Apart from its wonderful technical virtuosity, this tiny portrait is extraordinary in a number of ways. You’d expect a picture of someone, especially a likeness so finely wrought, to present the sitter boldly, even triumphantly. But Jane Small looks far from confident, or even cheerful. Her head is turned away from us, a slight frown drawing her eyebrows down, her mouth clenched in introspective thought.
Quite unexpectedly we’re projected into a private moment in the personal life of an ordinary middle-class woman living in the reign of Henry VIII. Her husband may have commissioned Holbein, a neighbour, to paint her on the occasion of her engagement. She’s not dressed grandly, rather very modestly, with her plain cap and white shawl over an unadorned black dress. There’s some unobtrusive embroidery round the edge of her coif, and an intriguing maze pattern in black on the collar of her undershirt. From this hang threads supporting two ears of corn and a red carnation, which no doubt have symbolic meaning, as presumably does the little blue leaf she’s holding.