Erasmus of Rotterdam; painting by Hans Holbein

Kunstmuseum Basel

Hans Holbein: Erasmus of Rotterdam, circa 1532

Franny Moyle begins The King’s Painter, her substantial and copiously illustrated biography of Hans Holbein, with the story of Henry VIII’s hunt for a fourth wife. In 1539, two years after the death of Jane Seymour, he was looking for a bride from the German principalities, hoping for allies who would deter invasion threats from Francis I of France and the Holy Roman emperor Charles V. After a couple of other forays he dispatched Holbein, his court painter, to Brussels to paint him a portrait of a likely prospect, Anne of Cleves. The image pleased; the woman herself did not. A few weeks after Anne arrived, on New Year’s Day 1540, a dismayed Henry declared himself unable to consummate the marriage. Within a few months it was annulled.

The debacle brought about the downfall of Thomas Cromwell, the king’s chief minister, who had negotiated the match, but Holbein, though in peril, survived. In Moyle’s intriguing account, Holbein, a genius of multiple talents, is a canny pragmatist and a master of ambiguities. Alert to both possibilities and dangers, he negotiates the complexities of guilds, the shifting sands of religion, the whims of royalty, and the traps of politics with impeccable skill. As an artist, his detailed observation and brilliant technique are combined with a shrewd sense of what his patrons want. Yet while Holbein set out to please, Moyle persuades us that his own judgments can nonetheless be read in the subtleties of his drawings and paintings. In the case of Anne of Cleves, for example, the full-face composition and bland expression hint at a two-dimensional quality, a certain vacuousness. The portrait offered a warning that the king did not heed.

No one, however, questioned the accuracy of the likeness. Above all, it was Holbein’s verisimilitude that made his contemporaries hold their breath. Truth to life, the uncanny evocation of physical likeness, was admired in fashionable humanist circles enthralled by Pliny the Elder’s account of the illusions of reality produced by the ancient Greek painters Zeuxis and Apelles.

In the first of six illuminating and scholarly essays by contributors to the sumptuous catalog for the exhibition “Holbein: Capturing Character,” which moved from the Getty in Los Angeles to the Morgan in New York in early 2022, Anne T. Woollett defines the essence of Holbein’s “pictorial eloquence” as a blend of observation and allusion. The catalog bears this out. Examining Holbein’s portraits through his work as a designer, it traces the development of his unnervingly perceptive style through a series of striking paintings, including the famous portraits of Erasmus, Thomas More, and Thomas Cromwell. These illustrate how he varied his designs to suit his sitters, and how his use of emblematic backgrounds and references, ranging from books and inscriptions to luxurious ornaments and badges, amplified their impact. For his patrons, his portrait studies, “visually seductive, materially complex, and confidently executed,” as Austėja Mackelaitė puts it in her essay, defined a likeness, but beyond that they constructed an identity.

Holbein’s verisimilitude was not entirely self-taught. In Woollett’s words, he “appropriated the Flemish trait of vivid realism,” learning from older contemporaries like Albrecht Dürer and Lucas Cranach the Elder. As Moyle points out, Holbein learned this realistic approach from his father, Hans Holbein (or Hanns Holbain) the Elder. Other artistic traits they shared were the use of geometric patterns—as in the famous “Holbein carpets”—brilliant fabrics, and a favorite palette of soft pinks and reds, vivid blues and greens.

In 1497, when Holbein was born, his father ran a workshop with his brother Sigmund in Augsburg, a hub of the timber, paper, and textile industries, and a center for metalworkers, armorers, artists, and printers. Holbein the Elder, a fine painter and sculptor specializing in devotional works, belonged, Moyle writes, to “the last generation of artists for whom the traditional Catholic Church was the patron sans pareil,” and although he painted in the angular late Gothic style, he enriched his religious subjects with a new humanist fidelity to the “real,” seen in the characterful faces of the saints, virgins, and kneeling paupers. In Augsburg Holbein grew up among the wealthy, erudite men and women who were placing Bavaria at the forefront of the Northern Renaissance. The region’s patrons and collectors were obsessed with classical culture: the emperor Maximilian, for example, was keen to trace his ancestry back to Hector of Troy.

Moyle argues persuasively that in one panel of a tripartite memorial to the Walther family in Augsburg’s St. Catherine’s Convent, Holbein the Elder included a portrait of his cherished son Hans, a five-year-old with a snub nose and pudding-bowl haircut. By his teens, Hans was employed in the Holbein workshop with his older brother Ambrosius, and Moyle suggests that he may have contributed figures and architectural details to some altarpieces. This “is entirely feasible” within a family workshop, she writes, and “there is no doubt” such work “would have” served as a training ground.


