In Augsburg’s Staatsgalerie Altdeutsche Meister there is a three-paneled painting illustrating the life of St Paul, painted by local artist Hans Holbein the Elder in 1504. Commissioned for the city’s Dominican convent of St Katherine, it includes, in its left panel, a self-portrait of the artist with his two sons, Hans and Ambrosius – nicknamed, we know from another source, Hensly and Brosi – as witnesses at the baptism of the saint. We don’t know why, but Holbein the elder is pointing to the young Hans, as if, aged seven or so, there is already something remarkable about him.
It is somehow fitting that this, the earliest evidence attesting to the life of Hans Holbein the Younger, should itself be a painting. And fitting that there should be something opaque about the meaning of his presence in it, because that quality too defines much of his work.
For his father’s generation of artist, the church – and religious art more generally – was the primary source of income. Holbein the Younger, born in 1497 or 1498, was not so fortunate. He began his career at precisely the time that Luther exploded onto the European stage. By 1515 he was in Basel – Holbein’s earliest known works are some marginal illustrations in a copy of Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly – and there, perhaps he might have stayed had religious images and image-making not been such an object of Protestant ire.
Holbein’s own religious beliefs are unknowable. At a time of religious convulsion when faith was a critical marker of identity, his is oblique, acquiescent. He was close enough to Erasmus in 1526 for the latter to write him a letter of recommendation to friends such as Thomas More in London and for More to welcome him into his Chelsea home. Yet even some of his early, orthodox Catholic religious work has a distinctive quality – an apartness – that he carried through to his later, secular work.
Take his extraordinary Dead Christ in the Tomb of 1521-2, which strips the conventional religious image of all its theatre, representing a side-on view of full-length dead body lain out in what Nuechterlein surely rightly says is “arguably the most explicitly corpse-like rendition of the dead Christ ever made in art”. Is it an image that, as Nuechterlein suggests, acknowledges reformed critiques of religious image making? Or is it one that asks what happens when you drain too much of certain kinds of meaning from art?
Yet in 1530, when the now Protestant authorities in Basel investigated the religious conformity of the city’s guild members, Holbein merely asked for clarity about the nature of the Eucharist before falling into line. By then he had already had two years in London, probably returning to Basel in 1528 to witness, inauspiciously, a wave of iconoclasm that destroyed much of the city’s religious art. He was in London again by 1533 and it would be his home until his untimely death in November 1543. We know he came to England in search of financial stability, which he found; if he sought political stability too, he could hardly have been less disappointed.
Much attention has been paid, and rightly, to this later part of Holbein’s career when he became the leading painter at the court of Henry VIII. (At least, that is history’s assessment. Henry himself thought otherwise: he paid Holbein less than fellow artist Lucas Horenbout.) It is these portraits we remember most: exquisitely real, exquisitely inscrutable, but presented with a realism that is, in fact, highly conditional too.
There is an opacity to his sitters, somehow exaggerated by the gorgeous specificity of their apparel. (Nuechterlein, like Holbein, is acute on the sumptuary distinctions of the class-obsessed Tudor court.) We might conceive portraiture as the capturing of the unique personality of the individual; neither Holbein nor his subjects thought like that. Everyone is witholding something; no-one, least of all Holbein, is giving much away. They are all too busy being ambassadors for their better selves.
But because Nuechterlein’s book looks at Holbein’s career in its entirety, she is able to make a convincing case for the unities in his work, and particularly in the way he thought about representation and the creative, psychological tensions – between individuals and archetypes, between realism and other ways to articulate meaning, and so on – that informs so much of his work.
Holbein’s goal throughout his career, she argues, was “to reproduce worldly appearances in way that… look entirely persuasive, but which incorporate various departures from reality that he thought made the image more effective”. She offers superb readings of individual works throughout the book, discussing the way in which Holbein manipulates their interior planes and spaces – and therefore the viewer’s perspective – as much as what you might call the set dressing – clothing, furniture, decoration and props, as it were. To paraphrase the late Lisa Jardine, his paintings are saturated with the presence of other meanings beyond mere representation.
Hans Holbein: The Artist in a Changing World is not a biography. Instead, Nuechterlein offers a compelling thematic account of his creative life that emphasises the steadiness of his artistic gaze as he navigated an extraordinarily turbulent period in European and English history. It isn’t merely a must-read for anyone interested in Holbein and his place in art history; because the Henrician court is almost unimaginable now without Holbein’s imprint, I also commend it to those interested in Tudor history for its deeply rewarding, sometimes provocative insights into how and why he might have made these images the way he did.
A slightly briefer version of this review first appeared in the September 2020 issue of History Today.