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Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1497 – 1543) was a renowned German artist and printmaker of the Northern Renaissance. He is best known as one of the greatest portraitists of the 16th century but also produced religious art and frescoes. His portraits were usually oil or oil and tempera on wood panels.
The Northern Renaissance occurred in the European countries north of the Alps. Its painters traveled to Rome, where the art of Michelangelo, Raphael, and da Vinci had a great impact on their subsequent work.
Born in Augsburg, the younger Holbein moved to Basel, Switzerland, in 1515, where the famous Dutch humanist Erasmus lived at the time. He became a member of the Basel artists’ guild in 1519, painting with a unique authenticity that combined his father’s largely late Gothic style with artistic trends from Italy and France. Holbein painted three portraits of Erasmus and also designed woodcuts to illustrate books, such as Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible. During his years in Basel, it is thought that he visited Italy, because the influence of da Vinci’s sfumato (smoky) technique is visible in some of Holbein’s work, such as Lais of Corinth.
Between 1520-1522, Holbein painted the Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb. Christ’s face, hands and feet, as well as the wounds in his torso, are depicted as realistic flesh in the early stages of putrefaction, which tends to support the idea that Holbein used a dead body as his model. Note also the long and emaciated body with eyes and mouth left open. This painting’s unusual dimensions make it a unique piece, but it is unknown for what it was painted.
The factional strife that accompanied the Reformation made Basel a difficult for artists to work, and in 1526 Holbein left for London. During the next two years, he began a long career of portraiture of both nobility and merchantmen, for example, his portrait of Erasmus and the Lady with the Squirrel and Starling. It is thought that the sitter for this latter painting was a lady named Anne Lovell and the starling and the pet squirrel on a chain may have alluded to the Lovell family coat of arms, an example of the fascinating layers of symbolism, allusion, and paradox in Holbein’s art.
Holbein returned Basel, where he painted portraits and murals for the town hall, before returning to London for good in 1532. From then until his death, he painted the nobility of the Tudor court, working under the patronage of both Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell. Holbein’s famous portrait of Henry VIII was done during his second stay as well as The Ambassadors, which depicted two visitors to Henry’s court.
In 1543, Holbein died in London of the plague.
Holbein was unusual in that he founded no school. By the 19th century, however, he was recognized as one of the great portrait masters, and it is through Holbein’s eyes that many famous figures of his day are now ‘seen’.