Holbein: Masters of Art

Image of Holbein: Masters of Art
Release Date: 
May 31, 2022
Reviewed by: 

“the reader is immersed into the story of art.”

As another edition of Prestel’s Masters of Art series, Holbein offers an introductory foundation to the life and works of German-Swiss painter Hans Holbein the Younger (1497–1543). Other artists in the series include Chagall (also reviewed here), Bosch, Freud, Magritte, Rubens, Schiele, and more. All of the books are formatted with a dual focus of both the life and the works of each different master. They succeed in packing a wide range of information into a lightweight and compact 100 pages.

Holbein seems to have been quite the High Renaissance/Northern Renaissance character. Born in Germany and privileged to have grown up in a painting lineage, he worked for his father’s well-regarded studio and learned the trade from a young age. He traveled from place to place, working in Germany, Switzerland, France, England, and anywhere else he may have been sent by a paying patron. He is often overshadowed by the attention paid to his contemporaries: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Durer, El Greco, Titian, etc. But Holbein was no slouch and managed to keep his head intact working for King Henry VIII as his favored painter.

Heine tracks Holbein’s movements throughout Europe explaining the various influences, techniques, commissions, and major events Holbein encountered as a painter in the early 1500s. Probably the biggest influence was the iconoclasm movement brought on by the non-Catholic church regimes to ban religious images during the Reformation period. Painting, in many areas of Northern Europe, suffered a severe decline and many artists left the field.

Holbein stayed afloat by some crafty advertising, endearing his way to the royal courts. He pursued a transition of art from church patronage to the wealthy merchant class by being an expert in clever portraiture. Everyone, it seems, who could afford it, wanted their picture painted. Thus Holbein remained in demand and completed over 150 portraits among other projects in his busy workshop.

Some of these portraits are represented in the Works section of Holbein. Arranged in chronological order it is interesting to watch the stylistic developments and the changes in subject matter over the decades from his first endeavors in 1516 until his final pieces just before his death from the plague in 1543.

Roughly 40 pieces are represented here including a design painting for the facade of Zum Tanz House in Basel, Switzerland (1525), The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521), two versions of Erasmus of Rotterdam (1523), Passion Altarpiece (1524), The Artist’s Family (1528), Georg Gisze (1532), The Ambassadors (1533), Henry VIII of England (1537), and a Jane Small miniature (1536). This is an excellent selection demonstrating the breadth of Holbein’s oeuvre.

Alongside the full color images of Holbein’s paintings are some pretty juicy commentaries about each work. They describe the subject matter, the symbolisms, the intent, or the techniques employed, and are well written and interesting. Through these excerpts the reader is engrossed in art history. Better yet, the reader is immersed into the story of art. The entire series makes for a fun and exciting introduction to the realm of fine art and is definitely something to consider for a beginning art history collector.