Courtiers and Merchants

After returning to England in 1532, Holbein became painter to King Henry VIII and found avid patrons among members of the royal court. Holbein’s drawings of these courtiers, in colored chalks and ink on pink prepared paper, reveal the artist’s close, first-hand study of his sitters’ faces. Paying scrupulous attention to clothing and personal jewels, he portrayed his subjects in a variety of modes and scales, including small portable paintings. Round formats were associated with both classical and Christian conceptions of eternity and thus especially appropriate to a portrait’s commemorative function.

Holbein also depicted members of the Hanseatic League, German merchants residing in an enclave known as the London Steelyard (Stalhof). These portraits may have been sent home to family members, or they may have hung together in the Guildhall of the Steelyard as a statement of corporate identity.

Simon George


Only this sitter’s name and place of origin (Cornwall, in southwest England) are known today. Yet the complex system of symbols that Holbein developed in this work suggests that the young man might have been a poet conversant in the symbolic language of love. He wears a pink jerkin (close-fitting jacket) and a hat badge decorated with the mythological paramours Leda and the Swan. In his right hand, George holds a red carnation—a symbol of affection and betrothal. Other interpretations are also possible: the carnation may signify Christ’s crucifixion, and the pansies decorating the hat could evoke a meditation on mortality. Recent conservation of the panel allows us to fully appreciate Holbein’s vivid colors and rich surface effects—from the carefully modulated description of George’s skin to the black embroidery of his glossy, puckered jacket.

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/98–1543)
Simon George, ca. 1530–40
Mixed technique on panel
Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main; 1065


This is a rare opportunity to see, side by side, Holbein’s preparatory drawing and the finished portrait of one of his most enigmatic English sitters—Simon George of Cornwall. Normally separated between collections in England and Germany, the two works have been temporarily reunited for the purpose of this exhibition, inviting us to explore Holbein’s preparatory process and compare his handling of these two different media.

Holbein established the outline of George’s head and defined his facial features in the drawn study. The hat and the costume were worked out in much greater detail in the painted roundel. The painting also differs from the drawing in the greater fullness of the sitter's beard.

Notably, the drawing focuses only on Simon George’s head and does not include his right hand, which features prominently in the finished panel. This was Holbein’s standard working procedure. The artist likely made an additional drawing for the hand holding the red carnation, although no such work is known to survive.

Photo: Städel Museum

Simon George

Holbein drew this image from life, in preparation for the corresponding painted roundel portrait. He employed a delicately layered technique to capture the profile of Simon George of Cornwall, going as far as describing individual wispy hairs that form the sitter’s eyebrow and stubble. Established through the initial sketch, the contour of the head and the facial features could be carried to the painted portrait by tracing outlines onto a panel using paper blackened with chalk. Changes to the composition could be introduced at this stage. In this case, Holbein replaced the stubble on George’s chin with a full beard in the painting, perhaps in accordance with court fashion.

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/98–1543)
Simon George, ca. 1535
Black and colored chalks, pen and brush and black ink, and metalpoint on pink prepared paper
Lent by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II; RCIN 912208

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2022

A Court Official and his Wife

This pair of intimate roundels might originally have had protective lids (like Holbein’s painting of Philip Melanchthon, also on view), or the panels could have been brought together to form a portable capsule. Compact and more affordable than larger-scale likenesses, the portraits are no less refined and detailed than Holbein’s grander works. The man is dressed in royal livery: a red coat decorated with the elaborately embroidered initials H and R, for Henricus Rex, referring to King Henry VIII. The uniform indicates that the subject served the court in an official capacity. The woman’s relatively demure costume allowed Holbein to explore a variety of textures, such as the thick felt or wool bonnet and the fur trimming of her dress.

