Dreams of Desire 69 (Gabrielle d’Estrées and One of Her Sisters)

Gabrielle d'Estrées et une de ses soeurs-Unknown Artist-Second School of Fontainebleau 1594
Gabrielle d’Estrées et une de ses soeurs la duchesse de Villars-Unknown Artist-Second School of Fontainebleau 1594

The School of Fontainebleau was renowned for their use of coded allegory and veiled erotic symbolism, and the most famous painting of the school, Gabrielle d’Estrées et une de ses soeurs la duchesse de Villars (Gabrielle d’Estrees and one of her sisters the Duchess of Villars) is certainly no exception.

In the foreground we are presented with a view of Gabrielle d’Estrées, the mistress of King Henry IV of France, in a bath with one of her sisters, the Duchess of Villars. Gabrielle is holding a ring, which some art historians believe is Henry IV’s coronation ring, in her left hand, while her sister pinches Gabrielle’s right nipple with her left hand. The two central figures are painted in the usual Mannerist style associated with Fontainebleau, however in the trompe l’oeil background is a Dutch domestic interior with a woman sewing (again with her left hand) besides a fireplace, above which hangs a picture of a naked man, albeit with a piece of red drapery positioned in such a way to preserve decency.

This enigmatic work has been the subject of a number of interpretations. At first glance it does seem to be a very forthright representation of incestuous lesbianism, however the nipple pinch, the ring and the woman sewing what could be a layette for a child would suggest that the painting is more likely a symbolic allusion to Gabrielle’s pregnancy by the King. The repeated emphasis on left-handedness is also very unusual, as it carried entirely negative connotations in this period of history.


17 thoughts on “Dreams of Desire 69 (Gabrielle d’Estrées and One of Her Sisters)

    1. I am really not sure. The School was largely sponsored by the Royal Court, who welcomed an heir, regardless if illegitimate, so that would have been a bit biting the hand that feeds you. But then again, the actual artist and their intentions are unknown.

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  1. I’ve seen this painting in person. What an enigma. I wonder if the left handed ness was related to the wearing of the wedding ring on the left hand. As in the mistress being equivalent to a wife because of the heir. Hmmm that might be a stretch. But the left hand is said to be closer to the heart than the right.

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    1. I have seen it in the Louve as well, it has always puzzled me. That is a very interesting theory. Henry IV was the first of the Bourbons, raised a Huguenot but converted to Catholicism as a political expedient. He wanted to divorce and marry Gabrielle and name their son as heir, something most advisors were completely against. He was finally granted an annulment in 1599, but Gabrielle died in childbirth that year avoiding a war of succession. Very unusual the left hand bias.

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  2. Really provocative, even in our time. Haha. Can’t be sure not to be deleted if you post this on instagram. And with the story to it, really enigmatic! Loads of facts I didn’t know, thank you so much for teaching me…, as always.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fascinating… I remember seeing this painting and wondering about it… I like what you point out as to left-handedness and its negative connotations. Thanks for sharing your knowledge x 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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