Here is an arresting image: a solemn woman sits with a red squirrel in her lap and a glossy-feathered starling at her shoulder. The painting, known today as ‘Portrait of a Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling’, was created in the late 1520s by the German painter, Hans Holbein the Younger.
The sitter is thought to be Anne Lovell, a wealthy woman whose husband, Sir Francis Lovell, held the title of ‘esquire of the body’ to Henry VIII, King of England (a type of personal assistant to the king).
A masterful depiction
Although the clothing betrays the wealth of the sitter, it remains simple. She wears a white cap made of dense fur, a fine white linen chemise and a thick folded shawl. Each item is made of a different material, carefully observed by Holbein.
The half-length view (typical of Holbein’s portraits of English sitters), creates an intimate depiction which forces the viewer to engage with the details of her clothing, facial features and varying textures – the silky plumage of the bird at her shoulder, the softness of the fur cap, the cool metal links of the squirrel’s chain.
Holbein’s use of colour is restrained but impactful. The plain blue background (made up of azurite, a natural mineral pigment mixed with white), contrasts with her monochrome clothing. This coloration is subtly observed within decisive contours to emphasise a three dimensionality. The white fabrics appear grey in shadows, giving a sense of depth which emphasises the striking geometry of the cap and the curve of the shawl.
Identifying the sitter
It is thought that Anne was painted first and the animals added later. A squirrel was a common pet in the 16th century. In his other portraits of women and children, Holbein includes pet animals such as a monkey and a marmoset, and in portraits of men he depicts the falcons used in hunting.
In this image, however, the animals have also acted as clues to identify the sitter as Anne Lovell. The portrait was probably commissioned to commemorate Sir Francis’ inheritance of an estate from his uncle, Sir Thomas Lovell, in 1524. The starling is thought to be a rhyming pun, as the estate was in East Harling (commonly spelt as “Estharlyng” in Tudor times). Furthermore, the squirrel may be a reference to the heraldry of the Lovell family, appearing in stained glass and on family tombs.
Hans Holbein the Younger
Hans Holbein the Younger was one of the most accomplished portraitists of the 16th century. He first travelled to England in 1526 under the recommendation of the scholar Erasmus to Thomas More. He spent two periods of his life in England (1526-8 and 1532-43), portraying the nobility of the Tudor court and creating the iconic images of King Henry VIII. The image of Anne Lovell was created during his first visit.
Holbein’s process began with creating a drawing (or several drawings) from life, of the sitter’s head and shoulders. This outline was then transferred onto an oak panel – a piece of paper covered in charcoal was placed face down onto the panel. The original sketch was placed over the top, and pressure applied on the outlines which would transfer the contours onto the panel below, in charcoal.
With these guiding lines of the head and shoulders, Holbein would begin to paint in oils. The hands and clothing were probably added later, and not necessarily drawn directly from the sitter.
A lasting legacy
The portrait was at Houghton Hall in Norfolk from 1761 until it was purchased by London’s National Gallery in 1992, with contributions from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Art Fund and Mr J. Paul Getty Jnr (through the American Friends of the National Gallery, London). It remains on display in Room 27 alongside other Holbein masterpieces such as ‘The Ambassadors’ and ‘Christina of Denmark’.
This image has long been considered a Holbein masterpiece. The use of strong contours and striking colours created a memorable image, while the accuracy and close observation of textures and materials gave a lifelikeness which stunned the Tudor court, and still captivates visitors today.