This apparently unpublished work was attributed to Sigismund Holbein - Hans Holbein the Elder's brother who died in 1540 - when in the Rothschild collection. But no works by this shadowy figure are known.
An attribution to Ambrosius Benson has been advanced, but has not gained wide acceptance by outside experts who have been consulted. Dr. Lorne Campbell has kindly suggested Michiel Coxcie (1499-1592) as a possible author, on the basis chiefly of a comparison with the Christina of Denmark at Oberlin, dated 1545. Others in the field have not been able to confirm this or to suggest an alternative attribution; a proposal of Hans Eworth, for instance, has been rejected. Eworth was listed as as freeman in the Antwerp guild of Saint Luke in 1540, but no works by him are known till his activity some years later in England (see R. Strong, The Tudor and Stuart Monarchy, Pageantry, Painting, Iconography, I. Tudor, 1995, p. 101).
The power and magic of the present work, to be dated on grounds of costume to the 1540s or circa 1550, are undeniable, and the attribution to Benson retains considerable merit, even if his oeuvre in this respect remains to a degree uncharted, and the quality of execution of the present portrait appears higher than paintings normally associated with him.
The most recent account of his life is that given by Dominique Marechal in the exhibition catalogue Bruges and the Renaissance Memling to Pourbus, M.P.J. Martens, ed., Bruges, 1998, pp. 142-3. She refers to documents concerning the artist's legacy that mention at least three portraits among them 'a person from Lille' and 'a person from St. Omer'. Dominque Marechal concludes 'obviously Benson's action radius as a portraitist extended far beyond Bruges and its Spanish residents'. A further record of 1559, indeed, refers to 'the portrait of a Spaniard' by Benson, so it is evident that Benson remained active in this field until the end of his life. Marechal refers to the Portrait of a Man of 1546 (G. Marlier, Ambrosius Benson et la Peinture à Bruges au Temps de Charles-Quint, 1957, pl. LXXVI, right), and judging from the reproduction the handling seems not unlike that in the present picture, even granted the more powerful impact of the latter.
As unusual as the squirrel in the Portrait of a Woman by Hans Holbein the Younger in the National Gallery, or the ermine in Leonardo's Portrait of a Lady, in the Czartoryski Museum, Cracow, is the cat held by the sitter in the present work. The cat - unlike the dog - rarely features as an iconographic emblem, and Professor Elizabeth McGrath thinks it may here be a pun on, or allusion to, either the sitter's Christian or surname (a cat features prominently in the coats-of-arms in Micault/Van Welle-Cats triptych of 1548 by Vermeyen in the Musées des Beaux-Arts, Brussels). It is also possible that the cat refers to the country whence the sitter came, for Cesare Ripa albeit later in the century wrote that 'Il gatto ama molto la Libertà, & perciò gl'antichi Alani, Borgognoni & i Suevi secondo ches criue Metodico lo portauono nelle loro insegne dimostrando che come detto animale non può comportate d'essere riseruato nell'altrui forza, cosi loro erano impatientissimi di servitù' (see Iconologia ... da Cesare Ripa, 1603, ed., p. 293). Professor McGrath points to two earlier portraits of women with a cat: one by Francesco Ubertini, il Bacchiacca, sold, Christie's, New York, 12 January 1996, lot 187, the other by Hans von Kulmbach in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (see K. Baetjer, European Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art ... A Summary Catalogue, II, 1980, New York, p. 300). Otto Naumann has kindly pointed out that an etching of 1546, known by only one impression, by Vermeyen, depicts a woman holding a cat (see H.J. Horn, Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen, Doornspÿk, 1989, I, p. 34, and II, pl. A89.