One of only two signed paintings by François Clouet, A Lady in Her Bath is a work of superb quality and a monument in the history of sixteenth-century French painting. Although the artist’s signature was noted as early as 1874, the attribution to Clouet was challenged briefly in 1904 when Henri Bouchot cataloged the painting as possibly by François Quesnel (French, 1543 - 1619). Since then, Clouet’s authorship has been virtually undoubted.
In the foreground of the painting, framed by two swags of red drapery, a woman is seated in a bathtub. She is naked except for her jewelry and what is apparently a bathing cap made of what appears to be velvet and a sheer white fabric edged in gold. She holds a dianthus, or pink, in her right hand. The bathtub is lined with a white cloth, and at the left a board, also covered with a white cloth, supports a bowl of fruit. Around the foot of the bowl are scattered herbs, fruit, and flowers. In the shallow middle ground a young boy reaches for the fruit in the bowl, and at the left a woman nurses an infant in swaddling clothes. Her ruddy complexion and coarse, animated features are in vivid contrast to the ivory skin and cool, idealized beauty of the woman in the tub.
In the background a female servant holding a large pitcher stands in front of a roaring fire, and one can imagine that her job is to provide a supply of hot water for the bath. Interestingly, her pose echoes that of the nursemaid. A landscape painting is set into the mantel of the fireplace, but only the lower left corner is visible. Behind and to the left of the servant is a chair whose back bears the embroidered image of a unicorn sitting underneath a tree. A framed mirror hangs above the chair. The window at the far left opens onto a tree set against the sky.
The limited number of pictures, almost all portraits, that can be given securely to Clouet makes it difficult to establish a cogent sense of stylistic development for his oeuvre. A Lady in Her Bath has, with a few exceptions, been placed either in the 1550s or around 1571. The identification of the sitter has been a determining factor for date, especially by those who see her as Diane de Poitiers (1499–1566), duchesse de Valentinois and mistress of Henri II. Setting identification aside for the moment, and considering style and, to an extent, fashion, a good case may be made for a date around 1571, as Louis Dimier first proposed in 1904 and in 1925. Perhaps the strongest comparison is with Clouet’s portrait of Elizabeth of Austria (1554–1592) (Paris, Musée du Louvre), which is datable on the basis of the preparatory drawing (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale), inscribed 1571 on the reverse. The silken, almost translucent modeling of skin tones, especially evident in Elizabeth’s hands, finds a counterpart in A Lady in Her Bath, as does the fluent, meticulous description of fabrics and jewels. The hairstyles of both women are virtually identical, but without knowing how long this style was fashionable it is hard to gauge its importance as an indicator of date.
Comparisons with Clouet’s paintings from the 1550s and 1560s are neither convincing nor particularly instructive. For example, in the portrait of Pierre Quthe (1599–c. 1588) (Paris, Musée du Louvre), dated 1562, the striking flashes of highlights on the drapery swag at the left create a surface effect akin to metallic foil or cellophane, very different from the subtler textures of the draperies in the National Gallery of Art panel.
As to the possible identity of the sitter, the three candidates most often proposed are Diane de Poitiers, Mary Stuart (1542–1587), and Marie Touchet (1549–1638). Traditionally the woman in the tub has been identified as Diane de Poitiers. The source of this identification seems to be Georges Guiffrey’s publication of 1866 in which he describes and discusses a painting in the Musée de Versailles by Henri Lehmann (1814–1882), then called “after Primaticcio,” but in fact a copy after the Gallery’s picture. Guiffrey suggested that the sitter was not Gabrielle d’Estrées but Diane de Poitiers and that the two children depicted were those of Henri II, who would have been guarded and educated by the royal mistress. In the earliest known publication of A Lady in Her Bath, the sales catalog of 1874, the sitter is identified as Diane de Poitiers, and the Gallery retained this appellation with implied doubt until 1999.
Most who identify the sitter as Diane de Poitiers also accept a date sometime in the 1550s for the painting or place it before Henri II’s death in 1559. The infant in swaddling was thus identified with Henri’s son, Charles, the future Charles IX, born in 1550, while the older boy could represent the dauphin François, born in 1544. The identification strained the bounds of credibility for some critics who, while acknowledging that Diane was renowned for her nearly ageless beauty, pointed out that in 1550 she would have been about fifty-one years old.
Because of her power, influence, and patronage of the arts there are numerous works that purport to represent Diane de Poitiers, but most are either allegorical or unverified. Portrait drawings would, however, seem to give the most direct, accurate evidence of her appearance. Sometimes attributed to Clouet, a drawing (Chantilly, Musée Condé) inscribed “La Duchesse de Valentinois” is usually dated around 1550. A second drawing, also in Chantilly and inscribed “La gran senechalle,” is generally accepted as a depiction of Diane around 1535. Comparing these faces with that of the woman in the Gallery’s painting, one does not recognize the distinctive aspects of Diane de Poitiers’s physiognomy, but instead one is struck by the high degree to which the woman’s face is idealized.
