Lot 5
  • 5

Jan Sanders van Hemessen

400,000 - 600,000 GBP
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  • Jan Sanders van Hemessen
  • Portrait of Elisabet, court fool of Anne of Hungary
  • oil on oak panel


Possibly Anne of Hungary (1503–1547);

Richard Hart Davis MP (1766–1842);

By whom sold ('The Genuine Property of A Gentleman of Fortune, and Member of Parliament'), London, Peter Coxe & Co., 1 June 1814, lot 5 (as Quintin Matsis, 'An Old Lady...'), for £11.0s.6d., to Rutley;

With John Lewis Rutley (c. 1776–1839);

to Atkinson Francis Gibson (1763–1829), husband of Elizabeth Wyatt (d. 1820);

By descent to their son Francis Gibson (1805–1858), Saffron Walden;

By descent to his daughter Elizabeth Pease Gibson (1830–1870), who in 1858 married Lewis Fry MP (1832–1921); 

Purchased in 1922 by Lewis G. Fry (1860–1933), for £400;

Thence by family descent.


London, Royal Academy of Art, Exhibition of Works by the Old Masters... Winter Exhibition, 1882, no. 212 (as Lucas Cranach, 'An Old Lady');

London, Burlington Fine Arts Club, Exhibition of Early German Art, 1906, no. 44 (as School of Cranach [?], 'Portrait of an Old Woman');

London, Grafton Galleries, Old Masters, 1911, no. 91 (as German school, 'An Old Woman');

United States of America, January 1980.


A Descriptive Catalogue of a small Collection of Pictures at Saffron Walden, 1858, p. 3, no. 7 (as Unknown, Portrait in a conical cap and singular dress);

Fry manuscript catalogue, n.d., Goldney House, Clifton Hill, p. 5, no. 17 (as attributed to Lucas Kranach [sic], Portrait of an Old Lady);

L. Campbell, National Gallery Catalogues. The Sixteenth Century Netherlandish Paintings with French Paintings before 1600, London 2014, p. 460, under Massys An Old Woman ('The Ugly Duchess'), and p. 463, n. 57 (as attributed to Quinten Matsis in 1814).1


The following condition report is provided by Sarah Walden who is an external specialist and not an employee of Sotheby's:Jan Sanders van Hemessen. Portrait of a Woman, possibly a Procuress. This painting is on a panel, possibly oak. This has apparently been thinned slightly in the recent past, with small supports in place of cross bars. There is one original joint, running through the right shoulder, and various old cracks including one running half way down slightly to the right of the joint, one running down through the left side of the face, with another near the left side. These all appear to be stable. The restoration is quite recent, with careful detail in the retouching of the crack crossing the intricacies of the wrinkled cheek. One or two other small retouchings on the face have been touched in on the forehead and by the nostril. Elsewhere throughout the fine description of the jewellery and the minutiae of the tiny curls of the hair, the original is beautifully preserved, as is the drapery generally, with a hint of possible underlying changes in the bodice, and some old retouchings within the green pigment. The background appears to have been in an impermanent deep brown pigment, fairly long since deteriorated. However the depiction of this clearly curiously astute personality is remarkably well preserved. This report was not done under laboratory conditions.
"This lot is offered for sale subject to Sotheby's Conditions of Business, which are available on request and printed in Sotheby's sale catalogues. The independent reports contained in this document are provided for prospective bidders' information only and without warranty by Sotheby's or the Seller."

Catalogue Note

This intriguing and highly unusual sixteenth-century portrait probably represents a woman named Elisabet, who was a fool employed by Anne of Hungary (1503–1547), wife of Ferdinand I (1503–1564), Archduke of Austria and later Holy Roman Emperor. The painting has been in Britain since the early nineteenth century, when it was described as a work by Quinten Massys (1465/66–1530) in a sale catalogue of 1814 and later attributed to Lucas Cranach (1472–1553).

