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Welcome to Episode #117 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

One of the best ways many Shakespeare scholars use to explore the real historical counterparts to the historical figures that show up in Shakespeare’s plays is to examine what they looked like. Centuries before the advent of photography, when you wanted to capture someone’s likeness and preserve it, history used paintings. People like Henry VIII, Anne of Cleves, Jane Seymore, Edward VI and many others were all given this kind of immortality when they were painted by Hans Holbein the Younger, who is arguably the best portrait artist in history. 

Hans Holbein the Younger showed promise from a very young age as a portraitist and was encouraged by his father, Hans Holbein the Elder who was also an artist, to pursue his unique talents. While firmly a citizen of Switzerland, Holbein would routinely undertake the long commute from Basil, Switzerland to England as well as France to paint some of the world’s most famous figures, many of whom would find new life in the performances of plays by William Shakespeare. He could not have known in the early 16th century that just a few decades after his death a young playwright would give the world a whole new reason to study his paintings, but nonetheless, Hans Holbein has a place in the study of the life of William Shakespeare, and indeed the life of England herself, so for this week, our guest, Susan Abernethy is here to introduce us to Hans Holbein and how a young boy working in his father’s shop would grow up to be friends with, and the official portraitist for, some of the most notorious figures in history as well as from Shakespeare’s plays.

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Susan Abernethy has a degree in history and is a member of the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association.  Her blog, The Freelance History Writer has been continuously publishing historical articles since 2012, with an emphasis on European, Tudor, medieval, Renaissance, Early Modern and Women’s history.  She is currently working on a biography of a prominent Stuart royal. 

In this episode, I’ll be asking Susan Abernethy about :

  •  How did Hans Holbein get his start in his artistic career? 

  • Before coming to England in 1526, he started in France looking for work at the court of King Frances I. Susan, was Hans not well received in France? 

  • SIr Thomas More, author of Utopia, was Han’s main “in” with the social elite in England when he gained commissions there in 1526, but by the time he returned to England again in 1532, that connection had fallen out of favor as a result of Henry VIII’s separation from the Catholic church. Susan, how did Hans Holbien the Younger go from a dissolved connection with Sir Thomas More in England to being a personal favorite of the Boleyn family?’’
  • … and more!

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Completed in pen, pencil, and watercolor by Cassidy Cash, this Stratford Upon Avon print features 8 real life properties located in Stratford Upon Avon, England, from the life of William Shakespeare in one beautiful print. Celebrate your love of Shakespeare by downloading your free copy when you sign up for our email newsletter. The newsletter goes out on Mondays with episode notifications, and as a subscriber you get artwork like this one every month, completely free.

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For by the image of my cause I see
The portraiture of his.

Hamlet

Hamlet (V.2)

His sons, Ambrosius and Hans Holbein, by Hans Holbein the Elder, 1511, Silverpoint on white-coated paper, 10.3 × 15.5 cm, Berlin State Museums. The names “Prosy” (left) and “Hans” (right) are written over the heads of the boys. According to art historian Stephanie Buck: “The hand-written notes make this silverpoint drawing one of the most personal documents of an artist's family of the early modern era. The sheet probably comes from a sketchbook in which various portraits were kept.” (Buck, p. 8.) Printed inside a book by Stephanie Buck, Hans Holbein, Cologne: Könemann, 1999, ISBN 3829025831. Original Image Source

Hans Holbein the Elder

Hans Holbein the Younger had a great teacher built in to his life through his father, who was himself a great artist.

Hans Holbein the Elder came from a long line of celebrated artists, including his father Michael Holbein and his brother, Signmund Holbein. Holbein the Elder had two sons, Ambrosius and Hans who both went on to become successful artists themselves. Both of these famous painters had their first lessons in painting from their father. His father took commissions but he wasn’t good at money and finances. Hans and Ambrose worked in their father’s workshop, and this is how Hans learned the technical process of arts. He was encouraged during this time at home learning under his father's guidance, to pursue portraits specifically.

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paint him in the character.