There are other reasons for eliminating Diane de Poitiers as a candidate. First, as Albert Pomme de Mirimonde observed, A Lady in Her Bath contains none of the usual symbols, such as the crescent moon of the goddess Diana, or the colors black and white associated with Diane de Poitiers. Second, there is the question of date. If, as seems likely, the painting dates to c. 1571, it seems unlikely that it would represent Diane, who died in 1566 and whose prestige and influence derived in large part from that of Henri II, who died even earlier, in 1559. Further, as demonstrated by Sheila Ffolliott, Henri’s widow Catherine de’ Medici (1519–1589) immediately took steps to aggrandize her power as regent and at the same time to eclipse that of her former rival, Diane de Poitiers.
Roger Trinquet and Jean Ehrmann date A Lady in Her Bath to 1570/1571 and identify the sitter as Mary Stuart (Mary, Queen of Scots). The painting is interpreted as a political allegory of satire against Mary and commissioned by a member of the Huguenot faction in France, possibly François, maréchal de Montmorency. Mary Stuart was in France from 1548 until mid-August of 1561, when she sailed for Scotland following the death of her husband François II on December 5, 1560. Two drawings, both in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, and both attributed to Clouet, are regarded as authentic images of Mary, Queen of Scots. One of the drawings is dated about 1555, while the second, showing Mary in white mourning dress, may be dated between 1559 and 1561. A second drawing of Mary in mourning dress (Cambridge, Massachusetts, Fogg Art Museum) is also attributed to Clouet.
Although the sitter’s face in A Lady in Her Bath is highly idealized, the oval shape and slightly prominent chin might be compared to the visage in the drawings of Mary Stuart as a widow. Properly cautious, Colin Eisler nonetheless found much to recommend this identification. To my mind, however, this hypothesis is severely weakened by Trinquet’s and Ehrmann’s iconographic analysis, which strains to associate objects in the painting with Mary Stuart. For example, the black bands around the infant in swaddling are seen as a reference to the cross of Saint Andrew and hence to Scotland. The young boy is associated with Mary’s son James, born in 1566; his gesture of reaching for grapes symbolizes his desire for the Scottish throne. The unicorn in the background is interpreted as a multiple allusion to Mary Stuart and her second husband, Lord Darnley, who was murdered in 1567. Further, the unicorn and the pink held by the sitter, symbols of purity and fidelity, are here interpreted as a satirical comment on Mary’s many affairs and lack of virtue.
The suggestion that the sitter might be Marie Touchet, mistress to Charles IX, was first put forward by Dimier and more strongly endorsed by Irene Adler. Several subsequent authors have accepted this possibility along with a late date for the painting. Unfortunately, there are no documented images of Marie Touchet. A drawing in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, presumed to depict her, is dated around 1574 and shows no points of resemblance to the woman in the Gallery’s painting.
There does not seem to be enough visual or documentary evidence to permit identification of the sitter as any of the three women discussed above. The possibility that A Lady in Her Bath is wholly allegorical or symbolic should not be precluded, but from the somewhat awkward way the head is joined to the body it would seem that a specific person was depicted. Because of the abstract canon of beauty imposed on this woman’s face, it may never be possible to identify her with certainty.
The pictorial and cultural antecedents of this painting are many and varied, and a recounting of sources is useful in establishing a context for possible interpretations. A number of authors have observed that the pose of the woman in the bathtub was derived from a composition by Leonardo da Vinci (Florentine, 1452 - 1519) known as the Monna Vanna, which depicted the mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici. Leonardo’s original is lost, but it is known through two works by followers: a drawing and a painting sometimes attributed to Francesco Melzi (Italian, 1493 - c. 1570). The woman’s torso is positioned more frontally in the painted version than in the drawing and therefore is more of a prototype for the pose in the Gallery’s painting. Leonardo’s Monna Vanna, shown nude in half-length and facing the viewer, essentially established the format and type for portrayals of courtesans and mistresses and was emulated in Italy, France, and northern Europe. In addition to A Lady in Her Bath, the presence in France of Leonardo’s composition in some form may be inferred from a painting attributed to Joos van Cleve (Netherlandish, active 1505/1508 - 1540/1541) (location unknown), probably dating to Joos’s sojourn in France and to its somewhat more diffused influence on paintings showing women at their toilet by anonymous artists of the School of Fontainebleau. It should also be mentioned that a related depiction of a mistress, La Fornarina (Rome, Galleria Nazionale, Palazzo Barberini) by Raphael (Marchigian, 1483 - 1520), engendered a copy by an artist of the School of Fontainebleau (Atlanta, High Museum of Art). Moreover, Lorne Campbell sees in the pose of the woman in the Gallery’s picture the influence of Raphael’s Joanna of Aragon (Paris, Musée du Louvre), which was painted as a gift for François I and presumably could have been seen by Clouet. The example and influence of Leonardo’s Monna Vanna underscore the notion that A Lady in Her Bath represents a mistress or courtesan.
