Portrait of a Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling (1527–28)
by Hans Holbein

Interpretation of English Renaissance Portrait

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Portrait of a Lady with
a Squirrel and a Starling
By Hans Holbein.
Considered to be one of the
greatest portrait paintings
of the 16th century.

Portrait of a Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling (1527–28)


Explanation of Other Portraits by Holbein


Name: Portrait of a Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling (1527–28)
Artist: Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543)
Medium: Oil and tempera panel painting
Genre: Portrait art
Movement: Northern Renaissance art
Location: National Gallery, London

For the interpretation of other celebrated portraits, please see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).

For help in interpreting
paintings by German
artists like Holbein,
please see: Art Evaluation.

Analysis of Portrait of a Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling by Holbein

Hans Holbein the Younger is most famous for being one of the best portrait artists of the German Renaissance, who painted several iconic portraits of King Henry VIII (reigned 1509-47). However - as a result of a thorough training under his father Holbein the Elder, and others, his artistic talent extended to many other areas apart from portraiture, including Protestant Reformation art, graphic illustration and woodcuts. Aware of how painting was developing south of the Alps, he travelled to Italy when he was about 20, studying - amongst other things - the work of Andrea Mantegna (1430-1506) and Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). As a result, his style of painting combines elements of Italian Renaissance art (perspective, sfumato) with late German Gothic art - an important influence here was the devout Mainz religious painter Matthias Grunewald (1470-1528). Born in Augsburg, Holbein moved to Basel which soon came under the sway of Lutheran zealots. In 1526, armed with a letter of introduction to Sir Thomas More from the philosopher Desiderius Erasmus (1469-1536), he journeyed to England in search of work.

On this visit to England (1526-28), during which he worked mostly within the humanist circles around Sir Thomas More, he received no commissions from the king, although but he did paint several highly placed court and religious officials. Surviving pictures from this period include: Portrait of Sir Thomas More (1527, Frick Collection, NYC); Portrait of William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury (1527, Louvre, Paris); as well as portraits of the Bavarian mathematician and tutor to More's family, Nicholas Kratzer (1528, Louvre, Paris); the courtier Sir Henry Guildford (1527, Royal Collection, Windsor Castle), his wife Lady Mary Guildford (1527, Saint Louis Art Museum); and the rich landowner Thomas Godsalve and his son (1528, Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden). These superb character studies were an important influence on a number of English portraitists, notably William Hogarth (1697-1764) and Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88).

One of the most famous portraits produced by Holbein during this period is Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling, who was recently identified as Anne Lovell, the wife of Sir Francis Lovell, attendant to the king. It may conceivably have been one of a pair showing husband and wife. According to Derek Wilson, author of Hans Holbein: Portrait of an Unknown Man (2006), the squirrel formed part of the Lovell family's heraldic coat-of-arms, while the speckle-breasted starling was a pun on the location of the family seat at East Harling, Norfolk. Animals were not uncommonly included in portraits - images of pets, like monkeys, were sometimes added to portraits of women and children, while images of falcons were a popular addition to male portraits.



Here, the sitter's motionless severity is contrasted with the squirrel's animated munching of nuts. Overpainted after the portrait was completed, the bright-eyed squirrel contributes an important message. Its bushy tail is deliberately positioned between the lady's breasts, as a signal of the sitter's discreet sensuality.

At the same time Holbein's painstaking brushwork precisely differentiates between a number of different textures and surfaces, including the starling's feathers, the squirrel's soft fur, the sitter's linen cape, translucent white cambric blouse and ruffled cuff, as well as her sharply drawn features, skin-tone and texture. The evening blue background enhances the warmth of the light which illuminates the sitter.

Note, in particular, Holbein's reproduction of the sitter's luxurious white fur cap (an especially fashionable item of apparel at the time), which is almost identical to the one worn by Margaret Giggs (1508-70) - the adopted daughter of Thomas More - in a portrait study by Holbein, now in the Royal Collection at Windsor. It was this similarity of headgear that (up until recently) mistakenly persuaded art experts that Giggs, not Lovell, was the subject of the picture.

Overall, this picture illustrates many of the features found in Holbein's English portraiture: the contained expression of the sitter; the meticulously rendered details, so characteristic of the work of Northern Renaissance artists; the inclusion of several hidden messages; and a relatively shallow, even flat, background. Like so many other portraits by Holbein - his paintings of Henry VIII are an exception - it is a study in modesty and understatement.

Explanation of Other Portraits by Holbein

Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam (1523)
National Gallery, London.

The Ambassadors (1533)
Double Portrait of Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve
National Gallery, London.

Portrait of Henry VIII (1536)
Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid.

Portrait of the Merchant Georg Gisze (1532)
Gemaldegalerie, SMPK, Berlin.

Portrait of Thomas Cromwell (1532-4)
National Portrait Gallery, London.


• For more outstanding German Renaissance portraits, see: Homepage.

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