Sunday, November 24, 2013

At the vanity in the 16th century

Women in the act of making themselves beautiful in front of a mirror has always been a popular on paintings. For the person hunting for clues on beauty aids and cometics, they can give some valuable clues. Even if the painting is allegorcial, the beauty ideal depicted is contemporary and one can get glimpses of details like bath tubs and mirrors. Though makeup were in use in the 16th century, the paintings omits that in favour of jewelry and an occasional comb.

Venus at her toilet, School of Fonteinbleu, ca. 1550

Royal mistresses were often portrayed naked or semi-naked in front of the mirror or in the bath. Here are three portraits that possibly depict Diane de Poitiers, mistress of Henry II of France (they are all painted when she was an old woman or after her death). Here she in the process of putting on a ring and there is an open jewelry box in front of her. There is also a double-sided comb.
Diane de Poitiers, master of the Fontainebleau School, ca. 1590

Woman at her toilette, School of Fonteinbleu, 1550-1570
A lady in her bath by François Clouet, 1571
Gabrielle d'Estrées was the mistress of Henry IV of France. She is holding a ring, presumably the king's coronation ring, which she was given as a love token.
Gabrielle d'Estrées and one of her sisters, School of Fontainebleau, ca. 1592

The Queen of Navarre, however, is, if not fully clad, at least fully covered in her shift.
Marguerite d'Angoulème by an unknown artist, ca. 1530
No jewelry here, but a bowl that may be for washing, or possibly some kind of makeup.

Woman at her toilette, from a fresco by Alessandro Allori, ca. 1580
The Countess is combing herself, on the table there is an open jewelry box, but its content is spread out in front of it.
Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton by an unknown artist, ca. 1590
In the 17th century the motif of a woman making herself pretty became much more common. Next at the vanity post will cover 1600-1650.


  1. Did they really line bathtubs with a sheet? That appears to be what we're seeing here in the Clouet and Fontainebleu paintings.

    1. I don't know, but you can see it on paintings with bathtubs in the 17th and 18th century as well. I can imagine wrapping yourself in a sheet because of drafty homes and them letting go of it in the tub, but I don't know if that is what they did, or if it just painted in because it is pretty.


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