Lady Lee, born Margaret Wyatt, grew up in a family closely connected to the court of Henry VIII. Her father, Henry Wyatt, served as treasurer of the king’s chamber, and her brother, Thomas, was the foremost Tudor poet and an ambassador. She is shown here at the age of thirty-four, sumptuously dressed in the courtly fashion of the early 1540s. The painting is close to the manner of Holbein, but the attention paid to decorative effects and linear details at the expense of life-like portrayal of the sitter is indicative of workshop production. The portrait was likely based on a Holbein drawing.
This painting was first exhibited, simply as Portrait of a Lady, in 1907 at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Lionel Cust (1909) subsequently established the relationship between the portrait and a version belonging to the Viscount Dillon at Ditchley, Oxfordshire. A late sixteenth-century copy, the Dillon portrait is inscribed on the verso "Lady Lee, mother of Sir H. Lee, K.G." This identification of the sitter as Lady Margaret Lee, born Margaret Wyatt, is strengthened by the fact that the Dillon family was a branch of the Lees and claimed her as their ancestor. Furthermore, Margaret Wyatt was at Henry VIII’s court; her sister, Mary Wyatt, attended Ann Boleyn at the scaffold. Margaret was married to Sir Anthony Lee, M.P., and bore him nine children. Unfortunately, little else can be discovered about her, her husband, or their family life. Nothing further can therefore be suggested concerning the meaning of the prominently displayed pendant of the Roman heroine Lucretia, other than that Lady Lee hoped to present herself as a virtuous woman.
Holbein was acquainted with the sitter’s father, for it was Henry Wyatt, in his role as treasurer, who paid the artist for design work for the Greenwich revels. Holbein also painted Henry’s portrait in about 1535 (Musée du Louvre, Paris) and carried out other commissions for various members of the family. However, the question of his authorship of the MMA portrait has persisted since Roger Fry first cast doubt on it in 1909. While Fry acknowledged that the work was painted in Holbein’s manner, he rightly noted the extraordinary attention paid to decorative effects and linear details at the expense of the sense of life that regularly imbues the sitter’s expression in the autograph paintings. The concentration here on ornament and line also produces a planar effect that shows little of Holbein’s customary attention to spatial depth and volume. Thomas Holman furthermore noted that the hands and arms are not well proportioned and that the pendant is awkwardly inserted. He even wondered whether the costume could be a pastiche based on those in other Holbein portraits. Perhaps most disturbing is the distinctly pinkish flesh tone, which is uncharacteristic of Holbein and probably resulted from a different understanding of the way in which he attained the extraordinarily luminous, pearly flesh tones of his portraits.
Nonetheless, the high quality of the work has produced its defenders, among them Martin Conway (1909) and Paul Ganz (1912). When acquired by Altman in 1912, the picture was praised as an admirable example of Holbein’s work and heralded as "perhaps the best known and most popular of Holbein’s portraits in America." More recently, with renewed scrutiny of its technique and execution, the painting has come to be regarded as a copy by a talented follower of the artist. Roy Strong (1985) identified two portraits sharing certain characteristics with the Museum’s painting: the Portrait of an Unknown Lady from the Fitzwilliam Family (Fitzwilliam Collection, Milton Hall, Cambridgeshire) and the Unknown Lady formerly identified as Catherine Howard (Toledo Museum of Art), both dated to the 1540s. Strong (2006) now considers the MMA portrait an early version of a lost original and dates it about 1542–43. Such a dating would correspond with the style of the costume, especially the type of French hood, which was apparently introduced by Catherine Howard in 1540 as a replacement for a more angular version. A date in the early 1540s would place the portrait at the end of Holbein’s life. Given the fact that the underdrawing indicates dependence on a preexisting, same-scale pattern or drawing—which was exactly the practice Holbein employed at the court of Henry VIII—the painter of this work may have belonged to the workshop of the master.
[2013; adapted from Ainsworth 2013]
The support is a single piece of English oak with the grain oriented vertically. It has been trimmed on all sides and cradled. Dendrochronological analysis suggested an earliest possible fabrication date of 1515.
The painting is in fairly good condition, although there are repairs concealing numerous pinpoint losses, particularly noticeable in the face and hands. At some point after the completion of the work, a strip of warm ocher paint, .79 centimeters wide, was applied around the perimeter, skirting the pendant.
The panel was prepared with a white ground and a thin, pale pink priming containing a vivid orange-red pigment. The priming contributes to the distinctly rosy cast of the painting.