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/98–1543)
A Court Official of Henry VIII
The Wife of a Court Official of Henry VIII
Oil on panels
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Gemäldegalerie; 5432 and 6272


Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora

At the wedding of the German theologian and reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546) and Katharina von Bora (1499–1552) on 13 June 1525, the artist Lucas Cranach presented the couple with a pair of small, round portraits. He and his workshop then produced several copies for the couple’s close friends and relatives. Cranach’s and Holbein’s roundels reflect the popularity of this format in the early sixteenth century and emphasize the portrait’s importance as a gift that commemorated an event or intimate connection.

Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553)
Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora, 1525
Oil on panels
The Morgan Library & Museum, purchased by J. Pierpont Morgan, 1909; AZ038

Portrait of a Woman

Compared to most likenesses in the exhibition, this portrait is relatively plain, without prominent attributes that might help reveal the sitter’s identity. Nevertheless, the woman’s status and wealth are indicated through Holbein’s attention to minute details, such as her ornate rings and the pearl-headed pins that attach her bonnet to her cap and close the translucent cambric at her neck. Her costume resembles that of the younger woman in the small roundel portrait, also included in the exhibition, suggesting that this sitter might also have been the wife of an English court official. The woman’s sullen demeanor is underscored by her tense posture and tightly clasped hands, as well as the downturned corners of her mouth..

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/98–1543)
Portrait of a Woman, 1532–34
Oil and tempera on panel
Detroit Institute of Arts, bequest of Eleanor Clay Ford; 77.81


Derick Berck of Cologne

Derick Berck, a Hanseatic merchant, gazes warmly at the viewer. His name appears on the folded paper he holds, above his merchant’s mark. The small sheet at left quotes a passage from the ancient Roman poet Virgil, which urges Berck and his descendants—and perhaps the viewer—to be steadfast and courageous in business and life. This statement might have been the sitter’s personal motto. Holbein created a sense of pictorial space by positioning Berck between a table, covered with a red cloth, and a green curtain with a hanging cord. The latter motif recalls the background in the portrait of Sir Thomas More that Holbein made almost a decade earlier, also on view in the exhibition.

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/98–1543)
Derick Berck of Cologne, 1536
Oil on canvas, transferred from panel
Inscribed on lower right, in Latin: The year 1536 at the age of 30
Inscribed on the small piece of paper at left, in Latin: [Perchance even this distress] will someday be a joy to recall (Virgil, Aeneid, I.203)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Jules Bache Collection, 1949; 49.7.29

A Member of the Wedigh Family


Like the two other images of Hanseatic merchants here and here, this portrait eliminates all references to the sitter’s activities in trade and commerce. Instead, it emphasizes his familial associations. The man holds folded gloves and wears a signet ring bearing the coat of arms of the Cologne-based Wedigh family (a black chevron surrounded by three green willow leaves), which partially reveals his identity. Holbein animated the still frontal likeness by slightly enlarging the man’s right eye and raising his right eyebrow. The inscription in the background states the work’s date and the age of its subject. Such refined lettering in Roman capitals had become a standard practice in Holbein’s portraiture by the early 1530s.

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/98–1543)
A Member of the Wedigh Family, 1533
Oil on panel
Inscribed on the background, in Latin: The year 1533 / At the age of 39
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie; 586B


In addition to scholars, members of the royal family and Tudor courtiers, Holbein portrayed foreign diplomats and German merchants of the Hanseatic League based in London. The artist, who was born in Germany and spoke the language, seems to have developed a particularly close working relationship with his merchant countrymen. Based in the Stalhof, or Steelyard, on the north bank of the river Thames, members of the guild appear in seven surviving portraits painted by Holbein.

This panel is one of the finest and best preserved portraits in the group. Although the man’s name is no longer known to us, the coat of arms of the Cologne-based Wedigh family, visible on his prominently placed signet ring, partially reveals his identity. The frontal pose and direct gaze result in a strikingly forthright image. This approach differentiates portraits of members of the Hanseatic League from likenesses of Holbein’s English sitters, who seem to have preferred to be portrayed in three-quarter or profile views.

Image: bpk Bildagentur / Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin / Photo: Jörg P. Anders / Art Resource, NY.

