HANS HOLBEIN THE ELDER, belonged to a celebrated family of painters in practice at Augsburg and Basel from the close of the 15th to the middle of the 16th century. Though closely connected with Venice by her commercial relations, and geographically nearer to Italy than to Flanders, Augsburg at the time of Maximilian cultivated art after the fashion of the Flemings, and felt the influence of the schools of Bruges and Brussels, which had branches at Cologne and in many cities about the headwaters of the Rhine. It was not till after the opening of the 16th century, and between that and the era of the Reformation, that Italian example mitigated to some extent the asperity of South German painting. But this is not the place to give even an outline of this development. It must be sufficient to note that Flemish and German art was first tempered with Italian elements at Augsburg by Hans Holbein the elder. Hans first appears at Augsburg as partner to his brother Sigmund, who survived him and died in 1540 at Berne. Sigmund is described as a painter, but his works have not come down to us. Hans had the lead of the partnership at Augsburg, and signed all the pictures which it produced. In common with Herlen, Schongauer, and other masters of South Germany, he first cultivated a style akin to that of Memling and other followers of the schools of Brussels and Bruges, but he probably modified the systems of those schools by studying the works of the masters of Cologne. As these early impressions waned, they were replaced by others less favourable to the expansion of the master's fame; and as his custom increased between 1499 and 1506, we find him relying less upon the teaching of the schools than upon a mere observation and reproduction of the quaintnesses of local passion plays. Most of his early works indeed are taken from the Passion, and in these he obviously marshalled his figures with the shallow stage effect of the plays, copying their artificial system of grouping, careless to some extent of proportion in the human shape, heedless of any but the coarser forms of expression, and technically satisfied with the simplest methods of execution. If in any branch of his art he can be said to have had a conscience at this period, we should say that he showed it in his portrait drawings. It is seldom that we find a painted likeness worthy of the name. The drawings of which numbers are still preserved in the galleries of Basel, Berlin, and Copenhagen show extraordinary quickness and delicacy of hand, and a wonderful facility for seizing character; and this happily is one of the features which Holbein bequeathed to his sou, It is between 1512 and 1522 that Holbein tempered the German quality of his style with some North Italian elements. A purer taste and more pleasing realism mark his work, which in drapery, dress, and tone is as much more agreeable to the eye as in respect of modelling and finish it is smoother and more carefully rounded. Costume, architecture, ornament, and colour are applied with some knowledge of the higher canons of art. Here too advantage accrued to Hans the younger, whose independent career about this time began.
The date of the elder Holbein's birth is unknown. But his name appears in the books of the tax-gatherers of Augsburg in 1494, superseding that of Michael Holbein, who is supposed to have been his father. Previous to that date, and as early as 1493, he was a painter of name, and he executed in that year, it is said, for the abbey at Weingarten, the wings of an altarpiece representing Joachim's Offering, the Nativity of the Virgin, Mary's Presentation in the Temple, and the Presentation of Christ, which now hang in separate panels in the cathedral of Augsburg. In these pieces and others of the same period, for instance in two Madonnas in the Moritz chapel and castle of Nuremberg, | we mark the clear impress of the schools of Van der Weyden and Memling; whilst in later works, such as the Basilica of St Paul (1504) in the gallery of Augsburg, the wane of Flemish influence is apparent. But this altarpiece, with its quaint illustrations of St Paul's life and martyrdom is not alone of interest because its execution is characteristic of old Holbein. It is equally so because it contains portraits of the master himself, accompanied by his two sons, the painters Ambrose and Hans Holbein. Later pictures, such as the Passion series in the Fiirstenberg gallery at Donaueschingen, or the Martyrdom of St Sebastian in the Munich Pinakothek, contain similar portraits, the original drawings of which are found in old Holbein's sketch-book at Berlin, or in stray leaves like those possessed by the duke of Aumale in Paris. Not one of these fails to give us an insight into the character, or a reflex of the features, of the members of this celebrated family. Old Holbein seems to ape Leonardo, allowing his hair and beard wildly to grow, except on the upper lip, Hans the younger is a plain-looking boy. But his father points to him with his finger, and hints that though but a child he is clearly a prodigy.
After 1516 Hans Holbein the elder appears as a defaulter in the registers of the tax-gatherers at Augsburg; but he willingly accepts commissions abroad. At Issenheim in Alsace, where Grimewald was employed in 1516, old Holbein also finds patrons, and contracts to complete an altarpiece. But misfortune or a bailiff pursues him, and he leaves Issenheim, abandoning his work and tools. According to Sandrart, he wanders to Basel and takes the freedom of its guild. His brother Sigmund and others are found suing him for debt before the courts of Augsburg. Where he lived when he executed the altarpiece, of which two wings with the date of 1522 are in the gallery of Carlsruhe, is uncertain; where he died two years later is unknown. He slinks from ken at the close of a long life, and disappears at last heeded by none but his own son, who claims his brushes and paints from the monks of Issenheim without much chance of obtaining them. His name is struck off the books of the Augsburg guild in 1524.
The elder Holbein was a prolific artist, who left many pictures behind him. Earlier than the Basilica of St Paul, already mentioned, is the Basilica of St Mary Maggiore, and a Passion in eleven pieces, in the Augsburg gallery, both executed in 1499. Another Passion, with the root of Jesse and a tree of the Dominicans, is that preserved in the Staedel, Saalhof, and church of St Leonard at Frankfort. It was executed in 1501. The Passion of Donau-eschingen was finished after 1502, in which year was completed the Passion of Kaisheim, a conglomerate of twenty-seven panels, now divided amongst the galleries of Munich, Nuremberg, Augsburg, and Schleissheim. An altarpiece of the same class, commissioned for the monastery of St Moritz at Augsburg in 1504-8, has been dispersed and lost. 1512 is the date of a Conception in the Augsburg gallery, long assigned, in consequence of a forged inscription, to Hans Holbein the younger. A diptych, with a Virgin and Child, and a portrait of an old man, dated 1513, is in separate parts in the collections of Mr Posonyi and Count Lanckoronski at Vienna. The sketch-books of Berlin, Copenhagen, and Augsburg give a lively picture of the forms and dress of Augsburg residents at the beginning of the 16th century. They comprise portraits of the emperor Maximilian, the future Charles V., Kunz von der Rosen the fool of Maximilian, the Fuggers, friars, merchants, and at rare intervals ladies.