Speculation of this kind is found throughout the book, but although the use of “must have,” “possibly,” and “is likely” usually engenders distrust, in this case it is inevitable. The known facts of Holbein’s life are sparse, and Moyle carefully bolsters her intriguing suggestions with evidence. She writes particularly well about Holbein’s early career in Europe, where he acquired the varied skills that would propel his rapid rise in the Tudor court.

The Augsburg years ended in 1516 when Holbein the Elder fell into debt and fled to Alsace. A year earlier his two sons had moved to Basel, and Holbein was living there when Luther is believed to have pinned his protest against indulgences to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg in October 1517. The most potent influence on his life, however, was not Lutheranism but the humanism of Erasmus, another Basel resident. When the schoolmaster Oswald Geisshüsler, nicknamed “Myconius” by Erasmus, asked the Holbein brothers to illustrate his copy of Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly, the eighteen-year-old Hans produced witty, sympathetic sketches and was soon making designs for the entrepreneurial printer Johann Froben, another ally of Erasmus, who dominated the town’s printing trade. Eventually, Moyne writes, Holbein became “one of the most sought after and prodigious illustrators of the sixteenth century.”

Keen to make his name, he defied the guild rules for journeymen by inscribing his initials on his portraits of Froben, Erasmus, and Basel’s wealthy mayor, Jacob Meyer, taking refuge in the fact that “HH” could also stand for his master, Hans Herbst. As Moyle notes, “Holbein’s determination to display his signature showed his resolve to have his name linked with great men for all to see.” Erasmus, Froben, and Meyer all became significant patrons of his.

Holbein’s dogged desire to prove himself showed still more clearly in 1517 when he moved to Lucerne, another city of grand merchants that was, like Basel, “awash with mercenaries.” Here his designs for stained glass led to commissions from the mayor, Jakob von Hertenstein, a powerful leader of Swiss mercenary forces in the Italian wars. Holbein’s portrait of von Hertenstein’s son Benedikt, a forceful likeness, employed a clever illusion of perspective that became typical of his work: as the viewer moves from left to right, at an angle of forty-five degrees from the painting’s surface, “the sitter projects out from the canvas in a hyperreal three-dimensional manner.”

The portrait contains a German inscription on one wall, testifying to the painting’s accuracy. This is matched in the portrait of Holbein’s friend Bonifacius Amerbach, painted two years later, by a Latin inscription written on a board nailed to a tree, which can be translated as “I am not inferior to the living face; I am indeed the counterpart of my master, and distinguished by accurate lines.” (Both portraits are in the catalog of “Holbein: Capturing Character.”)

By the time he was twenty, when he painted Benedikt von Hertenstein’s portrait, Holbein’s flagrant success was already rousing animosity from local artists, even leading to a serious knife fight. But his rise continued, with a dramatic scheme for the external decoration of Jakob von Hertenstein’s new house. It was demolished in 1825, but pencil sketches reveal the boldness of the conception, which incorporated fantastical elements and intricate trompe l’oeil arches, balconies, staircases, and niches, and was dominated by a frieze based on Mantegna’s famous Triumphs of Caesar.

Holbein was equally daring on an intimate scale. In his extraordinary painting Dead Christ in the Tomb, painted around 1519 for the Amerbach family of printers and lawyers, he depicted Christ seen from the side, lying in a long rectangular stone niche, as in a Roman catacomb. His jaw hangs open, his bony, bruised ribs and knees protrude, his skin sags, and his dark hair straggles over the white winding sheet. The truth to life, or rather to death, is disturbing and moving. The painting was influenced, Moyle suggests, by the shared grief of Holbein and Amerbach over the loss of their brothers (no more is heard of Ambrosius after this date). But she argues, too, that it was a deliberate attempt on the part of the two young men to realize Erasmus’s challenge to see holy figures as living, physical beings while losing no sense of their spiritual power—to present Christ, in Erasmus’s words, as “the essence of simplicity and truth.”

