Finger painting

In portraits of Richard III, Elizabeth of York, Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, they seem to be playing with the extended little finger of the right hand. What is the significance of this?

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In the early 16th century, gestures such as this became common in northern European portraiture, primarily for compositional purposes. There are numerous head-and-shoulders portraits that depict sitters with their elbows bent and their hands in the centre of their bodies, designed to ‘close off’ the space at the bottom of the painting. Hands were important to the Tudors and this convention enabled the artist to bring them into the space.

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Hand gestures were also used as a way of drawing attention to a symbolic object. In the portraits in which the sitters are seemingly playing with their little finger, they are, in fact, placing a ring on it (or removing one), as in paintings of Edward IV, Richard III and a portrait of Henry VIII from c1520 at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG). Rings were used to symbolise the wealth, status and rank of a sitter, as well as marriage, mortality, cultural interests and religious or political allegiances.

The significance of the rings in the portraits of Richard III and Henry VIII is not clear. They may represent their marriages, especially if the paintings were originally intended to hang alongside portraits of their wives – as is likely in the case of Henry VIII. Alternatively, it has been suggested that the rings refer to their acceptance of the authority of kingship or the action of bequeathing authority to another.

Rings were sometimes exchanged as a token of loyalty, and the gesture may represent the owner’s allegiance to the king. The NPG portrait of Elizabeth of York uses a similar gesture to draw attention to the white rose she is holding. This symbolises the House of York, while the ring on the little finger of her right hand symbolises her position as queen.

There are some portraits in which the little finger is extended but there is no ring, such as the portrait of Catherine of Aragon at the NPG. Instead, Catherine holds a few sprigs of greenery in her right hand and draws her empty left hand towards her extended little finger. This brings her two hands together for the purposes of the composition, but it is also a conventional hand position that can be seen elsewhere in portraiture from this period.

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Answered by: Catherine Daunt