Lady in Her Bath by Francois Clouet, 1570
This portrait by François Clouet (son of François Ier’s court painter, Jean Clouet) is housed in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA. Painted in 1570 or 1571, it was thought to depict Diane de Poitiers, mistress of Henri II. This is mainly due to the painting being dated 1550, during Henri’s reign. In 1550, Diane was at the height of her power. Though Henri had other mistresses, her position was unassailable. The king always returned to her, his other dalliances quickly forgotten.
However, Diane died in 1566 and the later dating of the painting would suggest that she is not the subject. In 1570, the second of Henri’s three sons who would rule France was on the throne. François II, his eldest son had ruled for two and a half years before succumbing to an ear infection. In 1560, Charles-Maximillien acceded to the throne of France as Charles IX. It has therefore been suggested that the sitter for this portrait was the mistress of Charles.
Charles became king at ten years old and until his majority was declared in August 1563, Catherine de’ Medici, his mother, ruled as regent. On reaching his majority, the king and Queen Mother embarked upon a tour of France in order to show the king to his people. It is thought that the young king met his mistress on the return journey of that tour. This would place their meeting in the spring of 1565 when Charles was 15.
The court stopped at Blois in the Loire Valley and it was there or in nearby Orléans that Charles met Marie Touchet. Marie was the daughter of an Orléannais magistrate and became his lifelong mistress. Reports of Marie at court are universally sympathetic. They describe a beautiful young girl, with blonde hair and white shoulders. She was artless and held no personal ambition and was therefore accepted and indeed supported by the Queen Mother who saw in her no threat to her own hold over the king.
Charles married in 1570. He was dutiful and affectionate to his wife, Elizabeth of Austria but remained devoted to his mistress, with whom he had a son. Clouet also painted Elizabeth and this portrait is considered one of his finest. Elizabeth was said to be distraught when Charles died at only 23 years old. The couple had a daughter who did not long survive her father. Marie and her bastard, though, fared better. She married some years after Charles’s death and had two daughters, dying in Paris in 1638, almost 90 years old. Their son, also called Charles, became duc d’Angoulême and after being pardoned for his involvement in various conspiracies against HenriIV, died in 1650 aged 77.
Elizabeth of Austria by Francois Clouet