This portrait was published as the work of Rubens by Justus Müller Hofstede in the Gonzaga exhibition catalogue, cited above; he dated it to the artist's earliest activity in Mantua, where he would have established himself in the service of Duke Vincenzo I Gonzaga in the second half of 1600.
Rubens's first signed, extant painting is the Portrait of a Man of 1597 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (fig. 1), and while no other certain portrait executed before his journey to Italy has come down to us, it is likely that the duke expected his young painter to act chiefly as a portraitist while in his service. He had also employed the slightly older Fleming, Frans Pourbus II, who followed Rubens to Mantua, for this purpose. Probably it was in this role that Rubens executed the thumbnail, profile portrayal of Maria de' Medici whom he would have been able to observe while he attended her proxy wedding to Henri IV of France on 5 October 1600 in Florence (J. Rowlands, Rubens Drawings and Sketches, British Museum, 1977, no. 12). The sketch may have been executed with a portrait in oils in mind.
Raffaella Morselli (Il fior delle pitture...dei primi Pittori del Mondo, in the Gonzaga catalogue as cited above, p. 79) has stated that one of Pourbus's duties was to carry forward the duke's plan of creating a room of portraits of the world's most beautiful women, and it is likely that the same was early required of Rubens. In the ducal letter of 5th March 1603, informing the Gonzaga agent in Spain of Rubens's appointment as courier of gifts to Philip III and his valido, the duke of Lerma, it was added that as 'Pietro Paolo riesce assai bene nelle pitture di rittrati', it was hoped he would portray 'Dame di qualità' on his trip (Correspondance de Rubens etc, ed. Ch. Ruelens I, 1887, p. 81).
It is noteworthy that hitherto the earliest generally accepted portrait of a young woman by Rubens has been that of Margherita Gonzaga, the daughter of duke Vincenzo who appeared in the great Vincenzo I Gonzaga and his Family adoring the Holy Trinity (Mantua, Palazzo Ducale) of 1604/5 (fig. 2; M. Jaffé, Rubens Catalogo Completo, 1989, no. 41F). Prominent too in the group is her mother, the duchess Eleonora. And it is here proposed that the present picture, while probably not intended as part of the ducal plan for a room of portraits is one such hitherto elusive example of Rubens's style as portraitist when first in the service of the Gonzaga.
While the elaborate wire supported lace collar and the hair style are typically north Italian of circa 1600, it has to be said that the attribution is proposed solely on the basis of sensibility. A near copy in miniature in the Uffizi is actually attributed on an old label to 'Purbus giovane' (fig. 3) and the prototype indeed gives a Pourbus-like impression. This can be explained by Rubens early adapting himself to the manner of the elder portraitist, of which the duke approved, and whose influence is still apparent in the slightly later Portrait of Ferdinando Gonzaga, no. 6 of the Gonzaga exhibition of 2002. As Müller Hofstede pointed out, the present portrait is distinguished from Pourbus's style by the greater vitality of expression, the striking colour of the skin tone and the plastic rendering of the features.
In a lengthy entry on the portrait in the Semenzato sale catalogue of 27 November 2007 (from which sale the picture was withdrawn), Silvia Meloni Trkulja argued that the sitter was not Maria de' Medici but Margherita Gonzaga (1564-1618) who had returned to Mantua following the death of her husband, Alfonso d'Este, duke of Ferrara, in 1597. This charismatic personality early played a prominent role in Mantuan affairs though still recently widowed, a fact indicated here - if the sitter is correctly identified - by the absence of a display of expensive jewellery. Frances Huemer, following Ludwig Burchard, identified Margherita as the sitter in a portrait then in a private collection in Zurich (F. Huemer, Portraits I, Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, Part XIX, 1977, no. 16). In this portrait, the style of the collar seems later while the sitter wears a decorative jewelled costume, although in 1603 Margherita retired to the convent of St Ursula that she had founded.
Müller Hofstede in an entry following that of Trkulja, supported her proposal. He believes that the painting should be identified with one of the three portraits of the sitter listed without attribution in the Gonzaga inventories of 1626-27, and most likely with that describing the sitter as a widow, which was the property of duke Vincenzo II Gonzaga.