Holbein Settles in London

Holbein was a major force in art and design during the sixteenth century. As court painter to Henry VIII, he produced portraits and book illustrations, as well as decorative objects for the royal household and for state occasions, that had far-reaching political implications.

Summary of Event

The son of an important painter from Augsburg, Germany, Hans Holbein, the Younger, received commissions for religious images and stained-glass windows early in his career. His woodcuts were popular as well, especially the tongue-in-cheek Dance of Death
Dance of Death (Holbein) series (pb. 1538), in which the skeletal figure of Death surprises people of all social ranks. Around 1515, he moved to Basle, where he became friendly with leading Humanists, including Desiderius Erasmus. Holbein drew the margin illustrations for Erasmus’s Moriœ Encomium (1511; The Praise of Folly
Praise of Folly, The (Erasmus) , 1549). The work’s Latin title played on the name of Thomas More, Erasmus’s closest friend, at whose house in London the book was written—the same house where Holbein was welcomed in 1526. Painting;England
Holbein, the Younger, Hans
Henry VIII
More, Sir Thomas
Cromwell, Thomas
Seymour, Jane
Anne of Cleves
Erasmus, Desiderius
More, Sir Thomas
Henry VIII (king of England)
Melanchthon, Philipp
Cromwell, Thomas
Seymour, Jane
Edward VI (king of England)
Anne of Cleves
Holbein, Hans, the Younger

Part of Hans Holbein, the Younger’s, Dance of the Death series of drawings, in which the skeletal figure of Death surprises people of all social ranks and all ages, in this case the merchant, street vendor, infant or child, and the old man.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

More was, at that time, a prestigious member of King Henry VIII’s inner circle. In addition to making portraits of More and his family, Holbein painted, among other court luminaries, Nicholas Kratzer, the king’s astronomer; William Warham, archbishop of Canterbury; and Sir Henry Guildford, comptroller of the royal household. Clues about each sitter’s character, occupation, and taste were revealed symbolically through minute details such as flowers, ornate settings of jewels, and emblems of state, as well as accessories such as hatpins and buttons, which Holbein later would design as part of his duties as court painter. His portraits had the quality of icons: bodies set against backdrops of lush fabric, as in More’s portrait, or an ethereally blue sky, as in the portrait of Mary Wotton, Lady Guildford, both done in 1527. It was this combination of naturalism and iconicity that made Holbein’s art ideally suited for representing the grandeur of the Tudor court.

Holbein went back to Basle in 1528 to bring Erasmus the sketch of More’s family, and while there he bought a house for his wife and children. It was also during this visit on the continent that he worked on the woodcuts for Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible, and he painted a miniature of Luther’s right-hand man, the conciliatory Philipp Melanchthon. With religious art under attack at the height of the Reformation in central Europe, however, Holbein decided to return to England, even though many of his former patrons were gone, casualties of the changing policies of Henry VIII.

Holbein settled back in London in 1532, and he quickly found work painting portraits of visiting dignitaries. These pictures abound in humanistic wit. For example, The Ambassadors
Ambassadors, The (Holbein) contains numerous emblems of vanity, including an anamorphic trick image which, when viewed at an extreme angle, brings a death’s head into focus. This “hallow bone” is also a sly pun on Holbein’s name, hohle Bein. Such clever compositions were welcomed by members of the German community in London, like Georg Gisze of Danzig, a Hanseatic merchant Holbein painted surrounded by objects of his trade, signs of his prosperity, and the motto “No Pleasure Without Regret.” Holbein also worked on The Triumph of Riches and of Poverty
Triumph of Riches and of Poverty, The (Holbein) for the German Steelyard’s Great Hall in Blackfriars: The series consists of allegorical reminders of the virtues of hard work and company loyalty. This commission exemplified the propagandistic role played by artists of the day and, for Holbein, foreshadowed greater things to come at court.

Indeed, it was during his first year back in London that Holbein met and painted Sir Bryan Tuke, governor of the king’s post, as well as secretary and treasurer of the royal household. The following year, 1533, he painted Thomas Cromwell, at whose prompting Henry VIII had made himself head of the Church of England so that he could, against the pope’s decree, divorce Catherine of Aragon. The result was an extension of the king’s prerogative beyond anything previously conceived, and it was Holbein who gave an image to that power, serving officially now as “the King’s Painter.” In 1535 he depicted Henry as King Solomon receiving homage from the queen of Sheba, symbolizing the Church’s new subservience to the Crown. Also that same year, his title page for the Coverdale Bible shows Henry, not God, handing the Bible to the bishops.

Further expressions of the king’s extended sovereignty can be seen in portraits of the royal family for Whitehall, as well as in the portrait of Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife, whom he married shortly after Anne Boleyn’s execution for infidelity. It was for Jane Seymour that Holbein designed a magnificent golden cup set with pearls and diamonds, bearing the apt motto “Bound to Obey and Serve” and an intricately designed love knot entwining the initials “H” and “J.” Jane Seymour died from childbirth complications in 1537. In short order, Holbein painted the long-awaited male heir, the future King Edward VI, his right hand raised in a gesture of blessing reminiscent of the baby Jesus in Italian Renaissance paintings, and, in his left, a golden rattle that unmistakably resembled a scepter.

