HOLBEIN, Hans the Younger
(b. 1497, Augsburg, d. 1543, London)

Portrait of a Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling

Oil on oak, 54 x 39 cm
National Gallery, London

The portrait of a lady with a squirrel, a speckle-breasted starling perched behind her - perhaps as a pun on her name or a coat-of-arms brought to life - is a wonderfully preserved example of Holbein's art at its most evocative. The picture may have been painted as one of a pair depicting husband and wife. A vague resemblance between this woman and Margaret Giggs, who appears in the sketch of the More family, has often led to her being identified as the adopted daughter of Thomas More. In fact, the shared features are limited mainly to the comparable fur cap, which Margaret wears in an individual study in the royal collection at Windsor. Apparently the headgear corresponded with contemporary English fashion. On stylistic grounds, the picture can be dated to Holbein's first visit to England.

In her warm fur cap the lady seems impassive, her eyes eluding the viewer's glance. Holbein's skill differentiates meticulously between the textures of the white fur, white shawl and the translucent white cambric buttoned at her throat and gathered in a ruffle at her wrist. The squirrel was added later over the sitter's clothes. Her hands, rearranged to support him, are a discordant note: they look masculine, modelled perhaps on those of an assistant in the studio. Yet the bright-eyed animal is essential to our reading of the portrait. His bushy tail, suggestively poised between the lady's gentle swelling breasts, hints at a sensuous nature beneath her reticently monochrome English costume.

This work demonstrates many of the features found in Holbein's work from his first English visit; the thoughtful, reserved expression of the sitter, less direct than in many later works, and the use of plant motifs to animate an otherwise flattened background. The lady's anonymity (she was most probably English and of the More circle, whose members were notably fond of animals) undoubtedly focuses attention on the meaning of the squirrel and starling's presence; these may have been intended as references to her name, or as living tokens of the family coat of arms. It is known that squirrels were often kept as pets at this time, while starlings are biddable companions. After the painting's recent cleaning, the squirrel's gleaming eye and soft fur have revealed Holbein to be as effective an animal painter as his German contemporary Hans Hoffman. Holbein's particular structural skill is evident in the way the squirrel's curling tail echoes the vine stem in the background, itself reminiscent of the Amerbach portrait.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.