LOS ANGELES — To understand the magnificent legacy and impact of Hans Holbein the Younger, you have to know just how bland and formulaic portraiture was in England before he arrived there in 1526, and how delightfully silly it became in the decades after his death in 1543. You also want a bit of background on how fraught life was for artists in Germany, where he was born in Augsburg in 1497, as the Reformation took hold.

“Holbein: Capturing Character in the Renaissance,” on view at the Getty Center, is the first major exhibition of the artist’s work in the United States, but it offers little of the wider cultural context for the major works on view. Instead, it focuses on the psychological complexity of the portraits, including several key paintings of the major players in the tumultuous court of Henry VIII. It also gives a compelling sense of Erasmus, the great scholar, author and humanist whose friendship felt like a benediction on those lucky enough to receive it. And it takes a few fascinating side trips into Holbein’s work as an illustrator, a maker of miniature paintings and a graphic designer of consummate skill.

One senses in this fascinating and frustrating exhibition (which will travel to the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City early next year) the key challenges any curator faces when presenting the work of Holbein. We know almost nothing of his inner life. There are no documents directly from Holbein to give us a sense of what he may have thought of the schemers, tyrants, merchants and anonymous court players whom he painted.

He was born into a family of artists, including his father, Hans Holbein the Elder, and an uncle and older brother. We know where he worked (mostly) and whom he served, and we know Erasmus introduced him to influential friends in England, writing of Europe: “The arts here are freezing.” The breadth of Holbein’s skill, not just as a painter, but also as a designer of miniature emblems, fanciful lettering, book pages and jewelry, was partly a survival strategy, in a world that no longer wanted the usual acres of religious painting in its churches.

The curatorial goal seems to be: Let the portraits speak for themselves. And, mostly they do. In some cases, Holbein’s portrait is so definitive that no matter how many times we see Thomas More or Thomas Cromwell on stage or screen or in the mind’s eye while reading historical fiction, Holbein’s rendering is our indelible prototype. The exhibition doesn’t include his portrait of Henry VIII at Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum, in which the king’s little eyes and pursed lips suggest a closed loop of cruelty, surveillance and edicts, scrutiny and capricious command. Nor does it include his most famous painting, the double portrait in London’s National Gallery known as “The Ambassadors,” in which two members of a 1533 French embassy stand next to a table laden with objects that suggest territorial, colonial and intellectual rapacity.

But it does include the Frick Collection’s two commanding portraits of More and Cromwell, antagonists in the power struggles of the Tudor court, as well the Uffizi portrait of Richard Southwell and the enigmatic “A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling” from London’s National Gallery. There’s also a magnificent juxtaposition of a sketch from the Royal Collection with a finished portrait of Simon George of Cornwall, which shows both Holbein’s skill at a first, pen-and-ink take on a face, and how everything is softened, smoothed and burnished in the final image. One gets the sense of makeup applied and lights turned on, and suddenly a slightly scruffy and distracted young man has the high-gloss finish of a screen idol. The additions of a flower in his hand, a fuller beard and richly textured fabrics complete the transformation. Simon George, about whom we know little, is ready for battle, armed with charm, poetry and immense self-regard.

Many of the portraits in this exhibition are roughly contemporaneous with those in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512-1570.” Superficially, there are similarities, including the use of props or visual references to suggest a wider sense of character and engagement with learning. Books and letters are a common theme, as are the tools of the trade for other professions or hobbies. Wealth is rendered through clothing, and psychological presence is amplified by painting the face against plain or relatively monochrome backgrounds. Attention to fine detail, things that glisten or shine, and textures, suggests a metaphor both for the prestige of the sitter and the dedication of the painter.

But Holbein’s subjects don’t toy with you and they rarely project the joie de vivre seen in the Italian portraits. Erasmus pretends to write, but he can’t seem to ignore the presence of the viewer’s gaze. He’s too smart, too self-conscious, too familiar with the world to put on a show. In short, Holbein’s subjects can’t act, so we see them in the stolid fullness of their respectability and ambition. This is, of course, a stereotype of Northern Europe, but it’s hard to escape it.

The compensating truth is about fatigue. It’s written on the face of Erasmus, who had every right to be exhausted after his herculean intellectual labors. But it also is in one of the smallest and most intriguing of the portraits, a round, lidded portrait of Philipp Melanchthon, a supporter of Martin Luther and one of the major early figures of the Reformation. He was a homely man, and in ill health, and he is seen modestly dressed in Holbein’s hand-size portrait. But the scale of the image magnifies the intimacy of our access to him and his weariness, as if seen through the wrong end of a telescope, immensely clear but remote. And the sumptuously detailed patterning on the lid offers an abstract metaphor for psychological depth: vines, leaves and tendrils are intertwined, weaving from foreground to background and back again, like thoughts.

There is a motto meticulously rendered on the lid of the portrait case: “Behold Melanchthon’s features, almost as if alive.” This was a standard trope for praising a portrait. But the “almost as if” is telling. A portrait is a confidence game, and some artists are so intent on fooling the viewer that the “almost as if” disappears. Beauty, youth, heightened vivacity or even buffoonery overwhelm us, and the figures do indeed seem alive.

Holbein aimed at an accuracy that includes mortality, and fatigue, and in many cases, it seems also pettiness, cruelty and evil. It was hard and dangerous to rise to a position that made one worthy of a portrait by Holbein. We have nothing to tell us what he thought of these people except the images, and they suggest he knew exactly with whom he was dealing.

Holbein: Capturing Character in the Renaissance is on view at the Getty Center in Los Angeles through Jan. 9. getty.edu. The exhibition will open at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City on Feb. 11. themorgan.org.