The carefully delineated features of the woman and her facial idiosyncracies – such as her deep-set eyes, pronounced cheekbones and high forehead – are strong indications that this is a portrait of a particular person rather than a generic type. The sitter wears a gown with slashed sleeves of vivid green, intersected with wide yellow bands, over a white shift. The material of the band around the neckline is differentiated from that of the yellow bands and imitates gold brocade, its edge catching the light. On her head, over a caul or snood, she wears a pointed hat that matches the design and colours of her gown. The gold macramé caul, with its knotted loops of gold thread that form a cross pattern, is rendered with the utmost care; minute stray curls stand out against the portrait’s dark background. The most unusual element of her dress is the abundance of rings tied to a lace that rests on her collar. Overall the portrait creates the impression that her dress is anything but ordinary.2

A possible connection between this portrait and a little portrait of a court fool referred to as ‘Foolish Elss’ (‘Die blöde Elss’) now in the collection of the Münzkabinett at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, was first noted by Erwin Pokorny (fig. 1).3 The portrait, which comes from the collection of Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol (1529–1595), son of Ferdinand I and Anne of Hungary, was formerly at Schloß Ambras, Innsbruck. It is inscribed to the left of the sitter’s head: ELISABET / STVLTA and is described in some detail by Friedrich Kenner, who wrote about the portrait collection of Archduke Ferdinand of Tyrol in an article of 1894.4 The portrait of ‘Foolish Elss’ is one of several listed in a section on portraits of giants, dwarfs and court jesters.

A comparison between the two portraits strongly suggests they depict the same sitter. Setting aside the obvious disparity between the two in terms of quality – one is a weak copy of a portrait painted from memory,5 while this is a study from life – the two likenesses share a number of similarities. The sitter in the Ambras portrait wears a similarly outlandish gown of yellow-striped design. More telling is the attribute of rings strung on a lace that is common to both. Kenner describes Elisabet as wearing nine rings with green and yellow stones on a dark lace. This way of wearing rings as a necklace seems to be a unique hallmark of this sitter as no other instances have been found.6 The sitters’ facial features are also comparable taking into account that the Ambras portrait shows Elisabet at more advanced age than in this portrait (in the former her hair is white). The traits that recur in both include the wide brow, the rounded tip of the nose, the folds between the nose and lips, the pronounced chin and the contour of the jaw that has slackened over time. The folds at the root of the nose and wrinkles across the nose (‘bunny lines’) are a particularly distinctive feature of both.7

Ferdinand of Tyrol’s sister Anna (1528–90), who in 1546 married Albrecht V, Duke of Bavaria (1528–1579), is likely also to have owned a portrait of Elss, small in format like the one belonging to her brother at Ambras. Kenner suggested that perhaps Elss, who was in the service of their mother, may have played some significant part in both Ferdinand and Anna’s childhood recollections. The version owned by Anna is listed in the ducal art collections in Munich in 1598.8 Possibly the original for these paintings was a painting by Jacob Seisenegger (1505–1567), who in 1531 became court painter to their father Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor from 1558. From about 1535 Seisenegger was based in Vienna in the service of the court. He is recorded in an autograph document as having painted a picture of Elisabet in Prague from memory, for which he sought payment between 1535 and 1540.9 It is not known why he painted ‘Elsz’ from memory; it may be that she was no longer alive at this point.10 Her birth and death dates are not known, nor is her place of birth. So to summarize, of the three documented portraits of this sitter, two are lost (the one recorded in the 1598 Munich inventory and the one painted by Seisenegger in Prague) and one is a poor copy of a lost original (Ambras). This portrait of the female jester known as ‘Foolish Elss’ is therefore significant.

