Frans Pourbus the Younger was born into a family of artists, with his father Frans the Elder and grandfather, Peter, both widely respected portraitists. He was made a master in the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke in 1591 and moved to Brussels several years later, entering the service of the Archdukes Albert and Isabella at court. In 1600 Pourbus traveled to Mantua in the employ of Vincenzo Gonzaga I, 4th Duke of Mantua, who had appointed him chief portrait painter. In 1609 Pourbus moved to Paris, summoned by Marie de'Medici, the sister of Eleanora Gonzaga, wife of King Henry IV, and subject of the present jewel-like portrait miniature.
Pourbus painted a number of portraits of the Queen, both full-length and in miniature, during his tenure in Paris, which lasted from 1609 until his death in 1622. The present version relates most closely to a full-length portrait formerly in the Rothan Collection, Paris (present location unknown). Ludwig Burchard suggested that both were executed during the artist's first visit to Paris, in August and September of 1606, when he was called upon to record the French Royal Family at the baptism of the Dauphin. Marie would have been 34 at the time and Queen for six years; four years later, when her husband was assassinated, she was named Regent for her son, Louis XIII.
Marie, though entirely lacking in political acumen and ultimately a weak ruler, was an enthusiastic and devoted patron of the arts. In addition to Pourbus, she employed Sir Peter Paul Rubens, from whom she commissioned an extensive decorative cycle glorifying herself and her husband (Louvre, Paris). An oil sketch for one of these grand compositions, The Marriage by Proxy of Marie de'Medici and King Henry IV of France, was sold at Christie's in London in 1994 (£1,600,000=$2,498,050).
The present portrait is characteristic of Pourbus' finest work and sits within the late Mannerist tradition of rigid poses and extremely fine surface decoration. From his father and grandfather he inherited an incredibly ornate, decorative style, and the ability to depict the various textures of skin, hair, fabric, lace and pearl with admirable precision.