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How many faces of Henry VIII’s first queen?

I put together a slideshow in reverse order of supposed portraits of Catherine – old to young – with probable dates of composition in the bottom corners. Interesting …

update: flickr has fluckered – after two years it now refuses the embed. No problem – please click the original flickr page (new window) for what was always a better version of the slideshow.

In the meantime, here’s the best still – the controversial Vienna portrait by Sittow …

from Wikimedia

from Wikimedia

 And here are Catherine’s dates:

  • 1485 – born
  • 1499 – betrothed to Prince Arthur
  • 1501 – married Prince Arthur
  • 1509 – married King Henry
  • 1533 – marriage dissolved
  • 1536 – died

The later three images, from her time as queen, are crude compared to the earlier four. The portraits from 1501 and 1505 are by Michael Sittow, and that from 1496 by Juan de Flandes: both artists collaborated at the Spanish court of Catherine’s mother in the late 15th century.

What about the identification of the subject in that Juan de Flandes portrait from 1496? Try this comparison with another of his portraits:

On the left, the fascinating Joanna of Castile (Joanna the Mad), the most privileged woman of the age. In the middle … her little sister. On the right, the Sittow woman again.

Aren’t the Flandes portraits both of the same subject? The portrait on the left is definitely of the big sister, and there are obvious differences. But the gallery housing the middle portrait does express doubt on identification. I think comparison with the Sittow portraits (the noses!) shows the subject in the middle cannot be Catherine. Superb, but a miss.

Another complication is that Catherine may not be the subject of any of the Sittow portraits. Jeez. Their subjects are probably the same, but there is no certainty about the famous Vienna portrait on the right (with the halo): it was painted in 1503-05, when Sittow may have been in England, but not much more can be said about identification.

[Update: In 1505 Catherine was visited by the ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor, who showed her two pictures of a proposed bride for the widowed Henry VII (CSPS Aug. 1505 #439): “The Princess of Wales was very glad to hear the news ; and the ambassador continued, that he had moreover to settle with the King of England about his marriage with the said Duchess (of Savoy), of whom, he said, he had brought two portraits. The Princess of Wales wished to see them, and the ambassador went to fetch them. One of them was painted on wood, the other on canvas. The Princess was of opinion that Michel would have made better portraits.” Not conclusive, but can Michel be any other than Sittow? And what does that first-name familiarity suggest?]

Maybe the monkey portrait in the slideshow confirms the shape of the Sittow nose. Or perhaps the subject of the 1496 portrait really is Catherine, a girl with slightly less noble features than her sister.

In sum: doubtful of the four superb earlier images, and reasonably certain of the crude portrayals of Catherine in her later years. The contrast between early and late is sharp – a pitiful fall during her life in England.

My view is that all but the 1496 portrait are of the same subject, and that the latest portrait – the round miniature – is of Catherine. Therefore that makes 6 out of 7.

Still a mystery. Sorry about that!

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