HOLBEIN, Hans the Younger
(b. 1497, Augsburg, d. 1543, London)
The Artist's Family1528
Oil on paper mounted on wood, 77 x 64 cm
Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel
Holbein dated this family portrait, which is painted on paper, in the bottom right-hand corner, but the last digit was lost when the figures were cut out round the outline later in the 16th century and subsequently stuck on a black-painted panel. Several considerations strongly suggest the portrait must date from 1528, shortly after Holbein's return from England: his son Philipp, born around 1522, is about six in the picture, and his daughter Katharina is hardly more than two; moreover, his children Jakob and Küngold, born around 1529 and 1530 respectively, are not present.
The identification of the figures with Holbein's family is based on an entry in the Amerbach inventory produced in 1587 asserting that the portrait is of Holbein's wife Elsbeth Binzenstock and his two eldest children, painted in oil on paper and mounted on wood. When Holbein returned to England, he left the picture behind in Basel. Elsbeth parted with the portrait even before her husband's death, as by 1542 at the latest it belonged to the Zurich painter Hans Asper (1499-1571). Basilius Amerbach acquired it in 1579.
The moving combination of resolution and frailty seen in this family portrait is unique in Holbein's production. The introverted mood of the work extends beyond the usual level of reticence in his English portraits, where courtly finery and the dignity inherent in status to some extent shield the private lives of the sitters. The work provokes consideration of the relationship between the painter and his wife, who was separated from him for years at a time, bringing up their four children alone. The strain of this fractured family life may be seen here in the weary resignation of Elsbeth's wan face. The sober colours and emphasis on linear execution (seen in young Philip's profile) are perhaps concessions to what was acceptable in reformist Basel at the time, although elements of the dislocated triangle of the composition and the modelling of the mother's hand on the boy's shoulder are reminiscent of Leonardo's The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, which Holbein probably saw during his visit to France in 1524.
The painting's dour background is a later result of cutting out the figures and laying them down on a panel; originally, there may well have been a decorative background as is the case in one copy.