Portrait of a Hanseatic Merchant

Although this sitter elected to be portrayed with no identifying attributes, his sober attire—a black gown over a black doublet with satin sleeves and a high-collared white shirt tied at the neck— suggests that he was a member of the Hanseatic League. The work was painted on the occasion of the man’s thirty-third birthday. Reaching this number of years often led to commemorative portrait commissions, as it was the age at which Christ was believed to have been crucified.

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/98–1543)
Portrait of a Hanseatic Merchant, 1538
Oil on panel
Inscribed on the background, in Latin: The year of Our Lord 1538 / At the age of 33
Yale University Art Gallery, gift of Charles S. Payson, B.A. 1921; 1977.187

Portrait of a Man (Jan Jacobsz. Snoeck?)

Netherlandish painter Jan Gossaert portrayed this merchant within a busy, enclosed space, surrounded by tools of his trade—an inkpot and quill pens, a talc shaker for drying ink, and a pair of scales for weighing coins. In sumptuous attire, the young man radiates self-assurance. Holbein likely encountered Gossaert’s work in 1532, when he was passing through the Netherlands on his way to England for the second time. Although the character of this portrait is very different from Holbein’s other depictions of members of the Hanseatic League, scholars have argued that the painting directly influenced his likeness of the merchant Georg Gisze, now in Berlin.

Jan Gossaert (ca. 1478–ca. 1532)
Portrait of a Man (Jan Jacobsz. Snoeck?), ca. 1530
Oil on panel
Inscribed on the paper at left, in Dutch: Miscellaneous letters
Inscribed on the paper at right, in Dutch: Miscellaneous drafts
Inscribed on a ring on the index finger: IS
Inscribed on the hat badge: IAS (in ligature)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund; 1967.4.1

Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Portrait of a Scholar or Cleric

Like all portrait drawings that Holbein made during his later years in England, this work is relatively small and on paper toned with a light-pink ground. The pink preparation allowed Holbein to efficiently render his White European sitters’ complexions by adding lighter and darker colors to its warm-hued middle tone. Although this man’s identity is unknown, the felt cap and hooded robe suggest that he was a scholar or cleric. Now in the collection of the Getty Museum, this is the only portrait drawing securely attributed to Holbein in the United States.

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/98–1543)
Portrait of a Scholar or Cleric, 1532–35
Black and red chalks, and pen and brush and black ink on pink prepared paper
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; 84.GG.93

The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Nicholas Bourbon


Nicholas Bourbon (ca. 1503–1549/50), a poet and humanist in the court of Henry VIII, was a friend and admirer of Holbein’s, marveling at the lifelikeness of the artist’s portraits in his verses. In this work, which served as a preparatory study for a woodcut illustrating Bourbon’s Paidagogeion— a didactic poem influenced by the writings of Erasmus—Holbein turned his gaze toward the poet himself. Bourbon holds a quill pen in his quickly sketched right hand, as if actively composing. In keeping with his friend’s interest in Greek and Roman culture, Holbein portrayed him in profile, reminiscent of an ancient coin.

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/98–1543)
Nicholas Bourbon, 1535
Black and colored chalks, and pen and black ink on pink prepared paper
Lent by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II; RCIN 912192


Poet Nicholas Bourbon arrived in England in 1535, after being exiled from his native France on account of his Protestant sympathies. He soon entered the Tudor court, where he was closely aligned with Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII. It was at this time that Bourbon first met Hans Holbein, who had been recently appointed as a royal painter. In a prefatory letter included in his didactic poem Paidagogeion, Bourbon lists the artist among the friends he made at the English court and compares him to the renowned ancient painter Apelles.

In this portrait, Holbein depicts Bourbon in profile view and with a pen in hand, as if caught in the act of composing one of his poems. The image emphasizes the poet’s intellectual and creative abilities and recalls Holbein’s earlier portraits of scholars—most notably, Erasmus—at work. It is unclear whether Holbein intended to use this study to make a painted likeness. However, we know that the sheet served as a model for the woodcut portrait of Bourbon, included in the first edition of Paidagogeion.

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2022