This portrait gives a vivid sense of Elisabet’s physical traits and perhaps – given her amused expression – some hint of her nature. The presence of a letter in her hand indicates she can probably read. On the basis of the sitter’s appearance it was suggested that she might be from the far north of Europe, a Lapp or Sami.11 No references to Sami people going to the Low Countries or Germany in the mid-sixteenth century have yet been found. Others have suggested that she may be German, Bohemian or Hungarian. If it were indeed the case that the sitter were from a foreign land, it would reflect the interest in foreign people, places and artefacts best expressed in the words written and the images drawn by Albrecht Dürer during his journey to the Netherlands in 1520–21. There, as well as seeing the wondrous objects made by the ingenuity of people from Asia and the New World, he encountered elaborately dressed women from Livonia, which he depicted in several watercolour studies all now at the Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Infra-red reflectography carried out on the panel has revealed confident and free underdrawing, with numerous revisions, particularly in the hands and face (fig. 2). In sketching out the clothing, the drawing is executed broadly, probably with a brush; finer lines are used to plan the hands and face. The area of greatest change concerns the neckline, in particular the positioning of the rings along the lace. While some were painted out (their trace is still visible), others are hidden by layers of paint. The IRR shows that originally the artist planned for the rings to be spaced at more regular intervals along the neckline. The artist also painted what appears to be a crucifix hanging from one of two chains and later changed his mind about including it. The line of the caul near the hairline was altered; also the volume of the hat has been reduced. Tree-ring analysis of the panel conducted by Ian Tyers in December 2016, has established that the panel comprises two vertical oak boards sourced from different trees from the eastern Baltic and that the date of the last ring is 1507.

Although tantalizingly little is known of the portrait’s vicissitudes after it was painted – perhaps at the behest of Anna of Austria – its later history is well documented. It has been possible to reconstruct much of the more recent provenance of the painting thanks to the work of Lorne Campbell. In Britain by the early nineteenth century – and maybe before then – the portrait belonged to Richard Hart Davis (1766–1842). Hart Davis, a prominent wool merchant and M.P. for Bristol, and owner of homes in Bristol and London, is said by Farington to have amassed a huge fortune.12 His picture collection was built up at huge expense and is said to have cost him the immense sum of £100,000. His sale of Dutch and Flemish Old Masters took place on 1 June 1814. His reasons for selling probably reflected a change in his collecting habits and a growing interest in modern pictures. Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830), with whom he was on friendly terms, painted his portrait in 1815 and Hart Davis commissioned other family portraits from him.13 His sale comprised 42 cabinet pictures, including the present painting, which was described in the unusually elaborate sale catalogue as: ‘Quintin Matsis, An Old Lady with a Letter in her Hand and Rings on her Finger. – Her Head Dress and Drapery of singular costume, forcibly painted; and a strong proof of his energy of pencilling and colour’. Almost every lot was sold and the prices were substantial. The picture was bought for the comparatively modest sum of £11.0s.6d. by John Lewis Rutley (c. 1776–1839), whose career as an art dealer flourished rapidly from his beginnings as a salesman and fruiterer at Covent Garden. He is recorded buying actively at picture sales. It is not known precisely when he sold the picture to Atkinson Francis Gibson (1763–1829) but by 1858 the picture is recorded in the collection of Francis Gibson (1805–1858) at Saffron Walden. Gibson owned a number of significant paintings that passed to his daughter Elizabeth on his death, which occurred the same year as her marriage to Lewis Fry MP (1832–1921). Listed in the descriptive catalogue of the collection at Saffron Walden, the portrait is described as ‘Unknown, Portrait in a conical cap and singular dress’.

By 1882, when the portrait was exhibited at the Royal Academy, the attribution of the picture had shifted and it was thought to be by Lucas Cranach. The description in the catalogue noted the fantastical costume: ‘Small-sized bust of an old woman seen in front, full face, fantastically dressed, and wearing a conical hat; in her r. hand she holds a paper; dark background. Panel 19 by 16 1/2  in.’ The most detailed description, which also gives an indication of the colours altered by discoloured varnish as they appeared in the early twentieth century, is given in the catalogue of the exhibition held at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in 1906: ‘Half length, to front, the head turned a little to the left, the left hand resting on the right wrist; in the right hand is a sheet of paper. The costume is dark brown, with conspicuous stripes of yellow; it is completed by a high conical cap of the same colours. The sitter wears a number of rings strung on a cord, which passes round her collar; two single rings, then two and three together, and lastly a single one again. The dark background contains no signature or date. Panel 19 1/4  by 15 3/4  in.’. By this date the attribution of the work had been demoted to a doubtful ‘School of Cranach (?)’, presumably not helped by the appearance of the picture’s yellowed surface.

