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The Bath of Diana

François Clouet

(vers 1510 - 1572) | 846.1.1

Date : Circa 1565 | Medium : Oil on wood

Possibly painted for Claude Gouffier, Grand Equerry of France (1501-1570)

There is an enigma at the heart of this Bath of Diana: that two satyrs should court the goddess of chastity going about her toilet deep in the woods in the company of her nymphs is contrary to all mythological verisimilitude. The artist, François Clouet, painter to the French court, is in fact portraying the most prominent personalities of the court here by means of coded images.  

The nymph sitting on the black cloth is Catherine de Medici, in mourning for the death of Henry II (1559). The goddess bearing the crescent and bedecked in jewellery is Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of Henry II, who wore her colours (black and white) during the tournament that led to his death. The nymph holding the (flame-coloured) antique nuptial veil above the royal purple and in front of the fleur-de-lys of France is Mary Stuart, the wife of Francis II (1559-1560), a new Diana married through the intervention of her uncles belonging to the Guise family. This is confirmed by the thistle, the Stuart emblem, found in the foreground, while the ivy crowning one of the two satyrs identifies him as the Cardinal de Guise-Lorraine.

In this context, the second satyr is his brother François (1519-1563), the military hero who trumpets victory. As for the man on horseback with the fleur-de-lys sceptre, the scene of the hounds feeding on the felled stag in the background presages the fate that will befall him. Does this new Actaeon condemned here by Diana represent Francis II, who reigned for just one year, or Henry II, the victim of his own Diane?  

This painting thus inculpates both the royal favourite, Diane de Poitiers, considered as a harbinger of death, and the Guise family, the henchmen of the Catholic party that is tearing the court apart. These key elements, with their clear political significance, indicate that the work was commissioned from among those enjoying the very highest rank at court and who were sympathisers of the Protestant cause.

The stylised female nudes, constituting an ‘ice bouquet’ in the midst of this luxuriant landscape, reveal Clouet’s indebtedness to the School of Fontainebleau.