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German Great Artist - Hans Holbein Life

Posted by Art Of Legend India [dot] Com On 3:33 AM
 Hans HolbeinGerman Great Artist - Hans Holbein Life

The son of a successful German artist, Hans Holbein worked in Switzerland before the religious turmoil of the Reformation caused him to leave for England in search of work. His first stay in London was spent among the circle of the great scholar and statesman Sir Thomas More. After a period back in Switzerland with his wife and family, Holbein returned to England, where he remained based until his death from the plague.

Holbein's phenomenal skill particularly at portrait painting was exploited by Henry VIII's secretary, Thomas Cromwell, who drew him into the king's employ. Soon, Holbein became Henry VIII's chief image-maker. Though little is known about his character, Holbein seems to have been a cultivated but cold man, who could switch his allegiance from More to Cromwell the man who ordered More's untimely death.

A German at the English Court

Hans Holbein moved to London permanently from his native Germany in 1532. His work

soon found favour at court and he was appointed King's Painter. Holbein died in 1543 of the plague.

Swiss master Hans Herbster ran a workshop in Basel, Switzerland. In 1514, the two Holbein sons were sent to him to serve their apprenticeships. Very little is known about the life of Hans Holbein the Younger. Only a few dated documents and Holbein's works themselves - including some enigmatic selfportraits provide us with clues to the personality of the man who became King Henry Vu's favourite painter.

Holbein was born in 1497/8 in Augsburg in Southern Germany. His father, Hans Holbein the Elder, was a gifted painter and had already carved quite a reputation for himself. Together with his elder brother, Ambrosius, the young Holbein trained for a while in his father's studio, and in 1514 the two boys were sent to Basel in Switzerland to serve their apprenticeships with the painter Hans Herbster.

In Basel, Holbein also worked for the publisher, Froben, producing book illustrations and a set of marginal drawings for Desiderius Erasmus's book Praise of Folly. This very important commission put him in touch with Basel's humanist circle, of which the scholar Erasmus was the leading light.



Early training Augsburg in southern Germany, where Hans Holbein the younger was born. From an early age, he and his elder brother Ambrosius worked together in their father's studio. The humanists placed paramount importance on the intellectual pursuits, potential and wellbeing of mankind. Whereas medieval Christianity had taught the insignificance of man's earthly existence, the humanists believed in the value of human endeavours. They found the basis for their ideas in the literature and philosophy of the ancient Greeks and Romans, where the virtues of liberality, eloquence and wisdom were especially prized. Holbein seems to have gradually formed close friendships with some of the northern humanists, particularly Erasmus. Early on in his career his own humanistic interests were reflected in the sophisticated classical details he introduced into his designs and decorative schemes.

In 1517, and again in 1519, Holbein travelled to Lucerne, Switzerland, where he decorated the house of the town's chief magistrate in a splendid illusionistic style. At some point, probably in 1518, Holbein made a short trip to Italy where the work of the Renaissance painters Andrea Mantegna and Leonardo da Vinci made a profound impression on him. Once back in Basel, he soon showed Himself to be a painter of great talent. He was extremely prolific, too, turning out portraits, altarpieces and designs for stained glass, as well as a series of huge frescoes.

Key Dates

C.1487 born in Augsburg, southern Germany
1519 marries Elsbeth Binsenstock
1526 first visit to England; introduction to Sir Thomas More
1528 returns to Basel
1533 paints The Ambassadors
1534 Henry VIII becomes Supreme Head of the Church; Thomas More imprisoned; Holbein paints Thomas Cromwell
1537 appointed King's Painter 1543 dies of the plague in London

Italian influence Holbein visited northern Italy around 1518 and probably stayed at Mantua. After this trip, the influence of Italian artists such as Leonardo is evident in Holbein's painting.
In 1519 Holbein joined the painters' guild and rapidly achieved the status of chamber master. At this time he married Elsbeth Binsenstock, the widow of a tanner, who already had one son. In time they had two sons of their own, who became goldsmiths, and two daughters. It is assumed that He also had a mistress, a certain Magdalena Offenburg, whom he painted in the appropriate guise of Lais the mistress of the legendary Greek painter, Apelles. Magdalena probably also modeled somewhat less appropriately for the Virgin in The Meyer Madonna.

