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Monday, November 25, 2013

Holbein, Hans, the Younger


Portrait of Prince Edward, later King Edward VI of England
c.1538
oil and tempera on oak
56.8 × 44 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., USA

Holbein's portrait of Prince Edward is very probably the one given to Henry VIII as a New Year's Gift on 1 January 1539. In return, Holbein received a silver-gilt covered cup.

The following text is inscribed across the bottom:
Little one, emulate thy father and be the heir of his virtue; the world contains nothing greater.
Heaven and earth could scarcely produce a son whose glory would surpass that of such a father.
Do thou but equal the deeds of thy parent and men can ask no more.
Shouldst thou surpass him, thou hast outstript all, nor shall any surpass thee in ages to come.
(English translation)

Hans Holbein the Younger (c.1497 - 1543) was a German artist born in Augsburg, Bavaria, and printmaker who worked in a Northern Renaissance style. He is best known as one of the greatest portraitists of the 16th century. He also produced religious art, satire, and Reformation propaganda, and made a significant contribution to the history of book design. He is called "the Younger" to distinguish him from his father, Hans Holbein the Elder, an accomplished painter of the Late Gothic school.

The first half of his life was mostly spent in Basel. He showed his diverse talents early in his career by designing woodcuts and glass paintings, illustrating books, and painting portraits and altarpieces. From youth he enjoyed the friendship of the great humanist Erasmus, and he made pen drawings illustrating Erasmus's Praise of Folly.

In 1519 Holbein was admitted to the painters' guild of Basel. In the works between 1519 and 1526, he, now mature, shows his full genius without relinquishing the polished surface and enameled color of the earlier paintings. He reveals Italian influence in his larger conception and monumental composition and in the design and idealism of the characterization. A bold and subtle line, both precise and flowing, distinguishes these works. In 1523, during a trip to France, he becomes acquainted with the work of Leonardo da Vinci.

From 1526 to 1528, Holbein travelled to England in search of work, with a recommendation from Erasmus. He was welcomed into the humanist circle of Thomas More, where he quickly built a high reputation; he painted a fine group of portraits there including Sir Thomas More. In 1532, he settled in England and worked on portraits and wall paintings. In 1536 he became court painter to Henry VIII and made numerous portraits and drawings of the king and his wives. He also designed the king's state robes and made drawings that were the basis of all kinds of items used by the royal household, from buttons to bridles to bookbindings. At age 46, in 1543, he died of the plague in London while working on a portrait of the king.

Holbein's paintings are characterized by their bright and often cool colors and high measure of detail. Much of his hand paintings, in particular his murals, has been lost, but owing to his practice of drawing pre-studies, much is known about his work. He left to the world magnificent preliminary portrait drawings in which he combined chalk, silverpoint, pen and ink, and other media. Today they are prized as highly as his paintings and may constitute a freer expression of his gift for exquisite characterization. In the beautiful simplicity of their design and in the subtle suggestion of both form and character, they are unsurpassed. Also famous are his woodcuts, which include the Dance of Death series and illustrations for Luther's Bible.