Ladies bathing

Ladies in the bath - château de Fontainebleau - © Sophie Lloyd

First quarter of the 17th century
H. 124.5 cm; L. 153 cm
Oil on canvas
Château de Fontainebleau, RF 1970 47
Gallery of Splendours.

The theme of feminine beauty and bare breasts was extremely popular in France and Italy from the second half of the 15th century. Ladies bathing and Ladies washing became a favourite subject for French artists in the 16th century, inspired by the prototype of the nude Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. In a bathtub draped in a white linen sheet and protected by thick red curtains, two topless women turn towards the spectator.

One woman turns away slightly and the second plays with the string of pearls around her neck while behind them, a nanny breastfeeds a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. In the background, a maid is busy heating water for the bath. This composition is one of the most widely copied versions on the theme of Ladies bathing. We know of one version, held in the collections of the Archaeological Society of Montpelier and another in the Museum of Fine Arts in Lyon. The composition inevitably evokes the double portrait said to be of Gabrielle d’Estrées and her sister, the Duchess of Villars, painted on wood in the late 16th century and held at the Louvre. Missing from this painting though is the breast pinching. In fact, our painting and the one owned by the Louvre were part of the same collection in the 19th century, and there is no doubt it was the inscriptions on the Fontainebleau painting which helped to identify these two creatures as the famous mistress of Henri IV and her younger sister. The porcelain flesh, the truly sophisticated poses testify to the influence of Flemish painting on French artists in the late 16th century and the importance of the culture of aristocratic bathing, emblematic of Fontainebleau since the reign of Francis I.

2019, Château de Chantilly, The nude Mona Lisa. The mystery finally unveiled.

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