This painting follows the composition of Sabina Poppaea
painted by an unknown artist of the Fontainebleau School, circa
1550-70, now in the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire, Geneva.1
Sabina Poppea was a frequently depicted subject in 16th century French art. According to Tacitus (Annales
XIII), Nero’s spouse, the Empress Poppea, aroused curiosity during public processions by wrapping herself in a veil in feigned modesty. The nudity and mischievous symbolism evoked through her gauze wrap, which was customarily worn by courtesans in Nero’s time rather than empresses, directly relate to the Fontainebleau school’s coquettish themes such as “Dame à sa toilette
” and “Dame au bain.
” Although initially drawn from mythology these subjects became ruses for the depiction of the female nude and often served as commissioned "portraits" of known court ladies.
Indeed, the identification of the sitter in the portrait has provoked much discussion. The Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva considers their prime version as most likely an idealized portrait of Diane de Poitiers depicted as a Roman courtesan. If so, it would be hard to ignore the political commentary the painting was making about Henri II, whose principal mistress Diane had become.
1. See L'Ecole de Fontainebleau, Paris 1972, pp. 213-4, cat. no. 241, reproduced p. 216.