In 1589, Henry of Navarre ascended to the throne of France, succeeding his distant cousin and brother-in-law, Henry III (1551-1589), as his closest, legitimate heir. Raised a Protestant, the new king was forced to convert to Catholicism by France’s Catholic League, which argued that he would otherwise not be eligible to wear the crown. Despite his unusually tolerant stance on religion within the kingdom, Henry IV’s reign was plagued by widespread religious tensions. In 1598, he passed the Edict of Nantes, guaranteeing religious liberties to Protestants in France, and thereby ending the Wars of Religion which had caused extensive violence and loss of life since the outbreak of hostilities at the Massacre of Vassy on 1 March 1562. Though now seen as a successful and benevolent monarch, Henry remained unpopular with his contemporaries, considered a usurper by the more vehemently Catholic factions of French society and a traitor by many Protestants. As such, he was the target of numerous assassination attempts, culminating in his murder by François Ravaillac in Paris in May 1610.
Having established his reputation as a leading portraitist, first in Brussels at the Habsburg Court and then at the Gonzaga court in Mantua, Frans Pourbus II moved to Paris in 1609 at the instigation of the French queen, Marie de’ Medici (1575-1642). Installed as her court painter, he produced several distinct portrait types of her husband, Henry IV. The first of these, dating to shortly before his assassination, depicted the king, full-length, in armor and was followed by a less martial full-length of the king wearing a black silk doublet and hose (both Musée du Louvre, Paris). This portrait formed the basis for a reduced, bust-length version of the work (Royal Collection, Palace of Holyroodhouse, see below, and the present work). Finally, in 1611, he produced a posthumous three-quarter-length portrait of the king dressed in full royal regalia, a pertinent message of his legitimacy to the detraction of his enemies (Palazzo Pitti, Florence).
In this bust-length likeness, the king is dressed in doublet of black silk, figured with foliate designs. The doublet is fashionably slashed, revealing another layer of black silk beneath. At his neck, Henry wears a closely fitting ruff, and the broad blue ribbon of the chivalric Order of the Saint-Esprit, founded by his predecessor, Henry III, in 1578. The painting is likely to date to very late in the king’s life or shortly after his assassination on 14 May 1610. A similar painting by Pourbus, indistinctly dated '161[...] (sold Sotheby's, Paris, 29-30 September 2015, lot 1), was probably produced under similar circumstances. Pourbus, in his depiction of the king, seems to have deliberately evoked the work of earlier portraitists of the royal French court, most notably those of François Clouet, who worked successively for the courts of Francois I, Henry II and Catherine de’ Medici, Francois II, Charles IX and Henry III. The incisively detailed rendition of the sitter’s features and the careful attention to capturing the luxurious cloth of his doublet in Pourbus’ portrait would have been immediately reminiscent of Clouet’s own scrupulous technique and would have thus served to place Henry IV within the lineage of French monarchs who had preceded him, serving to reinforce his legitimacy despite his accession to the throne from outside the direct line of descent.
The present portrait type is known in another autograph version, now in the Royal Collection, and formerly in the possession of Henry’s daughter, Queen Henrietta Maria (1609-1669). After her death at the Chateau de Colombes, outside Paris, an inventory of her possessions was drawn up for her son, Charles II of England (1630-1685) and Pourbus’ portrait was duly recorded hanging in her bedchamber where it was described as ‘Henry the Great 1610’ (E. Griffey and C. Hibbard, ‘Henrietta Maria’s inventory at Colombes: Courtly magnificence and hidden politics’, Journal of the History of Collections, XXIV, 2012, Appendix: ‘Paintings in Henrietta Maria’s inventory at Colombes - National Archives, SP 78/128’, fol. 192r.). It is possible that the present work, too, may have been commissioned for a member of the royal family in the year of the king’s death, fulfilling a commemorative function.