We are in public bath, where the woman on the right searching us is supposed to undress in order to bathe. The heart of this painting is her portrait; the ambiguity of her expression is a narrative unto itself.
Much builds to that portrait. The painting divides into quarters. The lower left quarter, which descends, is bordered such that it leads the eye to the upper left. There we see a fusion of exteriority and interiority. A servant and another look to be walking out; some parents are dealing with children near the colonnade? Light and dark are stark, right at the entrances. Clean classical marble and flowing robes attempt to keep sexuality – the obvious – hidden.
The nude woman at the lower right is out of sight of anyone else. She pays us no mind, her clothes will end up in the crevices at the upper right. She is not bashful at all. Perhaps we are not bashful either, and this has taken the young woman looking at us aback. She’s aware of shame – she’s a lot more reluctant to get in the baths than the woman next to her – but this painting isn’t really about her being modest and lovely or some crap like that. Of course she has a demure beauty.
The painting is more about the weirdness of beauty and its concealment. The interiority/exteriority of the upper left suggests we should be thinking about her inner beauty and the soft gaze, but again, that’s just part of the puzzle. The structure of the work and the structure of the building mirror the structure of her robes. The light and dark in arrangement conceal. But that’s the funniest thing of all: how is it possible to conceal when light and dark themselves suggest an inside and an outside? When light and dark actually involve going inside and outside? To truly conceal, something has to be a near-impossible thought, not fully naked right next to you.
The very means of concealing only lead to the object of desire. It’s like we train ourselves to avert our gaze so that way the everyday becomes that more appealing. Modesty is only part of beauty itself. I’m not saying this painting is a subversive excuse for lust. Something stranger is going on; we’re not exactly repulsed by shame or modesty. Nor does it look like this painting is a strictly moral exercise, locating “virtue” in reluctance to get in a bath. It’s something more like this: beauty is the concealment itself, as it is beauty alone which makes us ask who is truly beautiful. If there is a subversion, it has to do with the subordinate position of morality, but that is almost a technical point in this context.