Portrait of a Young Woman. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
My first thought when I saw the painting is that it must surely be a portrait of Catherine Howard, the unfortunate fifth wife of Henry VIII. It is listed in the collections of the Met Museum, New York as ‘Portrait of a Young Woman in the style of Hans Holbein the Younger’ but a look through the work’s provenance reveals that I am not the only one to wonder if perhaps this is not just a genuine Holbein but also a painting of the elusive Catherine Howard.
The reasons for this tentative identification are the sitter’s age, which is given as seventeen; the richness of her clothes and her auburn prettiness – all of which would fit with Catherine Howard, who probably didn’t live past her twentieth birthday and was said to be a petite, vivacious, pretty redhead with a fondness for costly, lavish garments.
Fashions didn’t change all that rapidly during the reign of Henry VIII, although one can track small changes in the vogue of the time as it would have been worn by the more fashion conscious young courtiers. The girl in the New York portrait is dressed in a style that would have been popular in the early 1540s – shimmering satin, full sleeves and a prettily decorated French hood, which we know was very much favoured by Catherine Howard, who was executed on the 13th February 1542.
Compare the painting with this well known miniature by Holbein, that has been traditionally been identified as a painting of Catherine:
Catherine Howard? Photo: Royal Collection.
The miniature of Catherine Howard has been identified thanks to the lavish jewels that she wears and which are clearly the same as the ones that appear in the Holbein portrait of Jane Seymour and are known to belong to the personal collection of the Queen of England. As one commenter has pointed out, it is more than a little bit creepy that portraits of Henry’s wives are identified by the jewels that they shared but alas, that’s mostly all that we have got to go on.
Detail from Portrait of a Young Woman. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
In the miniature of Catherine, we have the same clear fondness for gorgeous clothes and jewels, the French hood and a similar auburn prettiness. However, there are differences about the face – a thinner mouth for instance and a rounder face.
Perhaps the miniature is a portrait of Henry’s niece Lady Margaret Douglas, the daughter of his sister Queen Margaret of Scotland. Lady Margaret, who was born in October 1515 lived at the English court and was even romantically involved with Catherine Howard’s half brother, Charles at one point. You can imagine how this went down with her uncle Henry…
There also exists a Holbein sketch that has been very tentatively identified as being of Catherine and which, I think bears even more resemblence to the New York portrait with a similar nose, eyes and arched eyebrows:
Coloured sketch, allegedly of Catherine Howard after Hans Holbein. Photo: National Portrait Gallery.
Of course there are plenty of other young ladies at Henry VIII’s court that this portrait could depict – it may depict one of her two sisters, Margaret or Mary for instance or someone not related to her at all!
It’s all hypothetical of course but I rather like the idea of a new portrait of Catherine Howard coming to light. What do you think? I’ve always thought that miniature portrait, despite the royal fabulousness of the clothes looks too ‘old’ to be pretty Mistress Howard who, if not the idiot that she is popularly portrayed to be (quite the reverse – she was more literate than average for a girl of her age at this time), was a typically flighty and fun loving young girl in her teens.
Portrait formerly identified as Catherine Howard. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, London.
Not to mention this much discussed Holbein portrait, which was always traditionally identified as the unfortunate Catherine until suddenly opinion decided that it was actually a painting of Elizabeth Seymour, Jane’s sister and Thomas Cromwell’s daughter in law. Gosh, they liked to keep things complicated and a bit close knit didn’t they but remember what I said on a recent post about there only being less than a hundred female courtiers at Henry’s court amongst all those men? Lately however, David Starkey has decided that actually this IS a painting of Catherine after all because of, you guessed it, the jewellery that she is wearing.
I really don’t like this attribution though – for a start she looks too old to be warm hearted, jolly teen bride Catherine, who probably didn’t even make it to the twenty one years of age that this lady is. However, I don’t know, do you think there is something a bit whimsical, playful even in her eyes? Am I imagining it? No, I think that I must be. She just looks a trifle smug doesn’t she?
Detail from the portrait formerly identified as Catherine Howard. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, London.
The thing is, can you imagine men dying for a kiss (okay it was a bit more than a kiss but this is a family blog) from those thin coyly smiling lips? Can you imagine an elderly King ‘so amorous of her that he cannot treat her well enough and caresses her more than he did the others’? Even allowing for taste, which in Henry’s case I suspect tended towards the more obviously attractive. Can you imagine the woman in this portrait setting men’s hearts aflame with dangerous and reckless lust?
No, me neither. Sorry Portrait Lady, for all I know you could have had more tricks than the Mata Hari but I’m going to have to disbelieve it on physical evidence alone.
The girl in the first portrait though? Hm, maybe…
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