The gold inscription and decorations, characteristic of oil gilding, are well preserved. X-radiography (see Additional Images, fig. 1) revealed that the cream-colored mordant contains lead white. Infrared reflectography (see Additional Images, figs. 2–3) showed an underdrawing, deriving from a tracing and executed in a liquid medium, that includes basic contours such as the facial features, hairline, hands, and cuffs of the shirt. In a few areas (along the edges of the hairline and the jawline, for example), the black underdrawing can be seen through the paint layers and in the losses. The painted frill of the right cuff deviates noticeably from that in the underdrawing, although both are in the same fashion of dress. The thumb of the left hand was lengthened when painted. The line of the drawn necklace lies slightly lower on the neck than its painted counterpart.
The flesh is a striking pink, produced by a mixture using abundant opaque red pigment that is visible with magnification. A narrow passage of the original paint, extending from the bridge of the nose to the chin, is virtually free of cracks and corresponds to a high radio-opaque area in the x-radiograph.
The background is painted with two layers of a thick, opaque blue composed of smalt mixed with a small amount of lead white that displays the finest crack pattern in the painting and, in raking light, is higher in plane than the figure.
The dress was essentially painted in two stages. An underpainting with a somewhat modulated pinkish brown was followed by finishing layers executed wet in wet with a range of rich orangey browns, modified with black to create the elaborate damask pattern. Interlayer cleavage has resulted in numerous small losses in the top layer. The red petticoat was painted with an opaque orange-red underlayer, glazed with a red lake; this area is damaged and has been restored.
Palmer family; Major Charles Palmer, Dorney Court, Windsor (by 1907–12; sold to Gimpel & Wildenstein); [Gimpel & Wildenstein, Paris and New York, 1912; sold for $220,000 to Altman]; Benjamin Altman, New York (1912–d. 1913)
London. Royal Academy of Arts. "Winter Exhibition," January 7–March 16, 1907, no. 13 (as "Portrait of a Lady," by Hans Holbein, lent by Major Charles Palmer).
London. Burlington Fine Arts Club. "Early English Portraiture," 1909, no. 64 (as "Margaret Wyat, Lady Lee (?)," by Holbein, lent by Major Charles Palmer).
THIS WORK MAY NOT BE LENT, BY TERMS OF ITS ACQUISITION BY THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART.
[Lionel Cust]. Exhibition Illustrative of Early English Portraiture. Exh. cat., Burlington Fine Arts Club. London, 1909, p. 101, no. 64, pl. 22, notes that a larger version of this portrait with Viscount Dillon at Ditchley, Oxfordshire, was published in "'Catalogue of Pictures at Ditchley,' 1908, no. 32, where the subject is identified as Margaret, daughter of Sir Henry Wyat[t] and wife of Sir Anthony Lee.
Roger E. Fry. "Early English Portraiture at the Burlington Fine Arts Club." Burlington Magazine 15 (May 1909), pp. 74–75, notes that opinion about this picture is divided; finds it "entirely in Holbein's manner" and thinks it must derive from one of his drawings; believes it will ultimately be rejected as autograph, but notes that "no other known imitator comes as near to Holbein himself as does the author of this".
Mary F. S. Hervey. "Notes on Some Portraits of Tudor Times." Burlington Magazine 15 (June 1909), p. 151, ill. opp. p. 135 (frontispiece), notes that "whether or not this small picture is to be assigned wholly to the brush of Hans Holbein—it displays unusual redness of tone, and seems to miss something of the supreme distinction of the master—it is without doubt one of the gems of the exhibition"; in a footnote the editor adds: "if we do not accept the attribution to Holbein, we must apparently presume the existence of some other remarkable master, of whom no precisely similar example is known".
Martin Conway. "Notes on Various Works of Art: Portraits of the Wyat Family." Burlington Magazine 16 (December 1909), p. 159, notes that this portrait appears to him "to be obviously and all over Holbein, but that was not the universal opinion" at the 1909 exhibition.
F. "Aus der Sammlerwelt und vom Kunsthandel: New-York." Der Cicerone 4 (1912), p. 339, asserts that this picture, bought by Altman, was the first Holbein in America.
Paul Ganz. Hans Holbein d. J.: Des Meisters Gemälde. Stuttgart, 1912, p. 245, ill. p. 143, illustrates it as "An English Lady, probably Margaret Wyat[t], Lady Lee"; attributes it to Holbein and dates it about 1540; observes that the sitter is dressed in the French fashion and that a similar enamelled rose is worn by Lady Butts in Holbein's portrait of about the same date [Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston].
"Holbein Portrait Sold." American Art News 10 (April 13, 1912), p. 1, ill. p. 7, as sold by Gimpel & Wildenstein to Altman.
"The Benjamin Altman Bequest." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 8 (November 1913), p. 237.
