Portrait of a Woman

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

Date: 1597

Medium: Vellum

Dimensions: Oval, 1 7/8 x 1 1/2 in. (47 x 39 mm)

Classification: Miniatures

Credit Line: Fletcher Fund, 1935

Accession Number: 35.89.2


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: According to Williamson, this miniature was once thought to be a portrait of Elizabeth I, although the sitter bears no resemblance to the queen. In his catalogue of the J. Pierpont Morgan collection (1906) he described it, on the basis of works in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris (Fonds Ste.-Geneviève, no. 89), and the Musée Condé, Chantilly, as a portrait of Charlotte Catherine de la Trémoïlle (born about 1565, died 1629), who in 1586 married Henry I de Bourbon (1552–1588), prince of Condé. In his article in Connoisseur of the same year (1906) Williamson reproduced it as a portrait of Gabrielle d'Estrées (born about 1571, died 1599), who from 1591 until her death was the favorite of Henry IV.

These hypothetical identifications are based on the belief that the sitter's features are French in type. However, the only visit that Hilliard paid to France was from 1576 until 1578/79 (Mary Edmond, Hilliard and Oliver, [London, 1983], pp. 59–69), and there is every reason to suppose that he was in England in 1597, the date inscribed in his characteristic calligraphy on this miniature. Although no acceptable identification has so far been proposed, this is evidently a portrait of a lady at the Elizabethan court, comparable in style with Mrs. Holland, Aged 26 in 1593 in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (no. P.134-1910).

[2015; adapted from Reynolds and Baetjer 1996]