Henry then speedily sent Holbein abroad to make portraits of prospective brides. This was a delicate matter for the painter and a potentially humiliating event for the sitter. Christiana of Denmark, for example, in 1538, would sit for only three hours. This incident sheds light on Holbein’s remarkable skill at being able to sketch quickly for future reference. During this circuit he visited the duke of Cleves, who had two sisters, Amelia and Anne. Thomas Cromwell long had been urging Henry to ally himself with the Protestant nobility in the Rhine area, and so, in 1540, when Holbein returned with the portraits, Henry wed Anne. Six months later the marriage was annulled, ostensibly because Henry found her unattractive, calling her a “fat Flanders mare.”

Holbein died during the London plague of 1543. At the time, he was working on a huge painting for the Company of Barber Surgeons (founded by Henry in 1540), showing the king, sitting in state amid a sea of faces, handing down a charter. This last, unfinished work continued Holbein’s career-long tendency to mix the myth and the man for the betterment of the king’s image. His work for the Tudor dynasty recast the terms in which art and history thereafter were to be conceived by court culture and played out on the world stage.


Hans Holbein, the Younger, set the standard for future court painters, both in England and abroad. He played a preeminent role in advancing the conception of the artist as an integral part of a monarch’s political arsenal, used to create a totalizing view of absolute sovereignty and dynastic security. A gifted draftsman and master manipulator of symbols of power, Holbein was entrusted to design robes and seals of court, presentation swords, and emblems of state—all of which contributed to the overall aura of majesty while providing a sense of aesthetic continuity.

Although artists long had been commissioned to aggrandize dukes, popes, potentates, and kings, Holbein’s place in the history of courtly image-making was both groundbreaking and unique. His representations of the king have remarkable staying power, and, in fact, continue to this day to characterize the image of sovereignty in general and Henry VIII in particular. Henry is best remembered as Holbein portrayed him, as a robust and healthy man, feet firmly planted, knees locked, hands defiantly on hip-belt and dagger, shooting a cool glance at the viewer. The power of Holbein’s portraits does not come from blatant compositional manipulation, making the king tower over the other figures or loom far above the viewer. Such techniques were favored in continental courts, especially in Habsburg Spain and Austria. Holbein instead imparted Henry with power in less obvious and more effective ways, stemming from the artist’s subtle use of tint, texture, and design to make the kingly image stand out, shimmering, as it were, with an inner splendor that cannot be contained by the body, no matter how strong, or absorbed by its costume, no matter how sumptuous.

Further Reading

  • Bätschmann, Oskar, and Pascal Griener. Hans Holbein. Translated by Cecilia Hurley and Pascal Griener. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997. Important analysis of Holbein’s entire corpus, ranging from general insights into the artist’s place in political and artistic history to close readings of paintings to diverting anecdotes about specific incidents in Holbein’s career. Includes illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Brooke, Xanthe, and David Crombie. Henry VIII Revealed: Holbein’s Portrait and Its Legacy. London: Paul Holberton, 2003. Extremely detailed study of Holbein’s portrait of Henry VIII, incorporating high-tech analysis of the physical paintings, historical research on Henry’s court and the artist’s workshop, and surveys of the effects of the painting, both on Holbein’s contemporary culture and on subsequent portrayals of Henry in literature, film, and television. Includes illustrations, map, bibliographic references, index.
  • Buck, Stephanie, and Jochen Sander. Hans Holbein the Younger: Painter at the Court of Henry VIII. London: Thames & Hudson, 2004. Includes essays on Holbein as portraitist and on Erasmus’s importance in his career. Useful glossary of key figures and ideas; 180 illustrations.
  • Langdon, Helen. Holbein. 1976. Reprint. London: Phaidon Press, 1998. Notes by James Malpas accompany forty-eight color illustrations in this representative survey of Holbein’s lifework.
  • Lloyd, Christopher, and Simon Thurley. Henry VIII: Images of a Tudor King. 1990. Reprint. London: Phaidon Press, 1995. Monarch’s biography told in terms of the works he commissioned to reflect and project his power as head of English church and state.
  • Warnicke, Retha M. The Marrying of Anne of Cleves: Royal Protocol in Early Modern England. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Addresses ceremonial and diplomatic issues of foreign brides, as well as implications of this match and its dissolution.
  • Weir, Alison. Henry VIII: King and Court. London: Pimlico Press, 2002. Richly details the minutiae of daily life at court.
  • Zwingenberger, Jeanette. The Shadow of Death in the Work of Hans Holbein the Younger. London: Parkstone Press, 1999. Studies witty uses of “image and text” in Holbein’s paintings, with special emphasis on emblems of vanity.

June 5-24, 1520: Field of Cloth of Gold

1531-1540: Cromwell Reforms British Government

July, 1535-Mar., 1540: Henry VIII Dissolves the Monasteries

May, 1539: Six Articles of Henry VIII

1558-1603: Reign of Elizabeth I