Arthur B. Chamberlain. Hans Holbein the Younger. London, 1913, vol. 2, pp. 82–83, 348, pl. 15, notes that the picture is now identified with some degree of certainty as Margaraet Wyatt, Lady Lee, the elder sister of Sir Thomas Wyatt, on the grounds that the Ditchley version has long been so identified by family tradition; remarks that the gold tags decorating Lady Lee's dress are very similar to those on the surcoat of Sir Thomas Wyatt in a portrait by Lucas Cornelisz.; describes the rose as red enamel and identifies the subject of the medallion as Lucretia; finds it difficult to arrive at a definitive conclusion about the attribution.
Handbook of the Benjamin Altman Collection. New York, 1914, pp. 52–55, ill.
Kenyon Cox. "Workmanship." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 12 (July 1917), p. 148, ill. p. 151.
François Monod. "La galerie Altman au Metropolitan Museum de New-York (1er article)." Gazette des beaux-arts, 5th ser., 8 (September–October 1923), p. 198.
H. A. Schmid inAllgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Hans Vollmer. Vol. 17, Leipzig, 1924, p. 352, mentions it with Holbein's undated portraits of the 1540s.
Malcolm Vaughan. "Holbein Portraits in America—Part II." International Studio 88 (December 1927), p. 68, ill. p. 63, describes it as "perhaps [the] best known and most popular of Holbein's portraits in America" and notes that "controversy once raged round the picture until Dr. Ganz [Ref. 1912] declared it genuine and dated it 1540".
Handbook of the Benjamin Altman Collection. 2nd ed. New York, 1928, pp. 28–30, no. 6, pl. 6, attributes it to Holbein, dating it about 1539, and mentions that the identification of the subject is tentative; notes that according to Palmer family archives, this picture was in their possession from the time of Charles I.
Wilhelm Stein. Holbein. Berlin, 1929, pp. 300, 302, dates this picture and the Vienna portrait to the time of Catherine Howard (1540–42).
Mary Evans. Costume Throughout the Ages. Philadelphia, 1930, ill. p. 137, describes the "V-shape neckline and small collar" as worn in the time of Queen Mary.
Charles L. Kuhn. A Catalogue of German Paintings of the Middle Ages and Renaissance in American Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1936, p. 83, no. 374, pl. 79, catalogues it as a Holbein of about 1540.
Emil Waldmann. "Deutsche Kunst in amerikanischen Museen." Der Türmer: Deutsche Monatshefte 39 (January 1937), ill. p. 303.
Katherine Morris Lester and Bess Viola Oerke. An Illustrated History of Those Frills and Furbelows of Fashion Which Have Come to be Known as Accessories of Dress. Peoria, Ill., 1940, p. 24, pl. VII [reprinted as "Accessories of Dress: An Illustrated Encyclopedia," Mineola, N.Y., 2004].
Duveen Pictures in Public Collections of America. New York, 1941, unpaginated, no. 223, ill., as a Holbein of about 1539; erroneously includes Captain H. R. Moseley in the provenance [this must come from a footnote to another portrait in Ref. Monod 1923; furthermore, there is no evidence that our picture passed through Duveen].
Heinrich Alfred Schmid. Hans Holbein der Jüngere: Sein Aufstieg zur Meisterschaft und sein englischer Stil. Tafelband, Basel, 1945, p. 35, no. 114, ill., as "Margaret Wyatt, Lady Lee (?)," a work from Holbein's last years.
Josephine L. Allen. "A Portrait by Holbein." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 3 (March 1945), pp. 161–62, ill. (in color on cover), reproduces Holbein's drawing of Sir Thomas Wyatt, elder brother of Lady Lee, in the Royal Library, Windsor, and comments on the resemblance to our sitter; notes that Margaret could have been 34 in 1539.
Harry B. Wehle and Margaretta Salinger. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Early Flemish, Dutch and German Paintings. New York, 1947, pp. 219–20, ill., as by Holbein; note that the identification as Lady Lee rests on the traditional identification of the larger replica in the collection of Viscount Dillon, a descendant of the sitter.
Millia Davenport. The Book of Costume. New York, 1948, vol. 1, p. 428, no. 1144, ill. (cropped), notes that Lady Lee wears a variation of the French hood, which had reached England about 1515.
Heinrich Alfred Schmid. Hans Holbein der Jüngere: Sein Aufstieg zur Meisterschaft und sein englischer Stil. Vol. 1–2, Basel, 1948, vol. 2, pp. 364, 366, 378, 385, 389.
Julius S. Held. "Book Reviews: Harry B. Wehle and Margaretta M. Salinger . . ., 1947." Art Bulletin 31 (June 1949), p. 140, notes that the medallion held by the sitter, depicting the Death of Lucretia, could not be made out in the reproduction and was not mentioned in the text.
Paul Ganz. The Paintings of Hans Holbein. London, 1950, p. 253, no. 112, pl. 151, as by Holbein.