In an astonishingly short time Holbein had become the foremost artist of the northern humanist movement. Among his finest works of this period are the three portraits he painted of Erasmus and a series of anti-clerical woodcuts illustrating the Dance of Death. In 1524 he visited France and expanded his artistic horizons. But two years later the violent impact of the Reformation brought religious painting in Basel to an abrupt halt and he was forced to seek prestigious commissions elsewhere.


Helpful admirer, Erasmus, painted in 1523 by Holbein. Erasmus was a leading light of the humanist movement and became one of Holbein's greatest admirers.
Armed with a letter of introduction from Erasmus to none other than Sir Thomas More and Arch-bishop Warham, Holbein left for England 'to pick up some angels' (coins), as Erasmus put it. He was welcomed by more in London and it is believed that he stayed at his Chelsea house for the remainder of his visit. Henry VIII had not yet begun his great program me of art patronage and so Holbein did not work for the Crown at this time, but he probably met the king, who was then in the habit of rowing down the Thames in his barge and calling on his close friend More without warning. More was then approaching the height of his political influence: the king relied on him both for company and advice, and he was soon to be made Lord Chancellor.

Thus, at a single bound, Holbein vaulted into the centre of political and intellectual life in England. He exploited his opportunity to the hilt. His sitters, all drawn from More's circle, included the king's astronomer and the Archbishop, who had him painted in the same pose as Erasmus. The finest portrait of this period, and perhaps of all Holbein's English output, was that of more himself, conveying the man's aura of power as well as the sensitivity of his intellect. Still more impressive perhaps would have been his group portrait of the More family, but it has since been destroyed by fire.

In 1528, Holbein returned to Basel; he had only been granted a two-year leave of absence and a longer stay would have cost him his citizenship. Also, the Council had work for him. He bought two adjoining houses overlooking the Rhine and settled down to paint frescoes for the Town Hall. During this period he painted a sympathetic and intimate portrait of his wife and two of their children.



Like father, like son Hans Holbein the Elder was a successful artist working in Augsburg. He painted this Baptism of St Paul (1503-04) for a local convent. On the far right are the artist and his two sons, Ambrosius and Hans.
Meanwhile, the situation in Basel was rapidly worsening. The Lutheran faction was at its most extreme: Erasmus was forced to flee and iconoclasts destroyed nearly all the city's religious paintings in a single day. Holbein obtained some minor commissions decorating a tower clock in the city and designing patterns for goldsmiths, jewelers and glassmakers; he even made some costume designs. But the atmosphere was highly unfavorable to art of all sorts, and Holbein although he supported the principles of the Reformation decided to return to London.

He arrived late in 1532 to discover that events were moving very fast there too. Archbishop Warham had died and Thomas More, having refused to endorse the king's marriage to Anne Boleyn, had petitioned to resign the chancellorship. He was now trying to live in Unobtrusive privacy and Holbein was obliged to turn to another source of patronage. This he found among the German merchants at the Steelyard, which was the London trading office of the Hanseatic League. At this time he painted a magnificent full-length double portrait The Ambassadors, and the virtuoso George Gisze, both designed to attract the attention of Tudor court.

The status of his patrons rose quickly. By 1534 he was painting the king's secretary, Thomas Cromwell. In this same year more refused to swear the Oath of Supremacy, declaring that 'no parliament could make a law that God should not be God'. The king, who was now Supreme Head of the Church of England, had him cruelly Imprisoned in the Tower, where he languished for another year while the Crown's agents, directed by Cromwell, prepared their case against him.

Powerful friend this is a copy of Holbein's portrait of Thomas More's family. In 1526, Holbein used a letter of introduction from Erasmus to meet more who was then about to reach the peak of his political influence. Though Cromwell was repulsive in appearance and character, qualities which are not shirked in Holbein's portrait, he was the most important patron Holbein could have acquired. During the next five years he not only filled the royal coffers with monastic gold, but orchestrated the most lavish propaganda campaign in the arts ever undertaken for the benefit of the Crown. One of the first jobs he gave Holbein was to design a woodcut for the title page of the Coverdale Bible, the first complete edition of the Bible in English. This showed Henry VIII delivering the Word to the bishops.