By 1522, Holbein had returned to Basel. Already a member of the painters’ guild, he only needed a wife—a strict requirement—to be made a master, and he found one in a young widow, Elsbeth Schmidt, who had married into an old tanning family; her husband had died with the Swiss mercenaries at Marignano. Holbein left tender silverpoint drawings of her, and Moyle also finds her portrait in the Solothurn Madonna, a flawed beauty wrapped in a voluminous cloak. With Elsbeth’s help (despite her alleged temper) the workshop grew. Holbein took on journeymen and accepted commissions for portraits and devotional works, as well as designs for decorative metalwork, book illustrations, stained glass, and the façades of houses. The greatest was his Haus zum Tanz, or “House of Dance,” built for the goldsmith Balthasar Angelroth (demolished in 1909), where whirling, stocky peasant dancers conjured up both the spirit of carnival and fertility and the Dance Mania or Dancing Plague that was currently sweeping across Europe, with people dancing in a mass hysteria until they collapsed, as well as the medieval Dance of Death.


By then Basel, aflame with Protestant zeal, was ringing with protests against the wealthy Catholic merchants who had patronized Holbein. He drew back, abandoning his murals for the Great Council Chamber in the town hall after only two walls were completed, although his reputation won him payment in full. He played it safe: his 1519 woodcut Luther as Hercules Germanicus, in which Luther is beating a group of Roman Catholic churchmen with a club, like Hercules slaying the Hydra, while a tiny pope dangles from his nose, could be read as either approval or protest. But despite drawing title pages for Luther’s German translation of the New Testament, he remained firmly associated with the reformist group of Catholic intellectuals surrounding Erasmus.

Death and the Plowman; woodcut by Hans Lützelburger, after designs by Hans Holbein

Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource

‘Death and the Plowman’; woodcut by Hans Lützelburger, after designs by Hans Holbein, circa 1526

In Moyle’s view, “The Holbein workshop embraced the creation of ‘Erasmia’ as part of what in today’s terms was a visual marketing campaign for the scholar.” In the catalog for “Holbein: Capturing Character,” Peter van der Coelen deftly explores Erasmus’s understanding of the power of the image and the extent to which he “really was the ‘author’ of his portraits,” dozens of which were made. By 1524 Holbein had painted at least three, one of which was sent to William Warham, the archbishop of Canterbury. He may have taken another of them to France, where he hoped to gain commissions from Francis I; they did not meet, but the trip allowed him to see the royal collection of Renaissance art at Blois and Amboise and to meet the painter Jean Clouet, encounters that had a great impact on his art. In Lyons, his miniature Dance of Death woodcuts were engraved for the Trechsel family of printers. As author of the series he had free rein, Moyle observes: “All his wry observations about bribery, social inequality and hypocrisy are expressed here.”

In 1526, when Protestant pressure led to riots and the removal of religious works from churches, it became impossible for Holbein to work in Basel. The rich patrons left, and eventually, after completing the fine Darmstadt Madonna for Jacob Meyer, Holbein left too. Carrying letters of recommendation from Erasmus, he arrived in London after a long stay in Antwerp and went first to the Chelsea house of Thomas More, the most renowned of English humanists. There he painted his Noli me Tangere, depicting Mary Magdalene at Christ’s tomb, “informed stylistically by those works Holbein had seen in Francis I’s collection in the Loire,” according to Moyle. His fine portrait of More, “an essay in simultaneous simplicity and detail, of understatement and yet penetrating observation,” was followed by an affectionate group painting of the More family.

Through More he came to know the influential Sir Henry Guildford, comptroller of the royal household, and was employed to produce decorations for the Greenwich Revels, held for the French ambassadors in 1527. For these, Holbein designed a panorama of Henry VIII’s victory over the French at the siege of Thérouanne in 1513, which covered a great arch through which the king’s guests—including the ambassadors—had to pass after dinner. Then they entered the theater, where Holbein and the young court astronomer, Nicolaus Kratzer, who became his close friend and the subject of one of his finest portraits, had created a huge planetary canvas for the ceiling showing the signs of the zodiac.

More acclaim came when Holbein designed an elaborate decorative scheme for the suit of armor the king wore at the Shrovetide joust and painted portraits of luminaries including Archbishop Warham and his wife. But despite widespread praise, the following year he returned to Basel, where he bought a house for his family next to that of Johann Froben and painted a touching portrait of Elsbeth and their children, Philipp and Katherine. There was little to keep him there professionally, however, and although he took on work for printers and goldsmiths, by 1532 he was back in London again.

Much had changed in Holbein’s absence. In 1531 Henry, thwarted in his desire to procure the papal dispensation annulling his marriage to Katherine of Aragon that would allow him to marry Anne Boleyn, had declared himself head of the Church of England. More resigned as Lord Chancellor, and his power at court passed gradually to Cromwell. As More had left Chelsea, Holbein found a new base among his own countrymen, the German merchants of the Steelyard. This branch of the trading Hanseatic League had its headquarters in a fortified enclosure on Thames Street, fronting the river, and was virtually a German colony, enjoying specific privileges, or “liberties,” granted by the king.

