Gabrielle d'Estrées et une de ses sœurs

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Portrait présumé de Gabrielle d'Estrées et de sa soeur la duchesse de Villars
Scuola di fontainebleau, presunti ritratti di gabrielle d'estrées sua sorella la duchessa di villars, 1594 ca. 06.jpg
Artist Unknown author
Year circa 1594
Type oil on wood
Dimensions 96 cm × 125 cm (38 in × 49 in)
Location Louvre

The painting Gabrielle d'Estrées et une de ses soeurs (French pronunciation: ​[ɡabʁiɛl dɛstʁe e yn də sɛ sœʁ] Gabrielle d'Estrées and one of her sisters) is by an unknown artist circa 1594. It now hangs at the Louvre in Paris and is usually thought to be the work of a painter from the Fontainebleau School.[1][2]

Description[edit]

The painting portrays Gabrielle d'Estrées, mistress of King Henry IV of France, sitting nude in a bath, holding a ring. Her sister sits nude beside her and pinches her right nipple.[3]

Interpretations[edit]

Painting announces Gabrielle's pregnancy[edit]

The nipple-pinching gesture is often interpreted as a symbolic announcement that Gabrielle is pregnant with Henry’s child, César de Bourbon. According to the Louvre’s website: “The oddly affectionate way in which the sister is pinching Gabrielle d'Estrées' right breast has often been taken as symbolizing the latter's pregnancy with the illegitimate child of Henry IV. This interpretation would seem to be confirmed by the scene of the young woman sewing - perhaps preparing a layette for the coming child - in the background.”[4] The ring that Gabrielle holds is said to be Henry’s coronation ring, which he supposedly gave to her as a token of his love shortly before she died.

Erotic Interpretations[edit]

In the early years of the seventeenth century, Pierre de Bourdeille, seigneur de Brantôme tells a story about a group of women who went to view the painting. He claims that the painting shows “fair naked ladies” together in a bath, and adds that they “touch, and feel, and handle, and stroke, one the other, and intertwine and fondle with each other.” Brantôme reveals that while the group of women were viewing the painting, “one great lady” who was a part of the group “los[t] all restraint…before the picture, say[ing] to her lover, turning toward him [as if] maddened [by] the madness of love she beheld [in the painting]: ‘Too long have we tarried here. Let us now straightway take [my] coach and go to my lodging; for…no more can I hold in the ardor that is in me. Needs must away and quench it; too sore do I burn.’”[5]

In the first half of the nineteenth century, Gabrielle d'Estrées et une de ses soeurs was hanging in the Prefecture of Police in Paris. Dr. Ver Heyden Del Lacey states in an article from 1935 that “Nobody knew why or how it came there; [it was] placed above a door in one of the halls to which the public had access.”[6] He explains that one day, a “pusillanimous high official” noticed the painting and “conceived [of] the idea to screen the picture…from the curious public gaze, by drawing a green curtain in front of it.” This action suggests that the official considered the painting to be erotic or even obscene, but instead of removing it, he had it veiled, and he thus visibly marked the image as an open secret, or as something which should not be seen. At some point after that, Dr. Ver Heyden de Lacey claims that “Somebody had the happy inspiration to expose [the veiled image] to the artistic and art-trained eyes of those called upon to take part in [a] civic function [at the police station]…In preparation [for this] special function…a thorough cleaning of the picture itself was ordered…[But] Upon drawing the curtain, [they found only] an empty picture frame.”

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the Gabrielle d'Estrées painting is regularly understood to represent female homosexuality. There is an entry for it in the Encyclopedia of Lesbian Gay Histories and Cultures and it appears on websites about lesbian history like Sappho.com.[7] Even outside of the LGBT community, the painting is frequently understood as a representation of lesbianism. In 1991, it appeared on the cover of the French magazine L’Evenment du Jeudi to illustrate a story on lesbian chic.[8] In 2002, the Green Party in Germany created a poster to announce their support of same-sex marriage and it featured two female actors reenacting the Gabrielle portrait.

While art historians and critics sometimes address the homoeroticism of the image, they also at times refuse to acknowledge it. The Louvre’s website, for instance, does not mention the possibility of a lesbian interpretation.

Bias toward left-handedness[edit]

This painting is peculiarly biased toward left-handedness. Gabrielle's sister is pinching her right nipple with her left hand, d'Estrées is holding the ring with her left hand, and the seamstress in the background is sewing with her left hand. Additionally, the painting hanging in the background is of the lower body of a naked person, but contrary to rumor, he is not holding his penis with his left hand; a piece of red fabric is draped over his genitals.

In popular culture[edit]

In 1999, Mario Sorrenti created an ad for Yves Saint Laurent that restaged the Gabrielle painting, altering the gendered dynamics. It featured Kate Moss pinching the nipple of Scott Barnhill.

A sprightly British drama, Two Nudes Bathing, speculates upon the origins of the anonymous painting.

An anachronistic visual reference to the painting appears in The Tudors, Season 1, Episode 6 "True Love".

References and sources[edit]

References
  1. ^ Gabrielle d'Estrées and one of her sisters, mheu, 2009, retrieved 17 December 2013 
  2. ^ Usher, Phillip John (2014). Epic Arts in Renaissance France. OUP Oxford. p. 151. ISBN 9780199687848. In the School of Fontainebleau painting, Portrait présumé de Gabrielle d’Estrées et de sa sœur la duchesse de Villars (Presumed Portrait of Gabrielle d'Estrées and of her Sister the Duchess of Villars)… 
  3. ^ Hagen, Rose-Marie; Rainer Hagen (2002). What Great Paintings Say, Volume 2. Köln: Taschen. p. 205. ISBN 9783822813720. 
  4. ^ Official site of the Louvre Museum - Portrait présumé de Gabrielle d'Estrées et de sa soeur la duchesse de Villars
  5. ^ Selections from Pierre de Bourdeilles, Seigneur de Brantôme, Lives of Gallant Ladies: A Critical Introduction and Annotated Edition, trans. by Jessica Veaudry.
  6. ^ “A Picture of Gabrielle d’Estrées attributed to François Pourbus le Jeune,” Connoisseur, Vol. 96 (1935): 137-8.
  7. ^ Encyclopedia of Lesbian and Gay Histories and Cultures, eds. George Haggerty and Bonnie Zimmerman. NY: Garland. ISBN 9780815333548.
  8. ^ L’Evenment du Jeudi Number 361, 3-9 October 1991.
Sources
  • Rebecca Zorach. "Desiring Things." Art History 24.2 (2001): 195-212.