In France, as elsewhere in Europe, attitudes toward baths and bathing varied considerably in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Baths were at once regarded as healthy and hygienic and as centers for merrymaking, drinking, and licentious behavior. While the public steam bath was at times condemned as a gathering place for prostitutes, a private bath in one’s home, as seen here, was a luxury reserved for the privileged and noble few. Contemporary paintings and prints depict both rectangular tubs lined with white cloth, similar to the one in this painting, and round tubs. The presence of draperies in several of these representations suggests that they may have been an integral part of the bath as devices to protect the bather from chilly drafts.
It should also be noted that a suite of rooms—three baths and three “rest” rooms and a vestibule, forming an “appartement des Bains”—was part of François I’s residence at Fontainebleau. Documents indicate that in addition to having stucco work and painted ceilings, the nonbathing rooms were decorated with paintings from the king’s collection. These baths were built in conscious emulation of antique baths, and this revived classicism may suggest a context for viewing the Gallery’s painting.
The influence of Titian (Venetian, 1488/1490 - 1576) has also been cited in regard to A Lady in Her Bath. The motif of the servant in the background performing a domestic chore is seen as deriving from such paintings as the Venus of Urbino (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi), while the use of background draperies in this and other paintings by Clouet is thought to derive from Titian’s full-length portrait of Charles V (Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado). A Lady in Her Bath also shows affinities to the highly polished surfaces and icy eroticism of An Allegory of Venus and Cupid (London, National Gallery) by Agnolo Bronzino (Florentine, 1503 - 1572), possibly the painting Giorgio Vasari (Florentine, 1511 - 1574) described as belonging to François I.
Italian mannerist style and iconography were an essential part of the French court in the persons of Rosso Fiorentino (Florentine, 1494 - 1540) and Francesco Primaticcio (Italian, 1504 - 1570), who were formative influences on the artists of the School of Fontainebleau. As a court artist, Clouet would have been familiar with the works produced by this group, and several paintings of A Lady at Her Toilet from the School of Fontainebleau have often been associated with A Lady in Her Bath. Paintings by anonymous artists in the museums of Dijon, Basel, and Worcester, Massachusetts, depict a woman facing right and wearing only jewelry and a transparent peignoir. She sits at a table bearing jewels, flowers, and a mirror supported by naked figures. In the background a servant kneels in front of an open chest. The content of these paintings, like that of the Gallery’s painting, is open to multiple interpretations centering on luxury, eroticism, and Venus.
The relationship of this set of images to A Lady in Her Bath is provocative but not wholly clear. Particularly intriguing is Charles Sterling’s belief that these paintings are replicas of a lost Clouet, painted around 1560, that was a pendant to A Lady in Her Bath. Although it may never be proved or disproved, this suggestion is appealing at first glance, especially given the compositional symmetry and related subject matter. There are, however, problems in reconciling the dates of the pictures. The paintings in Dijon, Basel, and Worcester are not dated, and while c. 1560 has been proposed, it is possible that some or all could be as late as c. 1585/1590. Moreover, to accept a date of c. 1560 for A Lady in Her Bath means finding it similar to the portrait of Pierre Quthe (Paris, Musée du Louvre) of 1562. Although it is hard to see the depictions of A Lady at Her Toilet as convincingly congruent with the Gallery’s picture, these paintings underscore the connections between the imagery of the School of Fontainebleau and that used by Clouet.
Several authors have observed the influence of sixteenth-century Netherlandish art in A Lady in Her Bath, calling attention to the robust, earthy nursemaid and the foreground still life. Joos van Cleve—who, as mentioned above, painted a version of Leonardo’s Monna Vanna while at court—is often cited, but Quentin Massys (Netherlandish, 1466 - 1530) and Marinus van Reymerswaele (c. 1490–1567) have also been mentioned as influences. Charles Cuttler compared the boy reaching for the fruit with the children and still-life elements present in Family Portrait (Kassel, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen) by Maerten van Heemskerck (Netherlandish, 1498 - 1574) and the background of the painting with the interiors of Pieter Aertsen’s (1507/1508–1575) pictures.
