François Clouet, familiarly known as Janet, was the son of the painter Jean Clouet and trained with his father in the active family workshop. The Clouet were originally from the Low Countries, possibly Valenciennes, while Jean Clouet is recorded as working in France from 1516. François succeeded his father as court painter and valet de chambre on Jean’s death in 1541 and continued to serve other members of the house of Valois, including Henry II, François I and Charles IX.While he was particularly noted as a portraitist, François Clouet also produced allegorical and mythological compositions and worked on temporary decorative schemes to celebrate major events. His work features elements derived from the School of Fontainebleau, combined with Italian and German ones, all synthesised through the use of a typically French style. The style of the School of Fontainebleau is particularly evident in one of his most famous works, Lady in the Bath (National Gallery of Art, Washington), while Italian influence is to be seen in one of his finest portraits, that of his friend Pierre Quthe (Musée du Louvre, Paris). Finally, German elements can be detected in his approach to the full-length portrait of Charles IX (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).
Relatively little is known about the earlier history of the present panel. Before it was acquired for the Villa Favorita in 1957 it is mentioned in a private collection in a château in central France. The painting was unpublished until 1945 when Adhémar included it in his study of 16th-century French genre painting.
Clouet looked to literary sources for his composition, representing three famous figures from the Commedia dell’Arte: the procuress, the lover and the courtesan who is the object of his affections. The latter, depicted nude, is covered with a delicate, almost transparent veil and occupies the centre of the composition with the old procuress holding a letter on the left and the lover on the right. The connections between the figures are emphasised by the interaction of the gazes: the old woman looks at the young man, while he looks at his beloved and she looks directly at the viewer. The treatment of the nude woman’s face and body and the type of courtesan that this figure represents have been compared with the principal figure in a panel now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Her oval face, fine, precise eyebrows, and large, slightly slanting eyes all recall the Washington figure, as does the form of the nose and mouth, the decorative band in the hair and the hairstyle. The man has been compared to the figure of Charles IX in the portrait now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
At least two other versions are known of this work, one in a French private collection by an anonymous, late 16th-century artist, with the figures depicted half-length rather than bust-length, as here; and the other in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow, that only includes two of the three figures. The present panel has been dated to around 1570 towards the end of the artist’s career.