Why are we so fascinated to know what a woman who lived centuries ago truly looked like and why this particular woman? In the media, Anne Boleyn has been characterized in three different ways. She has been romanticized and sexualized, she has been portrayed as a cold-hearted witch, and she has been portrayed as a martyr/victim of a tyrannical king. This seems unfair to a real woman who actually lived and had many of the same stresses as we do.
She is so fascinating to us because we all want to know how she kept the rapt attention of Henry VIII for seven long years (without becoming his mistress) in order to achieve marriage and queenship. Henry was so enamored by this woman that the Imperial ambassador in England recorded that “The King cannot leave her for an hour.” Henry was risking excommunication and war for this one woman. In order to marry and have this one woman, Henry VIII split from the Roman Catholic Church (shocking at that time), created the Church of England (with himself as the leader), and dissolved his marriage with the much beloved Queen Katherine of Aragon (their marriage had lasted for 24 years) causing rifts in the kingdom.
You would think that Anne Boleyn must have been a great beauty in order to cause all of this chaos just like the romanticized interpretations have shown; yet, this could also be a myth. According to her contemporaries, she was just average. The Venetian Ambassador at the time recorded that: “Madam Anne is not one of the handsomest women in the world; she is of middling stature, swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, bosom not much raised….” She also had a double nail on one of her fingers. Yet, a majority of contemporaries agreed that her eyes were her defining feature as they were “black and beautiful” and “invited to conversation.” We are so fascinated with the face of Anne Boleyn because we want to see what this woman, who caused all of these major changes in England and who enchanted the King, really looked like. Was she worth it? Clearly, in Henry’s opinion, she wasn’t as she met her fate on the scaffold (as Henry’s first wife to be beheaded) after only three years of an unhappy marriage. This unfortunate end just adds to the public’s fascination with the woman.
There are a few different portraits that are said to depict Anne Boleyn, yet the only portrait that was contemporary was made on a commemorative medal for her coronation and/or her upcoming pregnancy. These would have been passed out to the citizens and it displays her motto “Moost Happi” (though unfortunately that was not the case for Anne). It is heavily damaged due to time or intentionally after Boleyn’s fall. This damage caused the face to be flattened and distorted. Though it is the only confirmed contemporary image of Boleyn, it may not be the most accurate. You also can’t forget that is was created in order to make the people love the new Queen Anne when they still held sympathy for Katherine of Aragon. To the public, Boleyn was viewed as a whore and a witch who had cast her spell on King Henry. This is why it was so important for her to do everything she can to be beloved and to have the son/heir England needed. Since this medal was propaganda this would create other inaccuracies in her image in order to show her as idealized.
Self-fashioning also shows up in two other possible Anne portraits (one housed in the National Gallery and the other at Hever Castle) though they seemed to have been created after her time (could be copies of originals after the destructive fall out resulting after her execution). These portraits are crafting Anne Boleyn’s image the way she wanted to be remembered through time. The possible portraits of Anne Boleyn at the National Portrait Gallery and Hever Castle show her as young, beautiful, and regal (with her fur lined dress, jewels that include her signature B necklace and fashionable headdress for the time). The “black and beautiful” eyes that were Boleyn’s key attribute are highlighted as her gaze is directed toward the audience; she is engaging the audience with her eyes and one can see the calculating intelligence that she had seeping through. This could have been an accurate depiction of Boleyn or it may have been idealized in order to establish her regal power; some attributes match the contemporary descriptions yet some do not.
Yet, there is another portrait that exists that may have been Anne Boleyn (a facial technology test actually found this one to be most accurate to the medallion). The Nidd Hall Portrait (found in a private collection in the Bradford Art Galleries and Museums) displays a different woman from the other portraits mentioned above. This portrait displays an older woman and not quite as beautiful in the face as the previous two portraits. Alison Weir discusses how in this portrait “Anne was no longer the captivating twenty-something who had first caught the King’s eye, but (according to Chapuys [the imperial ambassador]) a ‘thin old woman’ of thirty-five, a description borne out by a portrait of her…at Nidd Hall in Yorkshire.” This portrait may possibly be of Boleyn when she was older, it could be how she accurately looked , or it could have been purposely (either by the artist or who even commissioned the work) made less ideal. Boleyn was often vilified or made to look bad by her many enemies to support their case that she was a witch because they disliked how she caused King Henry VIII to break with Rome and put aside his lawful wife. But, some believe that this portrait is actually a depiction of Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, with the AB brooch being painted on later when Anne Boleyn became popular again during Elizabeth’s reign. We do not have enough evidence to know for sure.
In this debate there is an overlooked image that I personally believe could be the most accurate portrayal of the doomed queen. There is a sketch created by Hans Holbein the Younger (court painter for Henry VIII) who was well known for the accuracy in which he depicted his subjects. Holbein portrayed the personality and soul of the sitter. An Anne Boleyn sketch by Holbein should be considered as one of the most accurate depictions of the Queen. The sketch does not depict a beautiful woman; yet, she matches the contemporary descriptions of Anne Boleyn. The woman in the sketch is dressed in a high necked, furred night chemise, and nightgown, showing a woman as she’s preparing for bed. This may seem inappropriate for a woman at this time, but in reality “only a woman of the highest rank could have taken such liberty in court circles”. This drawing even includes a swelled chin on the female figure and the high necked gown would be used to attempt to conceal this. Contemporary accounts of Anne (such as on her coronation day) have made note of a swelling or cyst that she had on her chin and this Holbein sketch includes that fact in this portrait. The accuracy towards contemporary descriptions of the Queen and the reputation of Hans Holbein the Younger points to the fact that this sketch may actually be the most accurate depiction of Anne Boleyn, and not the other portraits.
Which do you believe is the true face of Anne Boleyn?
How is art important to the study of history? What can it tell about an individual?
This is adapted from a project done a few years ago in one of my art history courses.
Sources: Rowlands, John, and David Starkey. “An Old Tradition Reasserted: Holbein’s Portrait of Queen Anne Boleyn”. The Burlington Magazine Vol 125 No 959 (1983): 88-92. Accessed 4/2/15. http://www.jstor.org/stable/881170.
Spender, Anna. “The Many Faces of Anne Boleyn”. Hever Castle Ltd. February 2015. Accessed 4/2/15. http://gio6v3sgme0lorck1bp74b12.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/The-many-faces-of-Anne-Boleyn-UPDATED.pdf.
Weir, Alison. The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn. New York: Ballantine Books, 2010.
“Art Research Effort Aided by Face Recognition”. BBC News. June 6, 2013. Accessed 4/2/15. http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-22764822.