New Research Raises Questions About the Subject of a Celebrated Hans Holbein Miniature Portrait

Claire Selvin


May 3, 2021 12:46pm

Hans Holbein's 'Portrait of a Lady,
Hans Holbein’s Portrait of a Lady, perhaps Catherine Howard, ca. 1540.WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Experts may be one step closer to verifying the identity of a woman in a celebrated Hans Holbein portrait that is part of the British Royal Collection. Historians had previously thought that the work, painted sometime around 1540, depicted Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard. But, according to a report by the Guardian, the painting may represent a different one of his spouses—Anne of Cleves, the Tudor king’s fourth wife.

Research by the art historian Franny Moyle has revealed the similarities between the face of the woman depicted and other accounts of Anne of Cleves. Moyle has drawn connections between the woman shown in this miniature portrait to a 1539 portrait of Anne of Cleves in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. She also points to Holbein’s decision to put the portrait on the four of diamonds playing card as another possible indication that Anne of Cleves is indeed the subject of the work.

“These little miniatures were mounted on playing cards,” Moyle told the Guardian. “Holbein didn’t do anything without meaning something.”

The marriage between Anne of Cleves and Henry VIII lasted just six months before it was annulled. The king subsequently married Catherine Howard in 1540. Because their union and the creation of the miniature portrait align, scholars believed that it depicted Catherine.

Any portraits of Catherine were likely destroyed after she was executed for adultery in 1541, so there’s little existing material that could reveal what she really looked like. It is known, however, that Catherine was married to Henry VIII as a teenager and she died at age 18 or 19.

“This portrait doesn’t look like a child bride,” Moyle told the Guardian of the Holbein miniature.


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