See the Portrait That Made Henry VIII Fall in Love With Anne of Cleves, Newly Restored to Its Former Glory

The Louvre cleaned and conserved Hans Holbein’s 1539 likeness of the Tudor queen, revealing its vibrant colors and previously hidden details

Hans Holbein the Younger's 1539 portrait of Anne of Cleves before (left) and after (right) conservation
Hans Holbein the Younger's 1539 portrait of Anne of Cleves before (left) and after (right) conservation © 2023 RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre museum) / Adrien Didierjean

For the first time in nearly 400 years, the public can see Anne of Cleves as Henry VIII first saw her: resplendent in red velvet against a brilliant blue backdrop, her hazel eyes framed by a sheer linen cap and a gem-adorned headdress.

Long masked by layers of grime, these vivid features—newly revealed by conservators at the Louvre—illuminate the persuasive power of art: The Tudor king agreed to marry Anne after viewing this painting by Hans Holbein the Younger. The decision famously backfired, with Henry finding the woman who arrived in England one year later, in 1540, less enchanting than she’d appeared. “I like her not! I like her not!” Henry supposedly declared after meeting Anne for the first time. Nevertheless, they married (his fourth, her first). Six months later, the couple’s union ended in an annulment.

The Holbein portrait has been housed at the Louvre since the Paris museum’s opening in 1793. Though scholars have previously studied the work, discovering such details as a dotted underdrawing in Anne’s bodice, the recent conservation and cleaning is the first major undertaking of its kind in the painting’s history. What the researchers have found unveils a master at work.

“It just shows that Holbein really was amongst the leading portrait painters of his era,” writes art historian Adam Busiakiewicz in a blog post. “The face, coloring and details are just otherworldly.”

Prior to conservation, the portrait had a comparatively muted appearance. Its background looked more green than blue, and the rich red of Anne’s gown had faded to a dull reddish brown.

As Heather R. Darsie, author of Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s Beloved Sister, writes for On the Tudor Trail, the painting was “dark, shadowy.” Now, however, viewers can gain “a full sense of how colorful early modern portraiture was, not to mention how lovely [Anne] appeared.”

Historian Owen Emmerson echoes this sentiment in a video posted on X (formerly known as Twitter), saying, “This stunning work allows us to see how vibrant and colorful the mid-16th century really could be.”

Holbein painted Anne’s portrait as part of Henry’s search for a new wife. Following the death of his third wife, Jane Seymour, in 1537, the king sought a consort abroad, sending Holbein, his court painter, to capture likenesses of his prospective brides. One European noblewoman, Christina of Denmark, caught Henry’s eye, but she refused to marry a monarch who’d ordered the execution of his second wife, Anne Boleyn. In response to Henry’s marriage proposal, Christina reportedly remarked, “If I had two heads, one should be at the king of England’s disposal.”

Beauty mark on Anne's face
A beauty mark on Anne's face may now be visible. © 2023 RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre museum) / Adrien Didierjean

Anne and her sister Amalia emerged as alternative candidates put forward by Henry’s top adviser, Thomas Cromwell, who hoped to form an alliance with the Protestant Duchy of Cleves. Cromwell was quick to sing Anne’s praises, telling the king that “every man praiseth the beauty of the same lady as well for the face as for the whole body.”

After seeing Holbein’s portrait of Anne, Henry agreed, taking delight in “the pretty, doll-like face that looked back at him, with its fair hair, delicate eyes, mouth and chin, and demure, maidenly expression,” writes historian Tracy Borman in Elizabeth’s Women: Friends, Rivals and Foes Who Shaped the Virgin Queen. The freshly cleaned painting supports this description, presenting Anne as a striking “natural beauty,” according to Darsie. “She may have even had a beauty mark by the left corner of her mouth, judging by the faint dot that one sees there.”

Holbein’s portraits are renowned for their verisimilitude, but in Anne’s case, the painter may have flattered his sitter. When Henry met Anne for the first time in January 1540, he was shocked to find that she was “tall, big-boned and strong-featured,” per Borman. Though the king went through with the marriage to preserve political relations with Cleves and other Protestant kingdoms, he soon found a way to dissolve the union, claiming it remained unconsummated six months in.

What Happened to Henry VIII's Six Wives?

Now single, Henry was free to marry his vivacious young mistress, Catherine Howard. Anne, meanwhile, received a generous settlement for her compliance. Designated as the king’s “beloved sister,” she appeared at court regularly, maintaining a friendship with Henry until his death in 1547. Anne, in turn, outlived Henry’s other five wives, dying during the reign of her stepdaughter Mary I in 1557.

“[Anne] did get pushed to the side in a rather unceremonious way, but she had a pretty good life,” historian Jessica Storoschuk told Smithsonian magazine in 2021. “She was given several properties. She gambled a lot. She got to go hunting, [and] she had the best clothes and the best food.”

The Louvre did not respond to a request for more information about the conservation project, but you can view close-up images of the portrait on the museum’s website.

Detail of the newly conserved portrait
Detail of the newly conserved portrait © 2023 RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre museum) / Adrien Didierjean

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.