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About the artwork

The attribution is necessarily cautious. It was sold at Christie’s in 1813, as either by Holbein or by Leonardo. The latter attribution was perhaps suggested by the lady’s smile. When it was sold again, in 1816 from William Roscoe’s collection, Holbein’s name had been taken out of the equation and credit for the work was given to Leonardo alone. In 1836, however, in the catalogue of the Liverpool Royal Institution, it was first attributed to Jean Clouet. Following its arrival in the Walker Art Gallery in 1893 and its formal acquisition in 1948, for a long time cataloguers played safe and vague, identifying it only as ‘French School’, dating it ‘about 1530’, and calling it 'Portrait of Lady with a Parrot'. Recent research has suggested that the 1836 attribution to Clouet may be correct. If so, this is a treasure indeed. Fewer than ten paintings have been indisputably ascribed to him.

There has been almost as much speculation about the identity of the portrait’s subject as about its creator. It is now confidently thought to be Marguerite, sister of Francis I of France and, by 1527, Queen of Navarre. One of the most brilliant women of her age, she encouraged agriculture, learning and the arts and her court was the most intellectual in Europe. She was a sympathiser with Martin Luther, a patron of Rabelais and a prolific writer herself. She was the author of a long devotional poem called 'The Mirror of a Sinner’s Soul', but her most celebrated work was the 'Heptameron', a collection of stories on the theme of love, modelled upon the 'Decameron of Boccaccio'.

The portrait may have been painted in celebration of Marguerite’s betrothal to the King of Navarre. Her costume would suggest this. It is more Spanish in style than French, and at Francis I’s court, only his Spanish-born Queen Eleanor and her Spanish ladies-in-waiting were ever portrayed wearing hats. She wears a cupid in her hat and a prominently displayed ‘betrothal’ ring on her left hand. The presence of the parrot on her right hand is less easy to explain. The parrot is a symbol of eloquence or prophesy. It also signifies virginity, although Marguerite’s marriage to the King of Navarre was in fact her second union. The bird may, alternatively, carry no symbolic weight whatsoever and be just a fashionable pet. Nevertheless, there is reason to suppose that the creature had some personal significance for Marguerite. A partial inventory of her jewellery before her first marriage provides evidence that she possessed at least three enamelled green parrots in gold or silver cages.

Finally, this somewhat incongruous bird may provide incidental evidence, not only of the portrait’s attribution to Jean Clouet, but also to Marguerite of Navarre being its subject. Among the small number of known paintings by this master, there is a portrait of Marguerite’s brother, King Francis I, as John the Baptist. Along with the customary props - of cross and lamb - essential for that role, is an entirely gratuitous parrot.