Portrait of a Woman

Artist: Nicholas Hilliard (British, Exeter ca. 1547–1619 London)

Date: ca. 1590

Medium: Vellum laid on card

Dimensions: Oval, 1 x 7/8 in. (27 x 22 mm)

Classification: Miniatures

Credit Line: The Friedsam Collection, Bequest of Michael Friedsam, 1931

Accession Number: 32.100.311


The Artist: Nicholas Hilliard, the son of Richard Hilliard, an Exeter goldsmith, made his earliest known miniatures in 1560. He served his apprenticeship as a goldsmith, beginning in 1562 with Robert Brandon, whose daughter Alice he was to marry in 1576. He became free of the Goldsmiths' Company in 1569. According to his treatise, The Arte of Limning, he had trained himself in miniature painting by following Holbein's technique and by copying engravings by Dürer and other masters. Hilliard enjoyed high favor with Elizabeth I (1533–1603) from 1572, but her slowness in making payments led him to work in France from 1576 to 1578/79. On his return he was much employed at the English court in miniature painting and remained the dominant figure in the art until the emergence of his pupil Isaac Oliver (1565?–1617) in the 1590s. Hilliard was court limner to James I (1566–1625) from his accession in 1603; however, the queen, Anne of Denmark, and their son Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, preferred Oliver's more Continental style. Hilliard, who seems to have been notably improvident, died in poverty in January 1619.

The Miniature: This miniature was received in the Metropolitan Museum as a portrait of Elizabeth I (1533–1603) from the school of Nicholas Hilliard. The only comments on this description have been oral ones. In 1972 Erna Auerbach considered it to be of the school of Hilliard but questioned the identification of the sitter; in 1976 Roy Strong concluded that it was a nineteenth-century pastiche; and in 1977 Richard Allen called it school of Hilliard, about 1590, but not by the master himself. The identification of Elizabeth I is inadmissible, and there is as yet no clue to the sitter's name. Although its present condition is far from good, it seems to be an authentic miniature by Nicholas Hilliard, painted with much refinement on the small scale he increasingly used throughout the 1590s.

[2015; adapted from Reynolds and Baetjer 1996]