In July 1535 Thomas More was executed and in the following year Anne Boleyn was the first of Henry VIII's wives to lose her head. Holbein was now on the royal payroll, and in 1537 he was appointed the King's Painter. For an annual income of about £30, he performed a great variety of commissions for his royal master from the design of his state robes to that of his book bindings. But he was chiefly valued for being 'very excellent in making Physiognomies'. By this time, the King had banned all religious painting.

Holbein's home in Switzerland Holbein’s wife and children remand in Basel while the artist sought work in England. He returned there in 1528, but only stayed for four years.Though he was a genius as a painter, as a man Holbein seems to have been shrewd, ambitious, ruthless and quite unscrupulous. Admittedly, the turbulent and bloody politics of those days made compromise and sudden switches of loyalty a virtual necessity for anyone close to the throne, even artists. But for all that, it is difficult not to be surprised by someone who was able to sell his talent to Cromwell, the man responsible for the death of more, his onetime friend, patron, host and sponsor.
A rare insight into Holbein's character (or his reputed character) comes from an anecdote told by The Flemish artist and art historian Karel van Mander. The story goes that Holbein was painting a portrait of a lady for King Henry, when a nobleman appeared in the room unannounced. The artist was so angered by the interruption that he flung the offending intruder downstairs then hurried to offer his apologies to the king.



In the year 1537, Holbein was given his most momentous task when he was asked to paint a commemorative group portrait of Henry VIII, his new Queen, Jane Seymour, and the king's parents Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, which was to adorn the wall of the Privy Chamber above the throne itself. In the event, Jane Seymour died before the fresco was completed, having given birth to Henry's only and long awaited son. 1537 was in every respect a year of shattering triumph for the Tudor dynasty. Henry managed decisively to crush the most serious rebellion of his reign, the so-called Pilgrimage of Grace, and showed the Pope to be powerless to challenge his position as Supreme Head, next to Christ, of the Church of England. The great fresco was therefore conceived as a celebration of victory, peace and dynastic unity. Holbein had the job of enshrining in paint the official Tudor view of the immediate past.

We can only guess at the visual effect of his fresco, though every contemporary reference testifies to its awesome power. For in 1698 the negligence of a chamber maid caused the palace of Whitehall to be burnt to the ground.

Having completed the Whitehall wall painting, Holbein was sent abroad with the delicate task of painting likenesses of Henry's possible future wives. He visited Brussels where he painted a portrait of the delightful Christina of Denmark, which 'singularly pleased the king' and put him in a fine humour. However, political negotiations broke down, and Henry never married her. For a similar reason Holbein also painted a bland but pretty portrait of Anne of Cleves, whom the King decided to marry (though he later described her as 'the Flanders Mare').

Family group  Holbein's wife, Elsbeth Binsenstock, who he had married in 1519, and two of their children, Philip and Katharine. He painted this work in 1528 on his return to Basel. In September 1538 Holbein returned once more to Basel and his family. A banquet was held in his honour and the city offered him a pension and other privileges in the hope of tempting him to stay permanently. But he did not linger. Though he was never naturalized, London had become his home as well as the centre of his career.

In his last years, Holbein painted less for the king, but there is no evidence that he fell out of favour. Indeed, his last, unfinished work was a large painting of Henry VIII granting the charter to the Barber-Surgeons' company. He also continued to work for the Crown by travelling abroad on diplomatic missions about which little are known.


Holbein's life was cut short by the plague which raged through London in 1543. The will he made in that year reveals that he was a resident in the parish of St Andrew Undershaft in the City of London, and that he left two illegitimate 'chylder which be at nurse'. But despite Holbein's illustrious career, his will contains no mention of any property: only small items such as clothing and a horse. In fact he left several debts. But the debt which English art owes to the foreigner from Germany is far greater: he influenced the direction of English art for centuries to come.

Writer- A Marshall Cavendish

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