Living in the Steelyard Tavern in Thames Street, Holbein painted several vivid portraits of the Hansa merchants, the most striking of which was of the thirty-four-year-old Georg Gisze from Danzig, surrounded by objects signifying his trade and interests, “each one providing a layer in a rich narrative description,” Moyle writes. This storytelling through objects reached its most elaborate peak in The Ambassadors, a double portrait of the French diplomats Georges de Selve and Jean de Dinteville, “a painting with messages that are still to be unlocked,” full of musical, astronomical, and other objects, and a strange elongated shape that when viewed at a certain angle turns into a skull.

Commissions flowed in, including one for a portrait of Cromwell, which Moyle reads as a deliberate contrast to that of Cromwell’s erstwhile rival More:

Almost a caricature, the epitome of rigidity, his thin lips shut tight. His eyes, looking into a mid distance away from the viewer, feel all the more small since they are set in a solid fleshy face, with a heavy double chin.

(For many years these paintings have faced each other dramatically at the Frick Collection in New York.) At the same time, Holbein was producing drawings and engravings, miniatures and roundels, and designs for fabulous jewels—several of which are included in “Holbein: Capturing Character.” One design was for the silver cup that Anne Boleyn gave to Henry VIII. His drawings of the many women of Anne Boleyn’s court are among his most delicate and sensitive works.

Holbein’s association with the Boleyn circle and Cromwell, and with the Protestantism they supported, was attested to not only by the portraits and jewels, but by his title page for the Coverdale Bible of 1535, the first complete modern English translation. Yet as Moyle notes, even at the heart of court life he “was careful not to be seen as partisan.” Thanks to Henry’s personal admiration and affection, he escaped any royal fury at the time of Anne’s trial and execution. Soon he was painting Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, and designing another dazzling cup to celebrate the birth of their son, Edward.

Holbein’s greatest triumph, however, was the mural of the Tudor dynasty on the wall of the privy chamber at Whitehall, showing Henry VIII, Jane Seymour, and the king’s parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, grouped around a central marble plinth. The first full-length, life-size portrait of a monarch painted in England, the portrayal of Henry created the defining image of the king, a forceful, physical presence, feet apart, hands on hips, sumptuously clothed, glaring directly at the viewer, and, Moyne writes, “reportedly capable of instilling fear in those who encountered it.” The plinth’s long Latin inscription vaunts Henry’s superior power. The father, it declares, may have overcome enemies and brought peace, but the son is “born indeed for greater things… The arrogance of the Popes has yielded to unerring virtue, and while Henry VIII holds the sceptre in his hand religion is restored.”

Although the mural was lost when the palace burned in 1698, surviving copies proclaim, Moyle notes, that Henry is “an embodiment of raw, terrifying power.” At least at first: like many of Holbein’s works it can be read in two ways. Several small details, like the emasculated figure of Mars on the paneling behind Henry’s feet, undermine the overt message. Is he a Colossus, a savior of religion? Or is he an Antichrist, the destroyer of the Catholic faith, and a fool of questionable virility?

Holbein kept his place, his true opinions unknown. Following Jane Seymour’s death in October 1537 he painted more potential brides: the young Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan, severe in her dark dress yet humanized by her twisting of her gloves and sweet half-smile; then the Guise sisters in France; and finally Anne of Cleves, in her cloth of gold headdress and heavy German clothing. But although Holbein received no more royal commissions after that fatal portrait, apart from a drawing of Prince Edward, aged around five, his salary was paid until his death. He painted more fine portraits, notably of the poet Thomas Wyatt, but he received many fewer requests for work. He died, possibly from plague, in 1543. His family in Basel was already well provided for, and he left his goods to two children born in London—their mother’s name is unknown.

He remains a mysterious figure: the self-portrait painted at the end of his life, Moyle notes, is “full of contradictions,” the face of a man whose art is defined by ambiguity. Even in the most elaborate design or startlingly lifelike portrait, Holbein leaves a space for the viewer, asking us to make our own judgment of his subject and to guess, if we can, at his views and feelings. As Moyle’s rich study suggests, and as “Holbein: Capturing Character” powerfully demonstrates, Holbein’s great paintings open doors onto the crowded rooms of the past. But the artist himself stands back, or turns aside.