Although this panel is one of Holbein’s masterpieces, the dignified sitter, dressed in an ermine fur cap and a fine silk shawl, remained unidentified until 2004, when the animals in the portrait were recognized as likely references to the Lovell family. Anne Lovell (née Ashby; d. 1539) was a wealthy English noblewoman whose husband, Sir Francis Lovell, served King Henry VIII. Her pet red squirrel, restrained by a silver chain and nibbling a hazelnut, alludes to the squirrels on the Lovell family crest. The starling on the left is a play on East Harling (commonly spelled as “Estharlyng” in Tudor times), the location of the Lovell estate in Norfolk, England. Technical studies have shown that Holbein added the animals at a late stage in the painting process, very likely at the request of the patrons.
A solemn young woman holds a red squirrel in her hands, while a glossy-feathered starling perches on a branch near her shoulder. Although squirrels and starlings were common pets in England at the time, in this work, they also function as heraldic symbols and provide clues to the identity of the sitter. She is thought to be Anne Lovell—a wealthy and well-connected woman from Norfolk, whose husband Francis served King Henry VIII as an “esquire of the body,” or personal attendant.
Most sixteenth-century portraits of female sitters were originally created as part of a pair, with the woman placed to the viewer’s right side and gazing towards the left, in the direction of her husband. Anne Lovell’s portrait defies this convention, which suggests that it was likely painted as an independent work. The portrait might have been commissioned to celebrate the birth of the couple’s son Thomas in the spring of 1526.
Holbein’s facility with oil paint is evident throughout the portrait. Note, for instance, the dab of white paint that he added to the squirrel’s large dark eye, creating the impression of a bright, glassy surface. While the animal’s loosely painted chain falls through the sitter’s fingers, its fluffy tail reaches toward the opening in the woman’s chemise, resulting in a tactile juxtaposition of fur and flesh.
Some of the changes that Holbein made while painting are visible to the naked eye. You can see that he pulled the woman's hairline back at her temples, revealing more of her forehead. Other alterations are now hidden under layers of paint and can only be observed with the help of x-radiography. We know, for instance, that the artist had to change the position of the sitter’s arms fairly late in the painting process. This was done to accommodate the addition of the squirrel, which was likely requested by the patrons themselves.
© The National Gallery, London