A number of important paintings inherited from the Gibsons of Saffron Walden were in Elizabeth and Lewis’ possession. Of these the greatest masterpiece of Gibson’s collection was Vermeer’s Girl interrupted at her Music, now in the Frick Collection, New York. Another painting from their collection, Lucas van Leyden’s portrait of A Man aged 38, was presented to the National Gallery in 1921 by Lewis Fry’s children in memory of their father.14 This portrait was purchased from the estate by his eldest son Lewis (1860–1933), who bequeathed it to the National Gallery. Uncertainty over the attribution persisted and in 1934 the decision was taken by the Trustees to decline it.15 

The attribution of this singular work has been a subject of study and consideration since it was first recorded two centuries ago (see Provenance). Although at the end of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century – as is evident from its exhibition history – the portrait was regarded as a German work (at best by Lucas Cranach), more recent discussion has turned back to the name associated with the picture’s earliest mention when it was believed to be by Quinten Massys. Massys’ interest in representing elderly people as well as monstrosities is well-known and is best reflected in his painting commonly referred to as ‘The Ugly Duchess’, at the National Gallery, London.16 The latter portrait does not constitute an isolated instance of depictions of the old and the ugly in Massys’ work. In Lorne Campell’s catalogue of the collection of sixteenth century Netherlandish paintings, under the entry for Massys’ portrait, he cites several seventeenth-century sources that indicate Massys’ interest in the grotesque.17 While Lorne Campbell does not think that the Fry picture is by Massys, in his opinion it is a painting of high quality that merits close scrutiny; and he is inclined to see it as Netherlandish rather than German.

A plausible alternative might be that it is by an artist with a close working knowledge of Quentin Massys. Several scholars have noted the portrait’s quality, among them Andrew John Martin, who agrees that Quinten Massys is the right direction to follow and suggests the painter of this portrait may be a German who had visited the Netherlands. Till-Holger Borchert also regards it as Netherlandish, particularly with regard to the modelling. However, the most convincing attribution that has been put forward is that the portrait is by the young Jan Sanders van Hemessen (c. 1504–1556), who in his early years was heavily influenced by Massys. This attribution was first proposed by Maryan Ainsworth, based on first-hand inspection, who dates the work to circa 1525. Larry Silver agrees that this is more likely Hemessen, especially in such features as the hands, though he notes that the meticulous execution, especially of the skin, differs somewhat from Hemessen’s other – admittedly rare – attributed portraits,18 concluding that here the work is ‘still considerably under the spell of Massys, especially the London Old Woman’.19

No references to Elisabet have yet been discovered in the published documentation on the Habsburgs. This singular portrait done from life is the only painting of a female jester to have come to light but as Erwin Pokorny has pointed out, undoubtedly ‘Foolish Elss’ and others – such as Jane Fool at the court of Henry VIII – were not the only female jesters in history. According to Erwin Pokorny, whose current research is on early representations of magicians and conjurers, jugglers were jesters as well, like Will Sommers at Henry VIII’s court. Female jesters like ‘Elisabet stulta’ might also have been conjurers. This may explain the strange symbols on the costume in the Ambras portrait.20 Perhaps the rings too – so distinctive a feature of this painting – were related to some kind of magic trick.

1. Brief mention of the portrait is made by Lorne Campbell, with reference to the painting's ownership history and attribution to 'Quinten Matsis', and its more recent history. We are most grateful to him for allowing us to consult his file on this painting and for discussing his research with us. 

2. On the basis of the costume Larry Silver suggested that she could be a court fool; written communication, 31 January 2017. We are grateful to him for his comments on the painting. Neither the headgear nor the costume corresponds with anything in E. Tietze-Conrat, Dwarfs and jesters in art, New York 1957, or in more recent studies on dress such as the work of Ulinka Rublack.

3. We are grateful to Erwin Pokorny for his insights in recent written communication, 5 and 20 May 2017, and to Lorne Campbell for drawing our attention to Erwin Pokorny’s work. The medium and dimensions of the Ambras portrait now in Vienna (GG 5424) are as follows: paper laid on panel, 13.6 x 9.8 cm. 

