Holbein the Portraitist at Work Holbein the Portraitist at Work

Hans Holbein the Younger A Woman Seated on a Settle with Four Children

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8–1543)
A Woman Seated on a Settle with Four Children c.1540

Lent by The British Museum, London

Holbein’s individual portrait paintings are nearly all based on studies from life. By the time of his second visit to England he had developed a consistent method of taking a likeness, using pink primed paper to give the flesh tones, probably for speed of execution. Comparisons between surviving pairs of portrait drawings and paintings (made for example by placing tracings of one over the other) have established such close correspondences that Holbein must have used a method of transferring the outlines of his drawings directly to the panel. He appears to have made a sandwich of his drawing and the prepared panel, with the filling a piece of paper covered in chalk or charcoal: only light pressure with a stylus was required to transfer the outlines. He would then have relied on notes of costumes, poses and backgrounds to complete the portrait design.

The only document which describes a sitting for a portrait with Holbein mentions a period of ‘three hours space’. However, as this sitting took place in Brussels in March 1538 in order for Holbein to take the full-length portrait of Christina of Denmark, with whom Henry VIII was contemplating marriage (shown in Room 9), it may not have been typical.