Menenius Agrippa

Coriolanus (V.4)

Portrait of Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam with Renaissance Pilaster. (1466/69–1536) Erasmus was a renowned humanist scholar and theologian. He moved in 1521 to Basel, the city where Hans Holbein the Younger lived and had his workshop. Such was the fame of Erasmus, who corresponded with scholars throughout Europe, that he needed many portraits of himself to send abroad. Holbein painted three much-copied portraits of Erasmus in 1523, of which this is the largest and most elaborate. It is likely the one sent to William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, in England. Holbein later painted Warham after he travelled to England in 1526 in search of work, with a recommendation from Erasmus, who had once lived in England himself. Holbein's portrait of Erasmus includes a Latin couplet by the scholar, inscribed on the edge of the leaning book on the shelf, which states that Holbein would rather have a slanderer than an imitator. According to art historian Stephanie Buck, this portrait is “an idealized picture of a sensitive, highly cultivated scholar, and this was precisely how Erasmus wanted to be remembered by future generations” (Stephanie Buck, Hans Holbein, Cologne: Könemann, 1999, ISBN 3829025831, p. 50). Original Image and Caption Source

 

Erasmus & Famous European Artists

Because his father mismanaged the finances, they had to trave to Basel Switzerland and Erasmus who was a well known humanists, and both  famous as well as revered in Basel, (he was a superstar) —was a magnet. Many people would come to Basel specifically seeking out away to enter Erasmus' circle of influence. Occassionally, young men from Augsberg were well accepted into that circle. When he came to Basel, Hans Holbein the Younger joined this group and because he was both talented as well as supportive of their rather avante garde ideas promoting reform of the Catholic Church, Hans found a place in their society. Erasmus enjoyed having his portrait painted, so he commissioned copies to be made, and distributed to his friends. Hans Holbein probably painted Erasmus from life and paid Hans Holbein the Younger to do that.

Hans Holbein travelled around Europe regularly to try and find jobs as a painter, seeking commissions from people like Erasmus. In this travels, he took a portrait of Erasmus as his portfolio example when soliciting jobs. The drawings Hans completed from this period of his life reflect various buildings and architectures that suggest he visited many of the Renaissance towns in France. At least one researcher thinks Holbein could have met, or even studied with, Clouet. There's additional speculation that he might of met Leonardo Davinci who was living in France at this same time.


Despite travelling to France, and eventually to England, Hans was firmly planted in Basel, Switzerland both by his love of home and family, as well as by the laws of Switzerland. If he did not return home regularly, he would have his citizenship removed. So Hans Holbein, despite frequenting the royal courts as an official potrait artist, consistently returned home to Basel where he maintained a home.

 

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What's here? the portrait of a blinking idiot,
Presenting me a schedule! I will read it.
How much unlike art thou to Portia!

Prince of Arragon

Merchant of Venice (II.9)

The infamous “repugnant” portait of Anne of Cleves (1515–57) by Hans Holbein  c. 1539. Anne of Cleves was the fourth wife of Henry VIII. In a kind of 16th century Tinder profile moment, Holbein was sent to paint her at Duren in summer 1539, so that Henry could appraise her as a possible wife. Holbein posed Anne square-on and in elaborate finery. Henry was disappointed with her in the flesh, and he divorced her after a brief, unconsummated marriage. He redesignated Anne as “king's sister”, and she remained in England until her death. According to the Department of Paintings at the Louvre Museum in Paris, where this portrait now resides, they explain that “The use of parchment suggests that Holbein painted, or at least began, the portrait in Düren. A miniature version in the Victoria and Albert Museum was probably painted at the same time. Holbein also produced a portrait of Anne's sister, Amelia, which is now lost. Nicholas Wotton, the head of the English delegation, reported to Henry: “Your Grace's servant Hanze Albein hathe taken th'effigies of my lady Anne and the lady Amelye and hath expressed theyr images very lyvely”. The tradition that Holbein flattered Anne is not borne out by the evidence: no one except Henry ever described her as repugnant.” Image and Caption Source

The portrait of Anne of Cleves

After Jane Seymour died, Henry VIII went looking for a new wife. Rather than travel around meeting potential candidates himself, Henry (as per usual for Kings) hired some of his court to go out and look for a suitable match and to, essentially, report back on good options that they thought would please the King.

Thomas Cromwell was looking to find a wife for the King, so he hired Hans Holbein the YOunger to paint the portrait of some of the women he felt would be most suitable. He painted several potential brides for Henry VIII, as Henry was (it seems) quite concerned about how they would look. 

Hans Holbein painted Christina of Denmark, and some other women at La Havre and in Burgundy, he painted three additional candidates. Finally, the idea of the Duke of Cleves's sisters was proposed and Hans Holbein was brought in to paint the now infamous portrait of Anne of Cleves. 

As bizarre as it might seem to us today, especially considering Henry VIII's reputation in general, having portraits painted for potential brides was quite within the ordinary procedure at this time in history. Henry VIII just famously discovered the difference in Instagram vs. Reality, as he was very disappointed with Anne of Cleves when she finally arrived in England as his bride. Despite no other records of anyone finding Anne of Cleves to be ugly in appearance, Henry himself found her repugnant and annulled the marriage without consummation. 