The combination of Italian and Netherlandish influence to be seen in A Lady in Her Bath illustrates the common view that the art of France mirrors its geographic location between Italy and the north of Europe. Particularly vexing is the issue of meaning or interpretation, and I have not found a satisfying, coherent, and convincing iconographic program that includes all the objects in A Lady in Her Bath. As a depiction of a beautiful woman, the painting may be considered as part of the Petrarchan verbal and visual tradition of praising and describing the attractiveness of women (especially courtesans or mistresses) within the framework of courtly, idealized love. Jillian Bradshaw and Dorothy M. Jones see the flowers, fruit, and even the white cloth lining the bath as Petrarchan metaphors for the loveliness of the sitter. Mythological associations are inevitable. Both here and in other images of women bathing, Hidemichi Tanaka sees allusions to Venus and the sea, with the painting becoming an expression of the philosopher Marsilio Ficino’s (1433–1499) neoplatonism in France. Bradshaw and Jones mention not only Venus and Diana in connection with the Gallery’s picture, but also Bathsheba and Susanna, both biblical examples of a bathing woman involved in stories of lust and passion. They then make a rather astonishing leap to propose symbolic associations with the Holy Family. The young woman in the bath and the wet-nurse are compared to the Virgin and Saint Anne, respectively. For Bradshaw and Jones the nursing child calls to mind the Christian virtue of caritas, which can be merged with Venus’s erotic love or even with cupiditas, its opposite.
The contradictions inherent in this approach do, however, illustrate the difficulties of assigning a single, specific meaning to objects. For example, the mirror on the back wall can be interpreted as an attribute of Venus, an emblem of vanitas, an allusion to self-knowledge, or a symbol of sight as one of the five senses. Beneath the mirror is an image of a unicorn, a symbol of purity and virginity that is difficult to reconcile with what may be the depiction of a mistress.
Similarly, divergent or even conflicting interpretations are possible for the fruit, flowers, and herbs on the board over the bathtub. The bowl contains a pear, an apple, what may be a quince, cherries, and a bunch of grapes. Together they call up notions of ripeness, sensuality, and the sense of taste, all ideas that are appropriate to the setting, but it is also possible to invest the apple, grapes, and cherries with religious connotations. The flowers have been identified as bird’s-foot violet to the immediate left of the sitter’s hand, two strawflowers further to the left, and above her hand an unidentified species of white rose. While I am not aware of the meaning of the strawflowers, multiple interpretations of the violet and the rose are possible. To the left of the fruit bowl are sprigs of rosemary, oregano, and juniper. While juniper and rosemary have symbolic value, all three herbs could have been aromatics added to the bathwater to make it fragrant.
The pink held by the woman also has multiple meanings. In northern Europe from the late fifteenth century onward, the flower was an emblem of engagement or marriage and, by extension, alluded to purity, virginity, and fidelity. For James Snyder the painting thus became a depiction of the “mistress as bride.” The pink was also associated with Christ and the Virgin and with the passion of Christ. Eisler cleverly suggested that Clouet used the flower as a rebus, or visual pun, on his name; in Dutch the pink is called “nail flower” (nagelbloem), and clou, nail in French, would be a homonym for Clouet. If this is a reference to the artist’s name, it is a unique occurrence. In the absence of a viable overall iconographic program it is unwise, I think, to insist on any specific meaning for the pink.
A copy of A Lady in Her Bath (Chantilly, Musée Condé) is usually assigned to an anonymous French artist working around 1600, and the sitter is identified as Gabrielle d’Estrées. The composition differs from the Gallery’s panel in certain details, such as the bouquets of flowers pinned to the drapery or the grisaille over the fireplace. These motifs occur in other full copies (Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs; London, art market, 1982), in Henri Lehmann’s copy (Château d’Azay le Rideau, Musée de la Renaissance, on deposit from the Musée de Versailles), and in a partial copy showing the nursemaid and the servant with a pitcher (Naples, Museo di Capodimonte). Other details, in particular the arrangement of fruit, flowers, and herbs, are closer to A Lady in Her Bath, suggesting that the Chantilly painting was as well known as Clouet’s original. The nursemaid, in reverse, and the servant girl appear in a painting, Femmes Nues au Bain (Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts), attributed to a French artist working at the end of the sixteenth century. In addition, copies were made of the left half of A Lady in Her Bath and of the nursemaid and child; the present location of both paintings is, however, unknown.
This text was previously published in Philip Conisbee et al., French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century, The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue (Washington, DC, 2009), 115–122.
Collection data may have been updated since the publication of the print volume. Additional light adaptations have been made for the presentation of this text online.
John Oliver Hand
January 1, 2009