Identifying sitters in portraits painted more than 400 years ago is difficult because of the scarcity of records and comparable likenesses. Various candidates have been proposed for the Man in Red’s identity, although there is currently no conclusive answer. Facially he appears to be an adolescent, possibly in his late teens, with a beard just starting to grow.
Evidence from the technical analysis and costume suggests that the painting was produced between c.1530 and c.1550. Assuming the sitter is aged between fifteen and twenty this would put his date of birth between c.1510 and c.1535.
Here are some of the English sitters who have been proposed in inventories and publications since the seventeenth century:
Henry VIII (1491-1547)
A painting described in 1660 as ‘One whole figure of Henry the Eight when he was young of the painting of Holben’ (believed to be Portrait of a Man in Red) was included in a list of pictures for purchase by Charles II from William Frizell.
The young age of the sitter when combined with the date of the clothing rules out this identification.
Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1516-47)
In the 1866 inventory compiled by Richard Redgrave, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, the painting was described as the Earl of Surrey.
A courtier and poet responsible for introducing the sonnet to England, Surrey was a childhood friend of Henry VIII’s son, the Duke of Richmond, but was later executed on charges of treason.
It is not possible to be sure about this identification because the Man in Red is very different from other surviving painted portraits of Henry Howard.
Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset (1519-36)
Henry VIII’s illegitimate son with Elizabeth Blount was raised to the peerage in 1525 and was openly acknowledged by the king. Upon his death in 1536 at the age of seventeen, an inventory of the duke’s clothes included a gown, doublet and hose in crimson satin, and also a doublet and hose in red taffeta.
The miniature here portrays him with similar blue/grey eyes to the Man in Red. The identification remains conjectural because there are no comparable likenesses of the sitter apart from this miniature.
Are you convinced that the Man in Red is one of these figures?
Other suggestions about the sitter include:
- a visiting foreign ambassador at the Tudor court
- the second son of an important nobleman
Who is the Man in Red?
Why was this picture commissioned?
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