Hans Holbein seems to have escaped unscathed, however, since the King did not seem to blame Hoblein for misrepresentation, and instead blamed the courtiers who recommended Anne of Cleves in the first place as having offered false praise of her.

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Looking to learn more and explore further into the history of this week's topic? Here are some great places to start.

No, you shall paint when you are old.

Iras

Antony and Cleopatra (I.2)

Self portrait of Hans Holbein the Younger c. 1542-43 “The gold background is of a later date. According to art historian John Rowlands, “Although this drawing has been enlarged on all sides and heavily reworked, enough of it still shows to allow the assumption that the original work was executed by Holbein. The inscription, although late in date, evidently records an earlier one, of which slight traces remain. There is no evidence to suggest that Holbein ever executed a painted portrait based on this drawing”. Painted versions of the drawing by other hands exist, including one by Lucas Horenbout, in which the left-handed Holbein is holding a paintbrush. Art historian Stephanie Buck notes that Holbein's direct gaze suggests he was looking into a mirror. Holbein died not long after completing this self-portrait, probably of the plague.” Source

Mystery About His Death and Burial

Hans Holbein the Younger has gone down in history famous for his skills as a portraitist. It seems his father was correct to encourage that path for his life, as Hans Holbein the Younger remains unparalleled in his ability to capture the likeness of a person (with the notable exception –at least to Henry VIII of poor Anne of Cleves). 

In addition to his work in portraits, however, there is a large library of work beyond portraits done by Hans Holbein the Younger that surives in his hometown of Basel, Switzerland. There are many drawings, paintings, sketches, and even designs for woodcuts for printers. He has a famous Dance of Death series and work on the Old Testament. 

At the end of his life, Hans Holbein established a great wealth by any standard, leaving lavish clothes and fine things to his wife, Elsbeth, at his death. However, the particulars of his death, his will, and even the precise location of his burial remain a mystery.

Shortly after he painted this self portrait (shown above), he became ill. Many historians believe he caught the plauge, but he fell sick quite suddenly and his will was subsequently drawn up in haste. Susan points out that while we do not know what killed Hans Holbein the Younger or how he died, we do know that he was visited on his deathbed by visitors, and that would have been unlikely to have been done should he have contracted the plague that swept through London in 1543.

There are two churches in London which btoh claim to be his final resting place. They both survived the Great Fire of 1666, adding to their credibility and making it very difficult to discern which is correct. One claimant is St. Katherine Cree and the other is St. Andrew Undershaft

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Books & Resources Susan Abernethy recommends:

 

Susan recommends this article as well: 
“Hans Holbein the Younger”, entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Susan Foister, 2009  This article can be found inside the “Painting in Britain 1500-1630” publication shown here. I was unable to find a digital copy of the article, but if you find one please comment with the link below. 

Resource Cassidy thought you might enjoy:
Victoria Button completed her PhD Thesis on Hans Holbein in 2013 and submitted it for consideration to the Royal College of Art for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy May 2013 The Royal College of Art/Victoria & Albert Museum. I do not know her personally, so this is only a recommendation of her thesis. I found and read it when compiling this episode and I thought you might enjoy it if you are planning to study Hans Holbein futher. Her thesis is available to read online here. (Accessed June 16 2020) It contains close to 100 figures related to the history of Hans Holbein and does an extensive look at portraiture history from this period.

Button, Victoria. The portrait drawings of Hans Holbein the Younger: function and use explored through materials and techniques. 2013.Royal College of Art/Victoria & Albert Museum. PhD dissertation. Research Online https://researchonline.rca.ac.uk/1357/1/Victoria%20Button%20PDF%20FINAL%20THESIS%20MAY%202013.pdf

 

Download this Stratford Upon Avon Watercolor Print

Completed in pen, pencil, and watercolor by Cassidy Cash, this Stratford Upon Avon print features 8 real life properties located in Stratford Upon Avon, England, from the life of William Shakespeare in one beautiful print. Celebrate your love of Shakespeare by downloading your free copy when you sign up for our email newsletter. The newsletter goes out on Mondays with episode notifications, and as a subscriber you get artwork like this one every month, completely free.

Subscribe now and grab your copy!

This illustration is part of our exclusive members library available when you subscribe to That Shakespeare Life. Subscription helps support the podcast and gives you access to the entire library PLUS you get our exclusive Experience Shakespeare digital history activity kits delivered once a month. Learn more and sign up here.


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