Hans Holbein (c. 1497/98–1543) has generated plenty of scholarship in the form of catalogues of paintings, drawings and prints as well as serious exhibition catalogues and scholarly monographs. But he has never received an affordable, authoritative, yet brief introduction that stands on those firm foundations, often partial, costly, and/or out of print. Now, in its commendable “Renaissance Lives” series, Reaktion Books has published a splendid new survey by a truly authoritative Holbein expert: Jeanne Nuechterlein, Reader at York University, has written her own important recent monograph, Translating Nature into Art (Penn State Press, 2011). This book joins other HNA-relevant artist studies, already published: Bosch (Nils Büttner), Bruegel (Elizabeth Honig), and Rembrandt (full disclosure: your reviewer). While some images are too small for use, their topical selection remains revealing.
After a brief, background sketch about Holbein the Elder in Augsburg (main monograph by Katharina Krause, 2002), techniques and materials of Holbein the Younger (hereafter Holbein) form the starting-point. This important background emphasizes the importance of careful preliminary drawings, initially in metalpoint but later chiefly in colored chalks for portrait paintings, already used in Basel but particularly, combined with tinted paper, in London at the court of Henry VIII. Also significant, here Neuchterlein includes Holbein’s design drawings in ink (often with wash) for stained glass, for house exteriors or murals (now lost), for metalwork objects (also lost), but also for classicizing title-pages of Basel books (besides his celebrated Dance of Death or Old Testament woodcut illustrations). Such achievements are often relegated to the specialist realms of decorative arts, so it is gratifying to see them included at the outset to show Holbein’s range of activity in an era of artist-designers – an important distinction in our era where easel paintings get current museum privileges.
Holbein also moved in educated circles (Chapter Two). His is the definitive portrait (several paintings but also a woodcut) of Erasmus of Rotterdam, and his lively title-pages and letter initials, appropriately classical, record a close association with the Basel book trade of Johann Froben, Erasmus’s publisher. He also portrayed the learned lawyer Bonifacius Amerbach (the chalk drawing of a beardless Amerbach, ca. 1525, here instead of the famous early painting; 1519, still in Basel). Even as a youth, Holbein had appended witty marginal drawings (1515) in Oswald Myconius’s copy of Erasmus’s Praise of Folly.
Northern Christian humanism caused classical learning to overlap with religious return ad fontes, to original sources in original languages, but also to intensifying engagement with Reformation issues (Chapter Three). Here an initial reprise of Holbein the Elder as religious painter sets a context for his son’s youthful activity as a painter of altarpieces and devotional images (including a less familiar set of metalcuts for a proposed Hortulus animae, ca. 1521/22). What does not get fully analyzed here is Holbein’s commitment to joining classical architecture and figure types to his religious works.
Soon the Reformation brought sharp parochial divisions, and Holbein responded with a woodcut design for a confrontation between simple disciples and peasants in conflict with Church leaders and classical philosophers: Christ as True Light (ca. 1525/26). However, as Franz Saxl declared long ago, Holbein’s own core spirituality remains uncertain (also see Nuechterlein’s study in Typology in Early Modern Europe, Brepols, 2018, edited by Dagmar Eichberger and Shelley Perlove, pp. 153–76, examining Holbein’s complex Law and Grace allegory (Edinburgh, early 1530s). In Henry VIII’s England, the vexed, shifting relationship between religion and politics resurfaces for Holbein even after he had left iconoclastic Switzerland. For the king’s newly asserted religious authority he created an elaborate title page for the Coverdale Bible translation (1535) as well as a portrait historié miniature on vellum of Henry as Solomon in Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (ca. 1534; Royal Collection).
While much of the foregoing is generally familiar, Nuechterlein’s Chapter Four provides a much enriched understanding of Holbein’s participation in visualized scientific knowledge. He connected in England with fellow immigrant, astronomer Nicholas Kratzer (portrait in Paris, 1528), whose scientific instrument constructions will reappear within the glorious French Ambassadors (1533; London). While this material has been carefully studied already, Neuchterlein includes other Holbein woodcut designs: a world map (1532 with Sebastian Münster) that includes the New World and even the continent name for America. Also with the polymath Münster he produced a manipulable cosmic diagram, New Instrument of the Sun and the Moon (designed ca. 1530–32; completed 1534). These graphic works are usually reserved for the historians of mapping or of early modern science (see Susan Dackerman, ed., Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe, exh. cat. 2011, nos. 18, 58, 73, 84). Even more obscure is his drawing of Mining, known only from a copy, probably for a stained glass commission and connected to the century’s advances in metallurgy, especially in the illustrated study by Georgius Agricola (Basel, 1530). Despite this volume’s brevity, it contains much new knowledge – especially about Holbein’s own scientific knowledge – in this chapter.
The final chapter focuses, necessarily, on Holbein’s varied social networks – both at Henry’s court and beyond, featuring other patrons of portraits, such as the Archbishop of Canterbury William Warham (1527; Paris) or Thomas Cromwell (ca. 1532–34; Frick Coll.) but also the German Hansa merchants in London’s Steelyard. The volume concludes with a brief consideration of this great portrait painter’s as a subject in his own right. Holbein adapted to major changes in both Basel and London, but he laid down few roots, leaving behind a family in Switzerland at the time of his premature death after over a decade spent in a second stay in faraway England.
Perhaps appropriately the study ends with the Dance of Death images (now available in a 2016 Penguin paperback with commentary by Ulinka Rublack), designed in the mid-1520s but not published until 1538 in France. Ultimately, this mysterious if meticulous painter of vivid oil likenesses and designer of lively woodcuts seems to disappear behind his own observations of others. Holbein’s consummate command of portraiture but also of classical graphic decorative design permitted the artist to associate with leading religious thinkers and political figures of his epoch. But Holbein himself remains elusive, a chameleon in his personal views, even as he served the needs of his varied, but prominent patrons.
University of Pennsylvania