In Basle, the artist ran a busy workshop and established a glowing reputation in the city.
He completed mainly religious works at this time but was also involved in portraiture, his painting of the Dutch Humanist Erasmus established his reputation.
Thomas More. (w)
He travelled to England in 1526 and moved in the circles dominated by Thomas More who was a personal friend of Erasmus. He remained in England for two years, in the period just before the Reformation when More's star still shone brightly at the English Court.
The artist returned to Basle in 1528 where he remained for four years, his purchase of a house in in St Johanns-Vorstadt highlights his growing self-confidence in his artistic ability.
Holbein's fame is forever linked to the English court of King Henry VIII. His portraits during the English Reformation provide an insight into the characters who dominated this famous and dangerous period of 16th century history.
King Henry VIII.
c. 1536. Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid. (w)
In 1532, when Holbein returned to England for the second time, the political landscape was about to undergo a radical change of direction. King Henry was preparing to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled and replace her with his mistress, Anne Boleyn. This was opposed by the Pope setting in motion a chain of events leading to England's eventual split from Papal supremacy.
The artist seems to have negotiated the political storm, on this second visit he was introduced at court under the patronage of Thomas Cromwell and the Boleyn family. Thomas More, Holbein's host on his first visit to England, was in disgrace for opposing the Kings marriage to Anne Boleyn, he was executed in 1535. Anne Boleyn was herself executed for high treason, incest and adultery in May 1536.
I wonder did the artist realise that he was painting a mass-murderer? Henry in all his fine clothes and glittering jewellery gives us just the slightest hint of a sneer. Is this an indication of his contempt for lesser mortals?
The King stares out from the pages of history, a cold stare, safe in the knowledge of his God-like all consuming and absolute power.