4. F. Kenner, ‘Die Porträtsammlung des Erzherzogs Ferdinand von Tirol’, Jahrbuch der kunsthistorischen Sammlungen des Allerhöchsten Kaiserhauses, vol. 15, 1894, p. 256.

5. Described in Kenner 1894, p. 256 as: ‘etwas unbeholfene rohe Malerei’.

6. Erwin Pokorny has suggested that the style of wearing rings on a necklace may be gypsy-like or it may refer to a conjuring trick such as 'fast and loose' practised by gypsies.

7. This detail was noted by Erwin Pokorny on recent first-hand inspection of the Ambras portrait at the Kunsthistorisches Museum. He suggests that the court painter Jacob Seisenegger remembered this characteristic trait when he painted the portrait of ‘Els’ (see below) and that the Ambras portrait replicates it.

8. Fickler Inventar Nr. 3375. The portrait is listed in ‘Die Bildnisse der herzoglich bayrischen Kunstkammer in München nach dem Fickler’schen Inventar von 1598’, Sitzungsberichte der philiosophisch-philiologischen und historischen Classe der königl. Bayrischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, I, 1893; also see W. Sauerländer (ed.) Die Münchner Kunstkammer, vol. 2, Munich 2008, p. 1051, no. 3375: ‘Eines einfeltigen Weibsbildts Contrafeht, welche Els gehaiβen, so bei des Römischen Königs Ferdinand Gemahl gewesen’.

9. For a list of works completed by the court painter Jacob Seisenegger from 1535 to 1545 by order of King Ferdinand I, see F. Kreyczi, 'Urkunden und Regesten aus dem K. u. k. Reichs-Finanz-Archiv', Jahrbuch der kunsthistorischen Sammlungen des Allerhöchsten Kaiserhauses, V, 1887, part ii, p. XLV, under no. 4120 (1545, before 29 October): 'Item zu Prag hab ich di kgl. maj., auch seiner maj. gemahel auf zwo tafel conterfet und auswendig irer maj. nerrin die Elsz auch conterfet; dafür 40 gulden'.

10. I. Roitner, in Biografia, Lexikon Österreichischer Frauen, vol. 1, I. Korotin (ed.), Vienna–Cologne–Weimar 2016, p. 701.

11. Lorne Campbell, in written communication with the owner, 9 July 2012.

12. J. Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, K. Garlick and A. Macintyre (eds), New Haven and London 1978–98, vol. XII, 1983, p. 4279 (7 January 1813); vol. X, 1982, p. 3676 (27 June 1810).

13. Oil on canvas, 76.2 x 63.5 cm. K. Garlick, Sir Thomas Lawrence, A complete catalogue of the oil paintings, Oxford 1989, no. 391, reproduced in black and white on p. 206.

14. NG 3604. Presented in memory of Lewis Fry (1832–1921) by his children, through the National Art Collections Fund, in 1921.

15. Kenneth Clark, demonstrating a limited understanding of northern techniques of painting, is recorded as follows: ‘The Director said that the picture was certainly not by Cranach and to judge from the handling of the paint was probably a late sixteenth or early seventeenth Century copy of an earlier original in the manner of Dürer.’ National Gallery, London, Board Minutes, vol. 11, p. 102, 13 February 1934.

16. An Old Woman (NG 5769); oil on oak panel, 64.2 x 45.5 cm.; L. Campbell, National Gallery Catalogues. The Sixteenth Century Netherlandish Paintings with French Paintings before 1600, London 2014, pp. 446–463, reproduced in colour on p. 447.

17. See Campbell 2014, p. 460.

18. M.J. Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Painting, Leiden and Brussels 1975, vol. XII, pp. 44–52, pp. 109–225, plates 98–121; and B. Wallen, ‘The Portraits of Jan Sanders van Hemessen’, in Oud Holland, vol. LXXXVI, 1971, pp. 70–87.

19. Written communication, 30 January 2017.

20. Kenner 1894, p. 256.