Tacitus (Annals, XIII) describes how the Empress Poppaea, wife of Nero, habitually veiled her face - but only partly - in public 'either because she wished to arouse curiosity in onlookers, or simply because it suited her'. However, the transparent veil, or Roman gauze, was traditionally associated with courtesans rather than empresses. This sophisticated coquetterie provides a perfect subject, given the highly-charged, ambiguous symbolism which was a frequent element of the painting of the Fontainebleau school artists. Iconographically, the composition is one of a series of similar half-length female nudes, a significant innovation of the Fontainebleau school in French art (see, for example, the Double Portrait of Gabrielle d'Estrées and one of her sisters in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, Inv. no. 1937-1).
The present work is a version, with differences, of the composition of circa 1550-1570, in the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire, Geneva, in which the Empress Poppaea stands before a cartouche bearing her name.