right as an artist to depict just the sort of fantastic invention that Horace disapproved of, but this is highly speculative. Nor is it clear that the printer’s mark Holbein designed for Valentinus Curio, which shows a hand drawing a line, was intended to refer to Holbein’s own artistic mastery. In such cases I have more confidence in the texts by Erasmus himself than in modern art-historical fantasies about them.

Most informative is Bätschmann’s essay on Holbein’s “Monumental Decorative Works.” When Michel de Montaigne traveled through Switzerland to Italy in 1580 he admired the Swiss “custom of painting the exteriors of nearly all of the houses.”3 Rarely was such decoration undertaken more brilliantly than by the young Holbein at the Hertenstein house in Lucerne and the Zum Tanz house at Basel. Both buildings no longer exist, but Bätschmann skillfully reconstructs Holbein’s work on them through surviving sketches, copies, and models. In his work on these façades, with their fantastic illusionistic architecture and clever foreshortenings, Holbein appears as a virtuoso, eager to display his skill and inventiveness on a monumental scale.

It is immensely difficult to evaluate the precise attitude of German artists in the years around 1520 when they were confronted with the beginnings of the Reformation. Many seemed to have sympathies for the new faith, but they also had doubts. They were well aware that the attacks on the Catholic Church and its cult of images threatened them with the loss of their most important commissions. Albrecht Dürer’s position toward the Reformation, though much discussed, remains unclear. Even Lucas Cranach, who was closer to Luther than any other painter, remained ambivalent about his doctrines. When Holbein was asked to have his name recorded on the “Christian Recruitment” register at Basel in 1530—a document that would have placed him definitively among the Protestants—he gave an equivocal answer: “We must be better informed about the [holy] table before approaching it.”

During the 1520s Holbein had been busy with important religious commissions, not only with book illustrations but with paintings as well. Bätschmann’s essay entitled “Religious Works: The Making of Erasmian Art” shows Holbein to have oscillated between the old and new faiths. There is, for example, his openly anti-papal woodcut from 1522 or 1523, the Selling of the Indulgences. But Holbein also painted solemn images of the Virgin and Child, one in 1526 for the staunchly Catholic former mayor of Basel, Jakob Meyer. The other, a 1522 painting now at Solothurn in Switzerland, resembles a Venetian sacra conversazione in its composition. The enthroned Madonna is flanked by two standing saints: Saint Ursus, a locally venerated knight, and a bishop, whom Bätschmann has convincingly identified as Saint Martin of Tours. The painting allows Bätschmann to develop his intriguing notion of “Erasmian Art.”

Bätschmann has discovered on Saint Martin’s robe two almost imperceptible figures. He proposes that these represent the centurion of Capernaum beseeching Christ: “Lord,…speak the word only and my servant will be healed” (Matthew 8:5-10). Christ’s famous response, “I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel,” has occupied exegetes from Thomas Aquinas to Erasmus. The centurion was upheld by the Reformation as a man of inner faith, a faith far deeper than the exterior cult of relics and religious images, for he believed the word of the Lord without witnessing Christ’s Miracle.

Bätschmann suggests that Holbein points to this inner faith by smuggling a “sub-image” of the centurion into an official portrayal of the Madonna and saints. This suggestion recalls Erwin Panofsky’s theory, proposed a half- century ago, of “disguised symbolism” in early Netherlandish painting. According to Bätschmann, Holbein’s painting at Solothurn would thus simultaneously be both an official representation of Our Lady and saints and an exhortation against the dangers inherent in such an altarpiece. Bätschmann’s discovery and his argument based on it seem an astonishing iconological demonstration. Perhaps, as is sometimes the case with art-historical interpretations, it is too good to be true.

Pascal Griener’s essay “The Portrait, Time and Death” is a tour de force in its account of the atmosphere of mortality emanating from Holbein’s immaculate portraits. Griener argues that the “life” portrait, because it presents the sitter in a truthful, unidealized way, can be a reminder of the transiency of any human likeness. The reverse sides of medieval portraits often depicted a skull, a memento mori that also alluded to Final Judgment, resurrection, and salvation. With a few rare exceptions, Holbein’s portraits of courtiers and noble ladies bear no trace of such macabre religious attributes as skull and hourglass. Yet the memento mori, according to Griener, has not disappeared entirely. He argues that death can be discerned on the very faces of the sitters. A Holbein portrait that bears the inscription “When I was 33 years old, I, Dirk Tybis London, had this appearance” declares not only the image’s truthfulness but also alludes to the frailty of human existence. That a portrait may permanently preserve the features of a youthful sitter only makes more poignant the fact that vigor and beauty are doomed to decline. A preparatory drawing in Basel, of Mary Wotton, Lady Guilford, shows a smiling woman. In contrast, her painted portrait in St. Louis—at least as it looks today—seems pale, petrified.

Writing of the “power of the painter …to petrify his subject for eternity,” Griener cites an ancient epigram said to have adorned Praxiteles’ statue of Niobe: “The gods turned me into stone…. Praxiteles made me live again.” Griener writes, “Sitters must ‘die’; while sitting, they prepare themselves for that death.” (Reading these lines brought to mind the chilliness of Cindy Sherman’s frozen portrait photographs.) The sixteenth-century miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard praised Holbein as the “greatest master truly after the life that ever was,” and poets and other admirers of Holbein have long echoed his view. Griener, for his part, has discerned the coldness of death in Holbein’s portraits from life. We are faced here with the very different views of the naive panegyrists of the past and the sophisticated art historian of today. There is, in my opinion, much to be said for the view of Nicholas Hilliard.

Much can also be learned from the small book published by the London National Gallery on Holbein’s The Ambassadors, the ambitious double portrait of two French diplomats, Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve, painted in 1533. (The occasion for the book and the exhibition it accompanied was the unveiling of the double portrait after a lengthy and controversial restoration.) The layout of this booklet, part of the museum’s “Making and Meaning” series, is superb, with many revealing details shown in color. The text offers a meticulous description of all the curious and complicated paraphernalia arrayed on a table between the two young noblemen. The traditional symbol of time, the hourglass, has been replaced by astronomical instruments and sundials, many of which were probably drawn by Holbein at the same time that he was preparing the illustrations for Sebastian Münster’s Horologiographia.

A cautious chapter, “Death and Distortion,” deals with the painting’s meaning and the famous image of a gigantic skull on the pavement in the foreground. This is indeed the old symbol of memento mori, but it is no longer hidden on the back of the painting. One sees it, rather, when one steps away from the painting at a certain angle. Only then does death enter the portrait of the diplomats “from life.” It is refreshing to learn so much from this booklet’s pragmatic, and wholly unspeculative, observations. Its informative and perceptive text shows that art history is at its best when it concentrates intelligently on craftsmanship. As Holbein himself did, one is tempted to say.

This Issue

April 13, 2000