German painter, draftsman and designer Hans Holbein was one of the most accomplished and outstanding painters of portraits and religious themes of the 16th century Northern Renaissance style.
Hans Holbein (the Younger) was born in Augsburg, Southern Germany in 1497, to Hans Holbein (the Elder), a skilled portraitist in his own right. Young Hans was trained in his father's studio until the age of sixteen when he and his brother Ambrosius traveled to Basel, Switzerland where he studied under local painter Hans Herbster. One of his greatest achievements during this period was the designs he created for a series of forty-one woodcuts called ‘The Dance of Death’.
Holbein became a member of the painters’ guild in Basel in 1520. He created altar pieces and designed stained-glass windows as well as woodcuts of religious illustrations including Luther’s Old and New Testaments (1522-1523) for Martin Luther's translation of the Bible.
In 1526, upon his return to England, he was commissioned to paint a portrait of scholar and statesman Sir Thomas More and his family. Sir More was astonished at the artist’s ability to capture his exact likeness, and after some time, Holbein’s work became well-known. He had established for himself an international reputation that put his art in high demand. After viewing Holbein’s painting of Thomas Cromwell (one of the king’s advisors), King Henry VIII commissioned the artist to paint his portrait.
Hans Holbein returned to Basel where he purchased a home for his family with the money earned in England between the years of 1528-29. During this time, he completed a mural for the Council Chamber of the Town Hall, and painted a portrait of his family in a style thought to have been influenced by Leonardo da Vinci's late compositions.
The artist’s return to England in September of 1532 was prompted by the Reformation’s increasing foothold in Basel which was causing a problem for artists to earn a living. One of his most memorable works and greatest portraits ‘The Ambassadors’ was created during this period. It was a double portrait of Jean de Dintville (French ambassador to England) and Georges de Selve (Bishop of Lavaur).
As his reputation grew, Holbein was sought by King Henry VIII to take on the position of court painter in 1536, where he remained for the rest of his life. Besides painting portraits of the king and his wives, some of his other works for the King included designs for the royal state robes, household accessories, and some book bindings. The most important commission from Henry VIII was the creation of the complex fresco in Whitehall Palace depicting Henry VIII and Queen Jane Seymour and his parents, together with Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. This incredible masterpiece was destroyed by fire in 1698.
After the death of King Henry’s wife Jane Seymour, Hans Holbein was sent to Europe to paint the portraits of five potential brides. From these portraits, the king chose to marry Christina, the Duchess of Milan. However, Christina respectfully declined the offer believing that she might be beheaded if she should fail to produce a male heir. Henry then chose to marry Anne of Cleves.
Hans Holbein was struck by the Black Plague, but continued to work for the king until his death in London in 1543.