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In Augsburg, I had an epiphany. The Bavarian city is perhaps best known for being the centre of Messerschmitt manufacture in the war. Nevertheless, it was here that I uncovered the earliest known depiction of one of the world’s greatest painters: an unknown portrait of Hans Holbein the Younger, painted in 1502 when he was just five years old. Besides being an unexpected career high for me, it’s a find that sheds new light on his astonishing story.
Holbein (c1497–1543) was the German painter who became an English citizen and who defined the Tudor court with his depictions of a monumental Henry VIII. In his time he was considered as great as Leonardo or Michelangelo, though today their reputation outstrips his in the popular imagination – unjustly so. It is why I embarked on a new biography of Holbein and sought to rediscover the Europe he inhabited in the first half of the 16th century.
Back then, Augsburg was a cultural epicentre rivalling Venice, Milan or Florence. It was also a vibrant commercial nexus that was home to a slew of merchant bankers, all of whose wealth matched, even surpassed, Italy’s Medici. Like their Italian counterparts, these powerful Germans were formidable art patrons. No wonder Augsburg became home to so many painters – Hans Burgkmair the Elder and Jörg Breu the Elder, as well as Holbein’s father, Holbein the Elder. Holbein the Younger was born in the city in 1497.
Today, Augsburg’s wide central Maximilianstrasse is much the same as it was in Holbein’s day, lined with palatial mansions built by its banking dynasties. Holbein the Elder’s workshop – the Holbeinhaus – still stands in a part of the city where winding medieval streets are characterised by craft shops and studios.
One of his main patrons was Augsburg’s Dominican Convent, St Katherine’s. It was run by well-connected, erudite nuns, many of whom were daughters of the city’s banking elite. Today, what was formerly the convent’s church houses the State Gallery, so that many of Holbein Senior’s paintings still hang within the walls for which they were originally intended, and it was here that the forgotten portrait of little Hans was hiding in plain sight.
The go-to painting in the Gallery is Holbein the Elder’s 1504 painting featuring the Basilica of St Paolo “fuori le Mura” (outside the walls) with scenes from the life of St Paul. It features on the cover of the gallery’s guide, and no biography or TV documentary on Holbein would be complete without citing it, because Holbein senior famously smuggled his own family portrait into it, as witnesses to St Paul’s baptism. Seven-year-old Hans junior is shown being tenderly embraced by his elder brother Ambrosius, while Holbein senior points at his youngest boy with pride.
On my first day in Augsburg I made a beeline for the Basilica painting. But as I stared at young Hans, singled out so lovingly by his father, I realised that I had just seen another, very similar looking child in the same gallery. Retracing my steps, I scanned the paintings until my eye alighted on a memorial to the Walther family, painted by Holbein the Elder two years before the Basilica painting. Its left hand panel features a miracle from the Gospel of John, in which a small boy presents Jesus with two fish and five loaves that the Messiah then shares with 5000 followers. I felt sure that this boy was in fact another portrait of Hans junior, this time aged just five.
The clues are all there. For one, Holbein the Elder signals how special this little figure is. He is placed centrally in the composition, and just above his head, the hands of Jesus and St Peter meet, and form the shape of a heart. Furthermore, while the other characters from the parable are in biblical robes, the little boy wears contemporary dress: a red tunic, with a toolbox, rosary and cloth attached to his belt. The only other people in contemporary dress are the Walther family at the base of the panel.
Not only is the boy’s outfit almost identical to that worn by the seven-year-old version of Hans in the Basilica painting, but his features are the same: his blonde hair is cut short, revealing a wide forehead, wide spaced eyes, a pudgy nose and chubby cheeks.
Had no-one else noticed this image of young Holbein, hanging in the same gallery as the other well-known family portrait? Not daring to believe my own eyes, I contacted leading Holbein expert Dr Bodo Brinkmann, curator of Old Masters at Basel’s Kunstmuseum, which holds the largest collection of Holbein works. To my relief, Dr Brinkmann endorsed my detective work and when further Holbein experts were consulted in Augsburg, Munich and Vienna, all confirmed the novelty of the find.
How had this astonishing portrait been overlooked? For a start, fewer eyes have been cast on this work than it deserves. Even if it should be, Augsburg is hardly a top tourist destination, meaning footfall in the gallery is relatively light. And while Holbein the Elder’s skill as a portrait painter is studied by academics, their interest in that particular memorial painting has focused on the depiction of the Walther family.
My newly discovered portrait is hugely significant, not least because almost nothing is known of Holbein the Younger’s childhood. Yet both this and the 1504 portrait place notable emphasis on him. Together they suggest that young Hans Holbein, long before he hit double figures, warranted commemoration – and not only by his father, but also by St Katherine’s nuns, who may well have schooled him. Such attention suggests that Holbein the Younger was a child prodigy, whose stellar talent was already clear to those around him.
Scholars have long puzzled over how, when Holbein the Younger moved to Basel in Switzerland at the age of 18 he managed to immediately author and sign his own work there, in contravention of guild regulations that only allowed accredited “Masters” such privilege. Of course, the exception made for him make sense if he was a famous child star whose reputation preceded him.
The painting invites reassessment of Holbein the Elder’s workshop, too. Records reveal that in 1508 one of Holbein’s sons was paid for working alongside him. It has always been assumed it was the older Ambrosius. I think that it was Hans, already a match for his father at just 11.
It also makes sense of the innovative Renaissance-style ornamentation, architecture and contrapposto figures that burst into the otherwise gothic work of the older Holbein from about 1512. Might these elements, characteristic of the son’s later work, be his exceptional juvenilia, incorporated into his father’s output?
By the time Holbein came to England in 1526 his reputation had spread Europe-wide. He was made “King’s Painter” by Henry VIII, who was keen to acquire a cultural fire-power equal to anything his European rivals could muster. Holbein’s portraits of Henry are seared into our cultural consciousness, Holbein’s version of him forever in our mind’s-eye.
In light of this rediscovered portrait of a little boy, we now know that long before England’s most famous king celebrated his talent, the people of Augsburg had acknowledged the Holbein phenomenon in their midst. Little Hans’s unique talent had been spotted by the nuns who nurtured him, and a father who knew that his son was destined for greatness.
The King’s Painter: The Life and Times of Hans Holbein is published by Head of Zeus on May 27 at £35. It will also be Radio 4’s Book of the Week from May 3