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.