Gert von der Osten and Horst Vey. Painting and Sculpture in Germany and the Netherlands 1500 to 1600. Baltimore, 1969, p. 230, as by Holbein.
Calvin Tomkins. Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1970, p. 171 [rev., enl. ed., 1989].
Hans Werner Grohn inL'opera pittorica completa di Holbein il Giovane. Milan, 1971, p. 107, no. 124, ill. p. 107 and colorpl. 53, as generally accepted as the work of Holbein.
Gert von der Osten. Deutsche und niederländische Kunst der Reformationszeit. Cologne, 1973, p. 250, mentions this portrait, that of the Sieur de Morette of 1535 (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden), and The Falconer of 1542 (Mauritshuis, The Hague), as examples of the increasing importance of the frame in controlling the composition, and a tendency toward greater stiffness in the figures.
Philip Hendy. European and American Paintings in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Boston, 1974, p. 124, as by Holbein; notes that the "pink flower, probably the handicraft of a German enameller" that appears in the portrait of Lady Butts (Gardner Museum) also appears in our portrait of Lady Lee.
David Schaff. "The Manchester Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger." Art International 23 (May 1979), pp. 51–52, observes that the medallion held in the present picture by Lady Lee and that worn by an unknown lady in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, are almost identical in design and technique to the cap badge in the Duke of Manchester's portrait of Henry VIII (ill. p. 44).
John Fletcher. Memorandum to John Pope-Hennessy. January 13, 1982, notes that the tree ring evidence he obtained for this picture in 1976 makes it very unlikely to be much, if any, later than Lady Butts [Gardner Museum, Boston], also measured in 1976, and that "the panel resembles that of Lady Butts in several ways, sufficiently to indicate it came from the same 'stable' about the same time"; sees "every reason to support your view that it is a painting by Holbein" painted between 1540 and his death.
Roy Strong inThe Treasure Houses of Britain: Five Hundred Years of Private Patronage and Art Collecting. Ed. Gervase Jackson-Stops. Exh. cat., National Gallery of Art. Washington, 1985, p. 85, notes that the "Portrait of an Unknown Lady of the Fitzwilliam Family," which he tentatively attributes to John Bettes I, "derives directly, in formula and treatment" from Holbein's later court portraits, such as the MMA portrait of Lady Lee, and the portrait of an Unknown Lady in the Toledo Museum of Art; remarks that these pictures are all "about half life-size and the sitter is depicted half-length, with her hands clasped at the waist," that they are "executed in the same highly linear way in which form is suggested by the confining lines of the composition," and that they have "the same raised blue background"; dates the Fitzwilliam portrait to the first half of the 1450s.
John Rowlands. Holbein: The Paintings of Hans Holbein the Younger. Oxford, 1985, pp. 120, 236–37, no. R. 39, pl. 247, calls our picture the work of an able follower of Holbein, and the larger version at Ditchley a much inferior work probably painted towards the end of the sixteenth century; asserts that the latter was sold at the Ditchley sale, Sotheby's, 1933, and then returned to Ditchley when it was bequeathed to the Ditchley Foundation in 1977.
Maryan Ainsworth. "'Paternes for phiosioneamyes': Holbein's Portraiture Reconsidered." Burlington Magazine 132 (March 1990), p. 185, as "from the putative workshop of Holbein"; notes that this portrait, that of John Godsalve in the Philadelpia Museum of Art, and the MMA Unknown Lady [Style of Holbein, 29.7.30] have "mechanical-looking underdrawings in the contours of the face, and more lively, free-hand brushstrokes for the underdrawing elsewhere, particularly in the hands".
Paul Mitchell and Lynn Roberts. Frameworks: Form, Function & Ornament in European Portrait Frames. London, 1996, pp. 81, 84, colorpl. 50 (in frame), describe the frame.
Meryle Secrest. Duveen: A Life in Art. New York, 2004, p. 448, erroneously includes Captain H. R. Moseley in the provenance [see Ref. Duveen 1941] and remarks that "the painting is now considered to be a competent copy by a follower of Holbein".
Peter Klein. Letter to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. May 3, 2006, provides an earliest felling date of 1608, an earliest creation date for the painting of 1610 upwards, and, after seasoning, a plausible creation date of 1620 upwards.
Roy Strong. "In Search of Holbein's Thomas Wyatt the Younger." Apollo 163 (March 2006), p. 51, fig. 14 (color), suggests adding this portrait to evidence of Holbein's relationship with the Wyatt family, but notes that it may be "as in so many other instances . . . an early version of a picture that is now lost"; illustrates it as "after Holbein, c. 1542–43".
Maryan W. Ainsworth inGerman Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1350–1600. New Haven, 2013, pp. 152–55, 305–6, no. 36, ill. (color) and figs. 129–29 (infrared reflectogram details).