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It's in the Genes
Although geneticists have not yet been able to isolate it, few would dispute the fact that there seems to be an "art gene" that runs in families. The Peale family in Philadelphia during the first decades of this country's history is an excellent example, as is, not far away, the Wyeth family today. As an art instructor, I've seen it. In the 26 years I've taught, I've "art educated" one entire generation of a rather large family and started on the second. Not surprisingly, the art gene seems no less dominant in the children than in most of their parents, aunts, and uncles. Not every member of this family has it of course, but a significant number do, and it's been quite interesting to trace its appearance over the years.

In the 1400s, there lived in Augsburg, Germany, a master tanner by the name of Holbein. Given the time and place, this trade was held in very high regard by the community, his output, if not quite an art, was at least a highly respected craft. He had two sons, Hans, born in 1460, and Sigismund, born in 1465. Both of them became successful artists, their work largely composed of portraits and religious subjects. In 1497-98, one of these brothers, Hans, became the father of two sons himself, Hans (known as Hans, the younger), and Ambrosius (b. 1498). These two brothers also became artists, though Hans (the younger) quite outshone his younger brother, and even his father (known to art historians as Hans, the elder). Around 1515, Hans (the elder) apparently had some financial difficulties and moved with his two sons to Basel.

It was there Hans (the younger) met Erasmus, the writer, and ended up illustrating his In Praise of Folly. The book was a tremendous success and spread the Holbein name as far away as England and Italy. When the sudden influx of Spanish gold from the new world precipitated a financial crisis in much of Europe around 1520, Hans (the younger), who, by this time was married with yet another sizeable generation of Holbeins to feed, journeyed to England where his etchings and incredibly detailed portraits were an immediate hit with the court of Henry VIII. It was eight years before he returned to Basel, and the next several years seem to have been a series of trips back and forth as the artist found wealthy patrons in England yet raised his family in Germany. History doesn't record how many other Holbeins (if any) became artists, only that their father, in 1543, while on one of his many sojourns to London, fell victim to the plague and died. He was 46.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
26 September 1998


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