Family of the Artist
by HANS HOLBEIN, The Younger (German School)
THE most gifted member of a family of artists, son of the famous Holbein, the
Elder, of Augsburg, Hans, the Younger, takes his place in art as the most ob
jective of all portrait painters, if not the greatest.
It is a debatable question
whether the younger Holbein’s career was deliberately centered on portraiture,
but the fact remains that dunng his residence in England he created a memo
rial gallery of visual images which have made Henry VIII, his court, his wives,
and his men, living presences in history, and not mere names. Oblivious of
race, breeding, or sentiment, he painted the variations of character with im
The only artist to be mentioned with him in the imper
sonal rendering of individuality is Velasquez; but the Spaniard, an aristocrat
indentured to a king, unwittingly imparted to his dwarfs and infantas the
dignity of his own person.
In the works of all portraitists, Holbein excepted, there exists a certain fam
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During the actual business of paintmg, the artist’s person
ality, and even his physical characteristics, enter into his conception of his
subject, the most obvious example being EI Greco, whose people are but slight
modifications of himself. Holbein, trained in the crafts, followed the general
direction of the Rhine schools in his objective portrayal of the minute dis
tinctions in human faces.
There is no evidence in all his works that he lost con
trol of himself or gave vent to his emotions. His portraits were based upon
painstaking linear studies which, by universal consent, represent the absolute
perfection of economy and skill in the drawing of heads.
His Portrait of His Family, painted in 1528 after his first residence in
England, has been called “the most beautiful picture of the German school.”
The work was executed on paper, and the original background, an interior,
was cut out when the picture was pasted on wood.
The woman-of striking
charm in an early drawing-has the reddened eyelids and the expression of
a mother who had struggled to support her children, and the faces of the chil
dren are not happy faces.
In its grouping, the painting recalls the Italian
Madonnas with the Christ child and the young St. John, but the resemblance
was accidental. Holbein painted his wife and children as he found them, dis
passionately, but with all his powers of characterization, modeling the heads
with the delicacy of a great sculptor working in bas-relief.