HOLBEIN, Hans the Younger
(b. 1497, Augsburg, d. 1543, London)

Portrait of Bonifacius Amerbach

Oil on pinewood, 29 x 27 cm
Kunstmuseum, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel

Bonifacius Amerbach (1495-1562) studied both law and classical antiquity in Basel and then Freiburg. In 1520 he went to Avignon to continue his studies under the writer, lawyer, and music theoretician Andreas Alciatus (1492-1550), known as Alciat. In 1525, Amerbach finally gained a chair in Roman law at the important university of Basel. His distinctive position as a scholar is revealed by his friendship with Erasmus, who named him as his sole heir. Like Bonifacius Amerbach, his son Basilius also became a passionate collector of Holbein's works, collecting them in the "Amerbach Cabinet," which later formed the core of Basel's art museum.

The year 1519 was marked by civic success for Holbein; he was made a Master in the painters' guild `zum Himmel', took up Basel citizenship and married. Until this date much of his daily work had been for the decorative arts, particularly glass-painting and book-illustration, but a new emphasis on portraiture, fomented by the success of the Meyer commission, first emerges with this piece.

Holbein was lucky to have Amerbach as a friend and patron; the dogged and determined gaze of the withal kindly scholar, eventually Professor of Law at the university, was to be borne out in his assiduous collecting of Holbein's Basel oeuvre.

The work is more painterly than the Meyer double-portrait and uses classical references with more confidence, as is appropriate in a portrayal of Amerbach in academic black. The panel bears Amerbach's own words of praise for the artist's truthfulness to nature and it also serves, pictorially, to emphasize the depth of illusory picture-space. As a result sitter and background are well-integrated, and real poetic feeling is glimpsed in the distant snow-covered mountains and chill blue sky.